Get Ready, UKVI Sponsor Licence Visits are Now Back On
In March and December 2020, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) made the decision to halt sponsor licence compliance visits. As of April 2021, UKVI has now stated its intention to resume onsite compliance checks. In this article, we will take a look at what we know about the resumption of UKVI sponsor licence compliance checks.
What Have UKVI Said About Resuming Compliance Checks?
As reported by Free Movement, a new electronic message recently appeared on the Sponsorship Management System (SMS), the portal used by sponsor licence holders to communicate with UKVI. The message stated:
“FOR THE ATTENTION OF ALL SPONSORS: Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions imposed by the UK Government in December 2020, all sponsorship and compliance auditing was suspended. As the UK Government has started to ease restrictions, we will shortly be resuming compliance visit activity. To ensure that we continue to operate within a safe environment, ensuring the safety of our customers and that of our officers, we have made some changes to our process when conducting a compliance audit. This will involve complying with Public Health England (PHE) advice, including the wearing of Personal Protective Equipment as appropriate and the observation of social distancing measures. Should we conduct a compliance visit, our officers have been instructed to also comply with any measures you have in place”.
It is also believed that the initial focus will be on carrying out onsite pre-licence compliance audits, allowing businesses in the UK to acquire a licence to allow them to sponsor foreign nationals. This includes businesses that have applied to renew their licence or requested a new category be added to their existing licence.
The message also clarifies that compliance auditing will be undertaken as safely as possible and in full accordance with PHE’s guidance on PPE and social distancing to prevent any spread of the virus.
Has The Suspension Of UKVI Sponsor Licence Compliance Checks Impacted Suspensions?
It would be logical to expect that suspending compliance checks would lead to a corresponding reduction in the number of sponsor licence suspensions. Indeed, this has been the case. According to Free Movement, the number of licence suspensions issued fell significantly in 2020, especially in the third quarter. Their analysis of the Home Office’s stats show that in Q4 2019, there were 200 licence suspensions, but by Q3 of 2020, this was down to 58. They also found a similar reduction in the number of sponsor licence revocations. It is most likely that the numbers will climb to the same level as late 2019 now that UKVI compliance visits are restarting.
Businesses Should Not Relax When It Comes To Sponsor Licence Compliance
As a result of the suspension of compliance checks in the past few months, some sponsoring businesses may be tempted to back off slightly when it comes to keeping their records in order, meeting the reporting requirements, and following the correct process of hiring a foreign national to work or study in the UK. When post-licence visits do resume, the case officer may look at any information held by your business on sponsored workers right back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Any issues or gaps in compliance may result in the licence being downgraded, revoked, or suspended. The other reason not to let your standards slip is that this may make it harder to get back to a position of being fully compliant. It is essential to keep the processes, systems, and people in place to adhere to your Home Office sponsor licence duties and responsibilities at all time.
Remember, you may receive a post-licence compliance visit at any point in time and in any of your locations, whether announced or unannounced. It is reasonable to expect UKVI to check for COVID-19 specific situations, such as where migrant workers were unable to:
- travel to the UK to start their work due to travel restrictions
- leave the UK once their work visa expired
- apply to extend their work visa and overstayed as a result – e.g. perhaps due to being hospitalised after contracting COVID-19
In these situations, UKVI compliance officers will want to see that the sponsoring business has not inadvertently continued to employ a migrant worker whose visa has expired (and this was not renewed) or failed to meet their reporting duties, such as not informing them that a worker did not arrive for their first day because they were unable to travel to the UK due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. We recommend that sponsoring businesses take the time now before post-licence compliance visits get back underway to ensure that any changes in circumstances due to COVID-19 are reflected in their record-keeping and reporting.
We also recommend that any businesses that have stopped sponsoring overseas staff during the pandemic, perhaps because their business was forced to close temporarily, should now take the time to review their systems and documents in readiness to resume the sponsorship of migrant workers. This applies especially to new sponsors who need to refresh staff on the duties and responsibilities of a licence holder and the processes to be followed.
As UKVI are resuming normal service for compliance visits, sponsoring businesses should take this as a signal to get ready and double-check all aspects of their sponsorship management process. Consider engaging the help of Immigration Solicitors who can review your compliance readiness by carrying out mock audits. These are designed to replicate the checks carried out by UKVI compliance officers but without the potential impact of a licence being downgraded or revoked. They will identify and explain any gaps or issues which need to be resolved, ensuring you can resume sponsoring workers and that you are fully ready for a compliance visit.