A damning report into the way Home Office inspectors monitor business holding sponsor licences to employ migrants reveals a stretched system beset by operational failures that is unable to meet obligations and open to abuse.
The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) investigation into Home Office monitoring and enforcement of licence holders coincides with a new government TV advertising campaign encouraging more businesses to sign up to the sponsor licence registry.
Immigration experts say the findings illustrate that the licence system is not fit for purpose.
Yash Dubal, Director of A Y & J Solicitors, works with UK firms applying for sponsor licences. He said: “The report shines an unflattering light on a shambolic system. The timing is particularly bad because the government is eager to encourage more businesses to register for licences and is advertising the fact on TV. The report will not give businesses much faith in the system. The failings it reveals show that the licence system is open to abuse from unscrupulous licence holders.”
Businesses and organisations in the UK must be registered sponsor licence holders to employ migrants. To qualify for a licence they must fulfil certain duties such as accurate record keeping of migrant employees. Inspectors from Home Office UK Visa and Immigration assess and monitor licence holders and have powers to penalise non-compliance. Sponsors in breach of conditions are typically given a supervised action plan. Ultimately licences can be revoked.
The ICIBI report covered the period November 2019 to October 2020. It found that the number of visits to assess a would-be sponsor’s suitability have dropped and the department is not staffed enough to visit all licence holders. Even at full strength, the report says, there would not be enough officers to fulfil all the required assessment visits.
Staff described a system that “doesn’t work that well” and “doesn’t always cover travel time” since some Compliance Officers “cover vast areas”.
The report concludes: “From the data provided, compliance visits have been steadily declining, with half the number of pre-licence visits in 2019 that there were in 2015.”
Compliance Managers said that they were under-resourced and “struggling to keep up”. One commented that they “could do with double the staff”.
Officers were also let down by IT systems and had to go to offices to file reports between visits because they were unable to scan or draft reports remotely.
The report reveals that around 70-80% of sponsors visited by inspectors did not meet required standards. Caseworkers responsible for reviewing visit reports and deciding what action to take, made “inconsistent” decisions that lacked common sense. Teams were described as disconnected and there was a lack of intelligence sharing about non-compliant sponsors from Border, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS).
The report also said lack of contact points for sponsors was ‘problematic’. A UKVI business ‘Helpdesk’ only offers email assistance while a ‘Sponsorship, employer and education helpline’ provides only general advice. In order to have premium level service with a dedicated account manager firms have to pay between £25,000 and £8,000 a year.
Mr Dubal said the end of free movement will add to the woes.
“The investigation shows that the system struggled to cope before Brexit,” he explained. “Now free movement has ended there is even more demand for sponsor licences. We are seeing an increase in inquiries. The government has promised to simplify the visa system, but there will still be requirements that licence holders must fulfil so compliance will continue to be an issue, consequently the pressures on those tasked with enforcing compliance will likely increase.”
The ICIBI reports that the failings leave the system open to abuse.
It states: “By narrowly focusing on the sectors perceived to be “high risk”, and with compliance visits reducing, there is a danger that some employers will believe that they are effectively free from scrutiny, a concern ICIBI has already raised in its 2019 Illegal Working inspection report regarding ICE team illegal working visits.”