Even if you have a brilliant HR team and computerised management systems the thought of a Home Office official conducting an audit is enough to make most UK employers and HR teams anxious. In this blog, our, business immigration solicitors answer your questions on how to handle a Home Office sponsor licence compliance visit.
- Why will the Home Office conduct a sponsor compliance visit?
- What to do when you receive notice of a sponsor compliance visit
- Unannounced vs pre-arranged sponsor compliance visits
- How long will a sponsor compliance visit take?
- Pre-licence assessment visits
- Post-licence assessment visits
- Preparing for a sponsor compliance visit
- What happens after the sponsor compliance visit?
- What does it mean to have a licence revoked?
Why will the Home Office conduct a sponsor compliance visit?
There are many reasons why the Home Office may choose to carry out a sponsor compliance visit, such as:
- The Home Office receiving intelligence about the business that they believe warrants a compliance visit
- The business is subject to a Home Office action plan and has a B rating
- Another unit at the Home Office wants to carry out an investigation and suggests a joint visit with the compliance unit
Whatever the reason for the sponsor compliance visit, the key is to always be ‘audit ready’ so your company is prepared for a Home Office audit.
What to do when you receive notice of a sponsor compliance visit
If you receive notification of a sponsor compliance visit you have a short window of opportunity to prepare for the visit by:
- Ensuring your key personnel will be available on the day of the sponsor compliance visit. If they are not then it may be possible to ask for a short adjournment of the visit to ensure they are available. Any delay should be used wisely to help prepare for the audit. If the Home Office official has asked to see named sponsored staff for an interview make sure the sponsored employees and their paperwork are readily available and that your sponsored staff understand the purpose of the interview
- Reviewing HR files for all employees and ensuring that right-to-work checks were carried out correctly, recorded and repeated as required for employees subject to immigration control with time-limited visas
- Checking the location of all relevant files and paperwork (if they are not all stored electronically) as it will not look good if the file the Home Office official asks to see cannot be located or is off-site
- Checking information has been updated on the sponsor management system by the level 1 user
- Carrying out a mock audit, preferably conducted by someone independent of the business undertaking a thorough and objective assessment of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to sponsor licence compliance and the maintenance of HR files
- Taking legal advice on any areas of concern. A business immigration solicitor may recommend immediate action so the business is seen to be proactive in spotting, reporting and addressing any issues with sponsor licence duties and compliance
Unannounced vs pre-arranged sponsor compliance visits
The Home Office can carry out either announced or unannounced sponsor compliance visits to your premises. If you receive an unannounced visit and refuse to agree to the Home Office entering your premises to carry out the audit then they cannot force entry. However, they could record the business as non-compliant and this may result in your sponsor licence either being refused, suspended or revoked.
A sponsor compliance visit is likely to be unannounced if the visit is intelligence-driven (for example HMRC reporting potential irregularities) or if there have been previous concerns about sponsor licence compliance. As you never know if you will receive an unannounced compliance visit, your HR, recruitment and management systems must be sufficiently robust that you can cope with an unannounced audit.
How long will a sponsor compliance visit take?
The Home Office normally estimates that a compliance visit takes between 2 to 3 hours to complete. Depending on the reasons for the visit (for example if it is a pre-licence or post-licence visit, the size of your business and the number of sponsored staff) then the visit could take considerably longer.
Pre-licence assessment visits
A pre-licence assessment visit can take place if you are applying for your first sponsor licence or adding a tier to your sponsor licence. The audit will look at whether:
- You have HR systems in place to be able to manage the sponsor licence and comply with your licence duties and the law on illegal working. See our guide on illegal working
- The number of overseas workers you want to sponsor on certificates of sponsorship is appropriate to the size and nature of your business
- Your business could pose a threat to immigration control
- Your business will employ sponsored workers at the skill levels required for their certificates of sponsorship and pay the minimum salary threshold
The Home Office official will also use the audit to verify the information that they think needs checking from your sponsor licence application.
Post-licence assessment visits
Statistically, you are more likely to encounter difficulties with a post-licence assessment rather than a pre-licence visit. Therefore, it is important that you know what Home Office officials will be looking for during a post-licence sponsor compliance visit. The areas include whether:
- Your sponsored staff are complying with their visa conditions and their job roles are consistent with the standard occupational classification code on their certificates of sponsorship
- Your business remains a trading business
- Your HR systems are adequate to meet sponsor licence duties
- The business activities pose a threat to immigration control
- The original number of certificates of sponsorship remains necessary
Preparing for a sponsor compliance visit
Preparing for a sponsor compliance visit should be part of your key personnel’s list of tasks. If you leave preparation until you receive notification of an announced visit it is much harder to carry out reviews of HR files, prepare key personnel and sponsored staff for interviews and address any sponsor licence breaches that the file reviews and mock audit throw up.
Arranging a mock audit
Arranging a mock audit is likely to be the last thing you want to do when you and your HR team are stressed by the preparation work for an announced sponsor compliance visit. However, an independent mock audit can be beneficial as it reveals areas of concern before the compliance visit. With advanced knowledge of where key personnel have not reported matters on the sponsor management system or if HR files are incomplete, you can identify how you can address the issues. For example, through:
- Late reporting
- Enrolling HR staff for additional training on sponsor licence compliance
- Investing in a computerised HR management system to help staff or committing to appoint additional level two users
- Employing a specialist sponsor management service
Ideally, a mock audit should be a regular occurrence, whether or not the business is selected for a sponsor compliance visit as a mock audit picks things up early and may reduce the risk of the Home Office selecting your business for a compliance visit.
Preparing your key personnel and sponsored staff
It is sensible to prepare your key personnel and sponsored staff for potential interviews by a Home Office official during the audit. Whilst you or your HR director may be used to being interviewed, your level 2 sponsor management user is not likely to be. They and your sponsored staff may find the thought of an interview intimidating unless they are prepared.
Some Home Office officials will identify, in advance of the visit, the sponsored staff they wish to interview. Home Office officials can also ask for specific paperwork to be available during the compliance visit. You should not assume that the Home Office official will only interview the named sponsored staff or that the visit will only focus on any requested documents. You should still fully prepare for the compliance visit in case additional key personnel and sponsored staff interviews or HR files are requested on the day of the audit.
Interviews with sponsored staff – what to expect
Unsurprisingly sponsored staff may be anxious about an interview conducted by a Home Office official as part of a post-licence sponsor compliance visit. If the compliance visit is announced then you may find that the Home Office official tells you in advance which sponsored staff they want to interview during the visit. The likelihood is that you will not know which sponsored staff will be asked for an interview.
Any interviews with sponsored staff may focus on whether their daily work activities fit the standard occupation code and certificate of sponsorship job description. For example, if you secured a certificate of sponsorship for a sponsored staff member based on a standard occupation code job description of ‘accountant’ the job functions carried out by the recruited sponsored staff member will need to match those expected of an accountant rather than those of a financial assistant carrying out routine administrative tasks.
Before attending the sponsor compliance visit the Home Office official will have done their ‘homework’ and checked the information held by the Home Office on sponsored staff and may have used the computerised government records to look at the information on individual sponsored staff’s job description and the SMS reporting on individual members of staff.
Reviewing your files
It is essential to review your HR files before the sponsor compliance visit to make sure they are accessible and ‘audit ready’. Even if you only hold electronic HR files it can be confusing for both HR staff and the Home Office official carrying out the compliance visit if there are numerous saved drafts of employment contracts or if there are dated and undated copies of right-to-work checks. A busy Home Office official could easily think that the correct paperwork is not on file when it is but just not readily identifiable.
Reporting and record keeping
Reporting and record keeping are all part of your daily sponsor licence duties. The Home Office has issued guidance in the Workers, Temporary Workers and Students: guidance for sponsors Appendix D: keeping documents – guidance for sponsors that sets out the reporting and record-keeping requirements for sponsor licence holders. Your key personnel should be fully conversant with these duties.
What happens after the sponsor compliance visit?
After a compliance visit, the Home Office official will write a report and make a recommendation about your sponsor licence. If the audit was a pre-license visit you will be told if you have been granted a sponsor licence. If the sponsor compliance visit was a post-licence visit, then your sponsor licence could be:
- Downgraded from a grade A sponsor licence to a grade B sponsor licence
Your sponsor licence should only be suspended or revoked if the Home Office official concludes there are serious breaches of sponsor licence duties or if the company poses a threat to immigration control.
If your sponsor licence is downgraded from grade A to B the Home Office will provide an action plan of the steps required by you to ensure your sponsor licence is upgraded to grade A. The action plan gives you 3 months to address any Home Office concerns over sponsor licence compliance. At the end of the action plan period, you may receive a further sponsor compliance visit to assess whether you have complied with the action plan. If you have not done so then the Home Office could revoke your licence.
What does it mean to have a licence revoked?
If the outcome of a sponsor compliance visit is the revocation of your sponsor licence you need to act quickly to assess how the revocation of your sponsor licence will affect your business and look at your options.
If your sponsor licence is revoked it means:
- You cannot continue to employ your existing sponsored staff and you cannot recruit new overseas workers who require a sponsoring employer
- Your sponsored staff will have 60 days to find a new sponsor to employ them. If they cannot find a new sponsor then they will have to leave the UK
There is no right of appeal against a Home Office decision to revoke a sponsor licence but if you think that the decision to revoke your licence was unreasonable, unlawful, or procedurally improper then you can apply to judicially review the Home Office decision.