How to Prepare for a Home Office Desktop Audit

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The Home Office uses audits to assess employers’ compliance with their obligations under the UK’s Right to Work and sponsorship regimes. Often, employers are subject to an audit as part of an application for a sponsorship licence.

In this guide for employers, we explain what digital immigration compliance audits are, why and when they are used and how you can prepare your organisation in advance of a desktop audit.

 

What is a digital immigration compliance audit?

A digital immigration compliance audit, also known as a Home Office desktop audit, is an audit undertaken by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) — the division of the Home Office responsible for the issuance of sponsor licences and visas — to ensure that any employer approved to sponsor migrant workers is discharging their sponsorship duties. A compliance audit is therefore aimed at those who already hold a sponsor licence, rather than those applying for the first time or looking to add another route to an existing licence, although these organisations will typically be subject to pre-licence assessment checks.

There are two fundamental principles behind both pre- and post-licence audits or checks:

that those who benefit most directly from migration, including employers hiring migrant workers, play their part in making sure that the UK’s immigration system is not abused
the Home Office needs to be sure that those applying to come to the UK to work are eligible to do so and that a reputable employer genuinely wishes to employ them.

When it comes to digital immigration compliance audits, instead of an UKVI officer undertaking an on-site visit, internal checks will be conducted by UKVI using its own database and records, together with public resource and government data-sharing. This will involve, but is not limited to, HMRC and Companies House. Additionally, a digital audit may involve video conferencing and screen-sharing facilities, where those responsible for managing sponsorship within your organisation will be remotely interviewed about your recruitment practices and HR procedures. Once fully in use by UKVI, individual sponsored workers may also be interviewed as part of any digital immigration compliance audit.

 

Why are digital immigration compliance audits used?

A digital immigration compliance audit may be undertaken in lieu of, or in addition to, an in-person compliance visit, to assess the willingness and ability to meet your sponsorship obligations, and whether or not you pose a threat to immigration control. In this way, UVKI can help to ensure that the two fundamental principles of sponsorship are maintained.

From the day that your sponsor licence is granted, you will be responsible for fulfilling certain duties until either you surrender your licence, you let your licence lapse or your licence is revoked. Additionally, your responsibility for each migrant worker you recruit will start on the day that you assign them a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS). This will end only when you notify the Home Office that you are no longer sponsoring the worker, when the worker leaves the UK and their permission expires, or when the worker is granted further leave with a different sponsor or in another immigration route.

Your duties as a Home Office approved licensed sponsor include:

  • monitoring and tracking migrant workers that you have sponsored
  • various reporting and record-keeping duties in relation to each worker and your business
  • complying with UK immigration laws, including conducting right to works check to help prevent illegal working, and complying with wider UK law.

Importantly, if you are found to be employing illegal workers as a result of a Home Office desktop audit or post-licence compliance visit, you can establish a statutory excuse if you are able to show that you have carried out prescribed right to work checks as recommended in the Home Office guidelines. An employer’s guide to right to work checks can be found online at GOV.UK (dated 8 February 2024). This can help employers to ensure that any right to work checks are only undertaken in accordance with the most up-to-date rules.

 

How do Home Office desktop audits work and what happens?

A Home Office desktop audit can be triggered for a number of reasons. This may be because either the Sponsor Operations or Premium Service team have requested an audit in connection with intelligence about your organisation, or perhaps another unit in the Home Office has requested an audit as part of a joint operation. Additionally, it could be where you have hit a trigger point for the number of migrant workers you have sponsored or you have recently submitted an application to renew your licence. You may also be audited if you been required to complete an action plan, having been downgraded to a B-rating.

However, this list is not exhaustive, where there could be any one of a number or combination of reasons for a digital immigration compliance audit being carried out. It is also possible that you may be subject to an on-site compliance visit, in addition to or instead of a desktop audit, both of which could be announced or unannounced.

During either a digital immigration compliance audit or an on-site visit, UKVI will assess:

  • your HR systems, to ensure that you are meeting your sponsorship duties
  • whether you, or any activities undertaken by you, pose a threat to immigration control
  • whether the original number of CoS requested on your sponsor application or annual request is still justified
  • whether those working with you are complying with any conditions of their leave
  • whether you continue to have a trading presence in the UK
  • whether sponsored workers have been recruited to fill genuine vacancies which meet the requirements of the relevant immigration route in respect of skill level and pay.

As a sponsor, you must co-operate with any requests made by UKVI, including being asked to participate in video conferencing, or the provision of information or documentation, as part of any audit. You must also act honestly in any dealings you have with UVKI. This means that if you fail to cooperate fully, or provide false information during a digital audit or compliance visit, or if UKVI obtains evidence showing that you are involved in dishonest activity when conducting an audit or visit, this will be a breach of your sponsorship obligations. This could, of itself, lead to compliance action being taken against you.

 

Possible outcomes of a Home Office desktop audit

As with any on-site compliance visit, there could be various different outcomes to a Home Office desktop audit, including:

  • your sponsor license application is approved or denied
  • maintaining your current sponsor licence status, without any action being taken
  • having your allocation of CoS reduced or removed
  • being downgraded to a B-rating and being issued with a time-limited action plan
  • having your licence suspended
  • having your licence revoked.

However, if the result of a Home Office desktop audit indicates a potential breach of your sponsorship duties, UKVI may go on to conduct an announced or unannounced visit to investigate further and to compile a final report before deciding on what action to take.

 

Penalties for non-compliance

When being audited or assessed, you will be rated based on your level of sponsorship compliance. If you meet the requirements of all applicable compliance areas, your overall score will be ‘Met’. However, your overall score will be ‘Not Met’ if you fail to meet any of the compliance areas. Additionally, failing to meet all areas of compliance will result in suspension of your licence in all but the most exceptional circumstances, during which time UKVI will investigate the matter further to decide what action to take against you.

In some cases, not least where there is no evidence of any willingness or ability to meet your sponsorship duties, or where you are otherwise deemed to pose a serious threat to immigration control, your licence may be downgraded or revoked. If downgraded, you will be required to pay for and complete an action plan. If your licence is revoked, this means:

you cannot continue to employ your existing sponsored staff and you cannot recruit new migrant workers who require a sponsoring employer
your sponsored staff will have just 60 days to find a new sponsor to employ them, where they may have to leave the UK if they cannot find a replacement.

There is no right of appeal against a decision to revoke a sponsor licence. You can apply to judicially review a revocation decision if it was unreasonable, unlawful or procedurally improper, although these types of applications can be legally complex. You can also reapply for another sponsor licence, but only after a cooling-off period and any previous non-compliance will be taken into account, with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

It is also worth noting that if there is evidence of you employing illegal workers, you may be referred to the Civil Penalties Compliance team, which could not only seriously damage your employer-brand, but result in a hefty penalty. The civil penalty for employing illegal workers is now up to £45,000 for a first breach and up to £60,000 for repeated breaches.

 

Common areas of immigration compliance risks

Common areas of non-compliance identified through audits can include:

  • HR paperwork relating to overseas workers being either below the required standard or non-existent.
  • Poor management and processes relating to so-called ‘List B’ workers with time-limited permission to work in the UK. Their employers have a duty to check their continued Right to Work on a regular basis, as prescribed under UKVI’s ‘List B’ of acceptable documentation, to ensure their permission has not expired.
  • Low levels of activity on the ‘Sponsor Management System’ (SMS).
  • Failure to
  • reporting on the online ‘Sponsor Management System’ (SMS) regarding NMC PIN and salary band changes, leavers, switchers and changes in circumstances regarding work location.

 

How to prepare for a Home Office desktop audit

Taking a proactive approach to immigration compliance is the most effective approach to being prepared for a Home Office audit. In particular, employers should:

 

Get the basics right

You should have specific HR policies in place for the recruitment, management and record-keeping relating to foreign staff. Policies should provide guidelines, standards and processes to ensure your operations are compliant with your immigration duties. The Home Office will request sight of your HR policies as part of the site inspection.

 

Keep up-to-date with changes in regulations

The Home Office expects all sponsor licence holders to be up-to-date on the duties placed on them. Ignorance is no defence. UK Immigration Rules change frequently, and invariably impact on employers and what they need to do to remain compliant. Subscribe to updates on changes to the rules to ensure you stay informed and can react accordingly by adapting policies and processes and communicating these changes internally.

For example – BRPs, also known as biometric residence permits, are in the process of being phased out by the Home Office. For this reason, all newly-issued BRPs expire no later than 31 December 2024, even if the immigration permission of a migrant worker continues after this date. This is with a view to digitising the UK’s immigration system, where workers will not need a physical BRP from 1 January 2025, proving their immigration status online instead.

Provided a migrant worker continues to have permission to be in the UK, their immigration status will not be affected by expiry of their BRP on 31 December 2024, although UKVI will be updating their information on how someone can prove their immigration status throughout the course of this year. For employers, this means that you will not be required to conduct a follow-up right to work check on expiry of any BRP at the end of 2024, but rather only when a worker’s leave is due to expire. The Home Office online service should have advised you where an individual’s immigration permission has an expiry date.

It is worth noting that when a migrant worker has provided you with a share code to prove their right to work, their online profile should display the expiry date of their immigration permission, rather than their BRP expiry date. Importantly, BRP-holders are required to evidence their right to work using the Home Office online service only, where employers have not been able to accept physical cards for the purposes of right to work checks since 6 April 2022, even if the card showed a later expiry date. Accordingly, BRPs have been removed from the lists of acceptable documents used to conduct manual checks.

 

Be clear on roles and responsibilities

The Tier 2 sponsor licence requires holders to nominate ‘Key Personnel’. These positions must be formally assigned to individuals within your organisation, and records kept as evidence. In addition, ensure all operational duties are formally assigned, addressing circumstances such as planned and unplanned absence cover and leavers.

 

Provide training

Appropriate training of relevant staff involved in your organisation’s immigration compliance processes is essential. All personnel involved with recruitment, on-boarding and line management of foreign nursing staff should be trained and skilled in meeting immigration duties. Evidence of an ongoing commitment to best practice is a strong indicator to the Home Office of compliant operations.

 

Practice makes perfect

A mock audit – including mock interviews with staff most likely to be interviewed by the Home Office – is extremely useful in highlighting issues before a Home Office audit. By undertaking a full review of all documentation and supporting HR paperwork against Home Office standards and requirements, you can identify records which are lacking in content as required by the Home Office or where information not been kept up-to-date.

 

Record everything

The main area of compliance risk is record-keeping. The Home Office is looking for evidence of a sustained approach and consistent standards when managing sponsor licence documentation. Also ensure your record-keeping extends to the full degree of the requirements. Immaculate paperwork will be let down if you are unable to show records of where individual migrants are currently and have been working. If in doubt – keep it.

 

Need assistance?

If you are concerned about any area of your HR or recruitment practices, you are strongly advised to seek expert advice as soon as possible from an immigration specialist. In this way, you can have your current compliance levels independently assessed by way of a mock audit, helping to identify potential risks of breaches that may be flagged during any audit or compliance visit, giving you the chance to put this right.

DavidsonMorris are specialists in UK immigration compliance. We support employers in meeting their obligations under the UK’s Right to Work and sponsorship regimes through auditing, training and consultancy services. For expert guidance, contact us.

 

Immigration desktop audit FAQs

What is immigration compliance?

Immigration compliance refers to the requirement for those responsible for sponsoring migrant workers in the UK to discharge their duties as a sponsor, including record-keeping and reporting obligations, both in relation to their business and each individual that they sponsor.

What happens in a UKVI audit?

A UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) audit can be either a desktop audit or an on-site visit where, in either case, an UKVI officer will undertake checks to ensure that any organisation sponsoring migrant workers is discharging their sponsorship duties.

Is digital immigration status change to BRP?

With a view to digitising the UK’s immigration system, BRPs (biometric residence permits) are being phased out by the Home Office, where most migrant workers will soon be able to prove their immigration status online, by way of an eVisa.

What is digital proof of immigration status UK?

Digital proof of immigration status refers to where an individual’s permission to be in the UK, together with their conditions of stay, including the right to work, are held online. This is referred to under the rules as an eVisa.

Last updated: 30 January 2024

Author

Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

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