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How to handle a Home Office sponsor compliance visit

It isn’t surprising if the thought of a sponsor licence compliance visit fills you with dread. Even if you have a brilliant HR team and computerised management systems the thought of a Home Office official conducting a sponsor compliance visit 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?

There are many reasons why the Home Office may choose to carry out a sponsor compliance visit. The visit could be generated by: 

  • The Home Office receiving intelligence about the business that they believe warrants a sponsor compliance visit. 
  • You have received a B rating sponsor licence and are therefore subject to a Home Office action plan. 
  • Another unit at the Home Office wants to carry out an investigation and suggests a joint visit with the sponsor compliance unit. 

Whatever the reason for the sponsor compliance visit, the key is to always be ‘audit ready’ so your company is prepared for either an announced or unannounced Home Office sponsor compliance visit. 

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. Preparation should include: 

  • Ensuring that 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 sponsor compliance visit to ensure they are available. Any delay in the visit should be used wisely to help prepare for visit.     
  • If the Home Office official has asked to see named sponsored staff for interview make sure the sponsored staff and their paperwork are readily available and that your sponsored staff understand the purpose of the sponsor compliance visit.  
  • Reviewing HR files for all employees and ensuring that right to work checks were carried out correctly prior to employment and, if the check needed to be repeated because an employee was subject to immigration control, double checking that the subsequent right to work checks were conducted and properly recorded. 
  • Checking that you can locate all relevant files and paperwork (if you don’t store everything electronically). It won’t look good if the file that the Home Office official asks to see can’t be located or is off site. 
  • Reviewing sponsored staff HR files to ensure that all information is correct and up to date. 
  • Checking that information has been updated on the sponsor management system by your level one and level two users. 
  • Carrying out a mock audit, preferably the audit should be conducted by someone independent of your business, who can undertake a through and objective assessment of your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to sponsor licence compliance and the maintenance of HR files. 
  • Taking legal advice on any areas of concern. It is important that you get legal advice before the sponsor compliance visit as your immigration solicitor may recommend immediate action so you are 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 an announced or unannounced sponsor compliance visit to your premises. If you receive an unannounced visit, it is important to remember that when you applied for the sponsor licence you agreed to give the Home Office access to your business premises. 

If you refuse to agree to the Home Office entering your premises for the purposes of a sponsor compliance visit then they can’t force entry but they can record the business as non-compliant. This could 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 there have been previous concerns about your sponsor licence compliance. 

As you never know whether you will receive notification of a sponsor compliance visit, or if Home Office officials will turn up for an unannounced inspection, it is vital that your HR, recruitment and management systems are sufficiently robust that you can cope with either an announced or unannounced sponsor compliance visit. 

How long will a sponsor compliance visit take?

The Home Office normally estimates that a compliance visit will take between two to three hours to complete. However, this is just an estimate. Depending on the reasons for the sponsor compliance visit (for example if it is a pre-licence or post-licence visit, the size of your business and 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. 
  • You are adding a tier to your sponsor licence. 

The pre-licence assessment visit will be crucial in deciding whether you should be granted a sponsor licence or if its scope should be extended to cover an additional tier.   

The pre-sponsor licence visit will look at whether: 

  • You have HR systems in place to be able to manage the sponsor licence and comply with your sponsor licence duties and the law on illegal working. See our guide on right to work checks.  
  • 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 employs overseas workers who are subject to immigration controls at the skill levels required for their certificate of sponsorship and the Home Office official can verify the information that the Home Office thinks 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 assessment. Therefore, it is important that you know what Home Office officials will be looking for during a post-licence sponsor compliance visit. The areas under consideration are whether: 

  • Your sponsored staff are complying with their visa conditions.
  • Your sponsored staff are in job roles that are consistent with their certificate of sponsorship and the standard occupation code.
  • You remain a trading business.
  • Your HR systems are adequate to meet your sponsor licence duties.
  • You or your business activities pose a threat to immigration control.
  • The original number of certificates of sponsorship remain 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 preparing for a sponsor compliance visit 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 interview and address any sponsor licence breaches that the file reviews and mock audit throw up. If you have not prepared for a sponsor compliance visit then it isn’t too late to start, with or without professional help. 

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 is normally very beneficial as it reveals areas of concern prior to the compliance visit. With advance 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 you are selected for a sponsor compliance visit. That is because if a mock audit picks things up early it may well reduce the risk of the Home Office selecting your business for a pre-licence or post-licence sponsor compliance visit. 

Preparing your key personnel and sponsored staff

It is sensible to prepare your key personnel and sponsored staff for potential interview by a Home Office official during the sponsor compliance visit. Whilst you or your HR director may be used to being interviewed, your level two 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 and reassured by you. 

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 specific paperwork requested. You should still fully prepare for the sponsor compliance visit in case additional key personnel and sponsored staff interviews or HR files are requested on the day of the visit. 

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 incredibly confusing for both HR staff and the Home Office official carrying out the compliance visit if there are numerous saved drafts of the job adverts or if there are dated and undated copies of right to work checks. A busy HR worker or 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 is 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 the reporting and record keeping duties. 

What do the Home Office expect to see during a sponsor compliance visit?

The Home Office won’t expect to see perfection during a sponsor compliance visit but they will expect to see an organisation committed to meeting its sponsor licence duties and understanding its obligation to report any breaches. 

Key personnel interviews – what to expect

A sponsor compliance visit is likely to start with key personnel interviews to help the Home Office official gain an understanding of how you operate as a business, your certificate of sponsorship needs and how you manage your sponsor licence duties. 

The interview process will depend on the interviewee as clearly the questions asked of an authorising officer are likely to be very different to the questions asked of a level one or two user. The focus of any sponsor compliance visit preparation should be on ensuring that key personnel know their responsibilities and duties and when to refer issues and who to.   

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 sponsor 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 sponsor compliance visit. The likelihood is that you will not know which sponsored staff will be asked for interview. 

Any interviews with sponsored staff may focus on whether their actual daily job fits 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.  

Prior to 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 information on individual sponsored staff’s job description and the SMS reporting on individual members of staff. 

What happens after the sponsor compliance visit?

After your sponsor compliance visit the Home Office official will write a report and make a recommendation about your sponsor licence. If the sponsor compliance visit 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: 

  • Retained 
  • Suspended 
  • Revoked 
  • 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 the company poses a threat to immigration control. 

If your sponsor licence is downgraded from grade A to B then 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 will give you three 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 sponsor 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 are subject to UK immigration controls to work for you. 
  • Your sponsored staff will have sixty 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 there are legal options open to you to try to secure the reinstatement of your sponsor licence. If you think that the decision to revoke your sponsor licence was unreasonable, unlawful or procedurally improper then you can apply to judicially review the Home Office decision to revoke your sponsor licence.    

What to do if you fail a sponsor compliance visit

If you fail a sponsor compliance visit it is essential that you take urgent legal advice. It is crucial that the ‘failure’ of a sponsor compliance visit is not just seen as the revocation of a sponsor licence. The suspension or downgrading of your sponsor licence is serious and unless you take action the reality is that you could end up with your sponsor licence being revoked. 

With ongoing UK skills shortages, for many companies a sponsor licence is the lifeline to recruitment of the workforce that they need to stay in business. That is why you should ensure that: 

  • You and your key personnel know their sponsor licence duties and comply with them. 
  • You have systems in place so you are prepared for a sponsor compliance visit. 
  • If your sponsor licence is downgraded you comply with the Home Office action plan or challenge the downgrading so you don’t end up with your sponsor licence being revoked or suspended because you didn’t treat the sponsor compliance report with the seriousness that it deserved. 

There is an adage that says ‘you do not know what you have lost until you lose it’. Business immigration solicitors will tell you that it is often not until a sponsor licence has been downgraded, suspended or revoked that a business owner appreciates the benefits of learning how to manage their sponsor licence duties and handle a Home Office sponsor compliance visit. 

The key message on how to handle a sponsor compliance visit is to try and reduce the risk of experiencing one through strict adherence to your sponsor licence duties and reporting requirements, but if you do find that you are selected for a sponsor compliance visit to prepare and not leave things to chance on the day. 

What next?

If you are an employer and you need advice about how to handle a sponsor compliance visit or if you need help with the issues raised by the sponsor compliance report and the impact on your sponsor licence then our business immigration law solicitors can help. Tell us more about your situation by calling 0800 689 1700 or completing this contact form.

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