A Home Office inspection can be a cause of real concern for employers.
The Home Office has powers to investigate organisations to ensure they are meeting their obligations under the prevention of illegal working regime and if they are licensed sponsors, to ensure they are meeting their sponsor licence compliance duties.
While immigration compliance may not be high on the agenda among the daily challenges of running an organisation, it is often business-critical to pass a Home Office inspection. Allegations of illegal working or non-compliance with immigration obligations leave employers open to substantial fines, loss of their sponsor licence and workers’ visas being curtailed.
With so much at stake, we look at what you can do to improve your chances of having a successful Home Office inspection and avoid the consequences of breaching your duties.
What is a Home Office inspection?
A Home Office compliance visit refers to an on-site visit by an UKVI compliance officer. The Home Office uses site inspections – also referred to as visits, assessments and audits – to gather further information before a decision is made in a number of scenarios. Home Office representatives can attend premises on a prearranged, or on rare occasions on an unannounced basis (sometimes referred to as an immigration ‘raid’).
If an organisation has made an application for a sponsor licence, a pre licence (assessment) visit is to ensure that a prospective sponsor has the necessary systems and procedures in place to meet their sponsorship obligations,
When an organisation has made an application to renew its sponsor licence, a post licence (compliance) visit may be undertaken to ensure that a licensed sponsor is meeting their sponsorship obligations.
These checks represent one of the key ways in which UKVI can ensure those applying to be a sponsor, or already approved, are meeting the following two fundamental principles of sponsorship:
- that those who benefit most directly from migration, including employers recruiting migrants to the UK, play their part in making sure the immigration system is not abused;
- that those applying to come to the UK to do a job role are eligible to do so, and that a reputable employer genuinely wishes to employ them within their UK-based organisation.
A site inspection may also be carried out when the Home Office has received or become aware of information alleging illegal employment and that an employer has breached its duties.
In either case, the Home Office visit plays a vital role in assessing sponsors and making sure that the fundamental principles of sponsorship are maintained.
During the inspection, their officers have the authority to request access to personnel records and to interview employees such as HR staff and migrant workers.
Why does the Home Office carry out inspections?
Home Office compliance visits form an important part of immigration compliance and enforcement in the UK.
Employers are required by law to ensure that all of its employees are eligible to work and carry out the role they are employed to do, while sponsors are under additional compliance duties. As such, understanding what is required as a sponsor during these visits is key to obtaining and retaining a licence.
A pre licence check may be conducted prior to the grant of a sponsor licence as part of the licence application process, while a post licence check may be conducted after the grant of a licence as part of managing and overseeing the sponsorship process. However, Home Office compliance visits are not a foregone conclusion, but rather are generally triggered by issues raised, either during the sponsor licence application or sponsorship process.
In the context of pre licence assessment visits, an on-site check may be triggered where the UKVI caseworker tasked with deciding the sponsor licence application has concerns over the ability of the applicant organisation in meeting their sponsor duties. It could also be where verification is needed as to the accuracy of information given on the application.
In the context of post licence compliance visits, an on-site check could follow a failure to comply with the rules, such as where the sponsor has been late in reporting a change in a migrant worker’s circumstances using the online sponsorship management system (SMS). It could also be in response to intelligence about the organisation from another government agency or an anonymous outside source, where a check is needed to ensure that the sponsor is complying with their obligations to prevent illegal working. In many cases, it will also be on renewal of a sponsor licence at the end of its 4-year validity period.
When applying for a sponsor licence, there are various general requirements that must be met to satisfy the UKVI caseworker deciding the application that the applicant organisation is suitable to sponsor migrant workers. There are also various route-specific requirements, although much will depend on the category of worker the employer is looking to recruit.
In broad terms, to be eligible for a sponsor licence, the applicant organisation must be able to satisfy UKVI that it is a genuine business operating lawfully in the UK, and that it is both trustworthy and capable of carrying out its sponsorship duties. In this respect, UKVI will carefully consider the applicant’s history and background, including those responsible for running the business and the key personnel named on the licence application. This will include evidence of any criminal convictions or non-compliance with immigration laws, or any other evidence to suggest that these people are not honest, dependable and reliable.
The applicant organisation must also be able to satisfy UKVI that it is capable of discharging its duties as a sponsor, with reference to its existing recruitment practices and HR systems. In short, UKVI must be satisfied that the prospective sponsor will be able to adequately monitor its migrant workforce, comply with its reporting and record-keeping obligations as a licensed sponsor, and will not pose any threat to immigration control in the UK.
In addition to the general requirements to be approved for a sponsor licence, the applicant organisation must be able to meet the requirements of the relevant route on which it is applying to be a sponsor. This includes being able to offer genuine employment for any route-specific role in the UK, in some cases meeting minimum skill and salary requirements.
After a sponsor licence has been granted, there are various obligations that a licensed sponsor must meet so as to maintain their licence and not fall foul of the law, including:
- monitoring duties: all sponsors must monitor the immigration status of the workers they sponsor so as to prevent illegal working, and withdraw sponsorship for those whose permission to be in the UK has expired. They must also only assign Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS) to those appropriately qualified and experienced to do the job on offer.
- record-keeping duties: all sponsor must retain documents relating to each migrant worker assigned an CoS, together with their up-to-date contact details. This includes a record of prescribed right to work checks prior to employment, and any follow-up checks, ensuring that all migrant workers have the right to work in the UK and to do the work in question.
- reporting duties: all sponsors must report any changes to the circumstances of any migrant workers using the SMS, including non-attendance, disappearance or non-compliance with their conditions of leave. They must also report relevant changes to the sponsoring organisation, such as a change of address or a change in structure.
Right to work compliance
The Prevention of Illegal Working regime in the United Kingdom places substantial obligations on employers to prevent the hiring of individuals who do not have the legal right to work in the country. These obligations are fundamental in upholding immigration laws and fostering a compliant, diverse, and inclusive workforce.
Employers are required to conduct right to work checks before hiring any individual to ensure they have the necessary immigration status to work in the UK. The process involves scrutinising and retaining specific documents as evidence of an individual’s right to work, as outlined in the Home Office’s guidelines. Right to work checks can be conducted using digital checks, manual document checks or in some circumstance, using the Employer Checking Service (ECS).
Failure to carry out these checks diligently can result in severe penalties, including fines or imprisonment, under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006.
The checks must be consistent for all employees, regardless of their nationality or appearance, to prevent discrimination. Continuous monitoring of an employee’s right to work is also essential in the case of employees with time-limited permissions.
The obligations extend to a responsibility to maintain meticulous records of the checks conducted. These records must show that the employer has conducted the check correctly, including the date of the check, details of the documents reviewed, and any follow-up checks required. These records should be securely stored and maintained for the duration of the individual’s employment and for at least two years after the employment ends.
During an inspection, you may be asked to show evidence that you are conducting right to work checks and are keeping the required records.
The Prevention of Illegal Working regime emphasises not only the administrative diligence required of employers but also the ethical imperative of fair and legal employment practices. It is a critical facet of the broader immigration system, aiming to safeguard against unauthorised employment and ensure that job opportunities are provided to individuals who have the legal right to work in the UK. Compliance with these obligations is pivotal, not just for legal reasons, but as a fundamental part of responsible and lawful employment practices in the UK.
What happens during a Home Office compliance visit?
There are a number of ways in which the Home Office can undertake checks on a sponsoring organisation, both before and after the grant of a sponsor licence, including digital documentation checks, as well as checks with other agencies and government bodies. However, a Home Office compliance visit will be in-person and on-site. The visit can also be unannounced, where this will allow the UKVI compliance officer to see the sponsor in their normal working environment, rather than allowing the possibility that the sponsor may have altered this environment for the purposes of an anticipated assessment.
During a visit, the UKVI compliance officer will want to speak with the key personnel nominated on the licence application or appointed to one of the relevant roles. In particular, they will want to speak with the Authorising Officer who is responsible for the overall sponsorship process, as well as the Key Contact, who is there to act as the main point of contact between the sponsor and UKVI. However, provided the owner, a director or anyone involved in the running of the sponsor’s organisation is in attendance, even if the key personnel are not available, the Home Office compliance visit may still go ahead.
As a matter of course, the UKVI compliance officer will want to see evidence of recruitment practices and HR systems for prospective sponsors. For existing sponsors, they will want to make checks on record-keeping and reporting systems, reviewing a minimum number of migrant files, including right to work check records, and interviewing a minimum number of migrant workers. Additional information is also likely to be requested, depending on the category of workers that an organisation is looking, or licensed, to sponsor.
In some cases, such as where key personnel are not in attendance during an unannounced visit, the compliance officer may want to re-visit. Alternatively, they can contact these individuals by telephone, email or post after the visit to request additional information.
However, following a visit, so long as no further enquiries are deemed necessary by the UKVI compliance officer, a visit report will be prepared, recording the findings made by that officer. At this stage, if the officer is not satisfied with the employer’s performance during the Home Office compliance visit, this can have serious and costly consequences.
What if the Home Office identifies compliance breaches during the inspection?
A Home Office compliance visit will lead to one of the following outcomes:
- the sponsor licence application will be approved or, in the case of an existing sponsor, they will maintain their current licence status
- refusal of the sponsor licence application or, in the case of an existing sponsor, they may have their allocation of CoS reduced or removed, be downgraded to a B-rating and be issued with a time-limited action plan, or have their licence suspended or revoked.
In the event the Home Office identifies issues or compliance issues or breaches as part of the inspection, they can take enforcement action against your organisation.
If the visit was a pre-licence assessment, your sponsor licence application may be refused and your application fee lost. You will then need to address the breaches and make a new application – adding further unwanted expense and time to the licence application process.
If the inspection takes place while you have a licence, compliance breaches can result in enforcement measures, depending on the severity of the breaches. Minor licence breaches could result in your licence being downgraded, or more severe breaches could result in sponsor licence suspension or even revocation. A decision to revoke a licence will be made where there is evidence of a significant or systematic failing, and the employer is deemed to pose a serious threat to immigration control. However, a licence will often be suspended first, pending further investigation. For the licence to be reinstated or upgraded, you will usually need to pay for a Home Office action plan which you have to follow to show you have rectified the issues. However, even in less serious cases of non-compliance, the consequences for the employer can be far-reaching. For example, the cost to the sponsor of a time-limited action plan if their licence is downgraded is £1,476. The sponsor will also not be able assign CoS to new migrant workers until the UKVI compliance officer is satisfied that any non-compliance issues have been satisfactorily resolved and the licence has been upgraded to an A-rating.
You do not need to be a sponsor licence to be subject to an immigration compliance inspection. Under the prevention of illegal working regime, all UK employers must meet obligations to ensure all of their workforce has the right to work by carrying out prescribed checks. If the Home Office is not satisfied that your organisation is meeting these duties, you can face a civil penalty per breach, as well as potential criminal charges if it is established that you knowingly employed an illegal worker.
Additionally, if an existing sponsor is found to be employing illegal workers, and they are unable to establish a statutory excuse against civil liability by way of records of prescribed right to work checks, the sponsor can be fined up to £20,000 per illegal worker.
How to pass a Home Office inspection
Immigration compliance should be an everyday concern for employers, regardless of whether you employ foreign national workers. All UK employers must verify every employee’s right to work before they start employment, including British and Irish citizens. If an individual has a time-limited right to work, you must ensure you perform follow-up checks to confirm their continued eligibility to be employed.
The Home Office also expects personnel records to be maintained and kept up to date, and ready for inspection at any one time.
Following these six steps will help your organisation take a proactive approach to immigration compliance, so that in the event of an inspection, you are ‘match-fit’.
1. Check your HR policies & procedures
You should have specific HR policies relating to sponsored worker recruitment, management and record-keeping. Policies should provide guidelines, standards and processes to ensure your operations are consistent and compliant.
While your operations may be correct and compliant, it is hugely helpful for a Home Office inspection to have it all official and written down.
Ensure specific areas of compliance risk are covered. For example, what is your process for foreign nationals with time-limited permission to work in the UK? Failure to carry out such follow-up right to work checks risks allegations of illegal working.
You should also be able to show the policies are accessible and understood by your organisation. For example, as part of your onboarding process, you could ensure all sponsored workers sign a document confirming they understand their duty to inform on reportable events.
Remember also that your policies will need updating as and when Home Office policy and legislation changes; these updated documents will need communicating to the organisation.
2. Train your staff
Appropriate training of relevant staff involved in your organisation’s immigration compliance processes is essential. This will go beyond the HR function, and should include anyone involved in recruiting, onboarding and managing sponsored workers across the organisation.
For example, as part of your pre-employment checks, you are expected to take reasonable steps to ensure the identity documents submitted are genuine and that the person presenting for work is the same person the documentation relates to. All personnel involved in this onboarding process should be trained to perform these checks correctly.
Employers will want to avoid a scenario where the central HR function operates with best practice processes, while other branches or sites fall short of the required standards. For example, if a site manager recruits for a sponsored role without meeting the relevant salary requirements, or without following compliant document checks, the organisation risks enforcement action, even if the organisation has compliant policies and procedures in place.
Another common area of risk is sponsored workers’ working hours and locations. Sponsored workers have to stay within the working time parameters of what is permissible under the organisation’s licence, and sponsored workers’ place of work must adhere to the locations recorded on the SMS. Line managers and supervisors must be aware of, and comply with, these restrictions.
Ongoing and effective training will demonstrate your commitment to developing compliance knowledge and skills across your organisation in the event of any compliance issues.
3. Mind the gaps!
It’s not uncommon to see differences in working practices within one organisation, particularly between head office and individual care homes. But if those responsible for hiring at a local level are exercising discretion in respect of immigration compliance, or are not performing Right to Work checks correctly or at all, the business as a whole will be put at risk of enforcement action.
Likewise, human error isn’t an excuse for non-compliance. Be clear on roles and responsibilities in your organisation, particularly in relation to key personnel, and formalise these details. This will ensure there are no gaps in duties and the tasks to be carried out, and should address scenarios such as planned and unplanned absence cover.
Also remember that if one of your key personnel leaves the organisation, or is on a period of extended leave, they will need to be replaced and the SMS updated accordingly.
4. Use mock audits
Practice makes perfect! Internal audits for immigration compliance are extremely worthwhile exercises. Cover the same areas as an official Home Office inspection would: check policies, review records and carry out mock interviews with the staff most likely to be interviewed by the Home Office. You want to identify and address potential areas of non-compliance and risk.
We are frequently asked to carry out immigration audits to help identify areas for improvement, and provide coaching for interviewees to make the process less daunting.
It’s also helpful for management to regularly conduct informal document spot-checks across its network.
5. Keep everything
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.
Inconsistent quality of personnel records can expose the organisation to allegations of non-compliance. The Home Office inspection is centred heavily on documentation and evidence. Demonstrate your willingness and efforts to comply by keeping records, particularly of any related training and internal audits.
If the Home Office does find an error, but they can see you are trying to comply with your obligations, this could help protect you from enforcement action.
Your HR processes must also ensure retention of leavers’ documents for up to two years after they have left your business. The Home Office has the right to request employee documentation for up to two years after the employee has left your employment. We often see instances where personnel records have been deleted or destroyed before this date. This is not accepted practice and would be regarded as a breach of your right to work duties.
6. Be proactive
A Home Office inspection can happen at any time – at short notice or even unannounced. If you approach immigration compliance as integral to your everyday activity, and not just something to aim for in the run up to an audit or licence application, it will take the pressure off should the Home Office come calling. As a licensed sponsor, updating your SMS is a mandatory requirement. This includes notifying of changes of circumstances such as salary band changes, leavers, switchers and changes in work location. Managing your SMS should be a daily concern. The Home Office expects your SMS information to be a snapshot of your business at any one time, meaning it has to be accurate and kept up to date.
If you are expecting a Home Office visit
The sponsor guidance makes it clear to sponsors that they must allow UKVI compliance officers access to any of their premises or sites under their control, and to do so on demand. If a sponsor refuses to allow the attending officer access on demand, the sponsor will be recorded as being non-cooperative and non-compliant where this, of itself, can result in a licence being refused or revoked.
Those responsible for dealing with the UKVI compliance officer must also cooperate at all times during a Home Office compliance visit. If the key personnel are unavailable when an unannounced visit is taking place, these individuals should be contacted and asked to attend, where at all possible, as they will be best placed to answer any questions.
Additionally, the official guidance for sponsors advises employers that they must act honestly in any dealings with the Home Office, including during any compliance visit. By trying to conceal any issues by being dishonest, or providing false information or failing to disclose relevant information, this will amount to a breach of their sponsorship obligations. The most likely outcome following a finding of dishonesty is suspension and even outright revocation of the sponsor licence, whereas less serious non-compliance, including any matter which the employer was seeking to conceal, may result in less serious consequences.
DavidsonMorris are UK business immigration specialists, with extensive experience in immigration compliance. We work with UK employers across all sectors, including health & social care providers, local authorities, retailers, hoteliers and professional sports clubs, providing tailored compliance support services. This can include access to our online right to work training for staff involved in recruitment, onboarding and line management; mock audits to identify and address potential compliance breaches; review of documentation, policies and procedures; specialist training for SMS Level 1 and 2 users; and support with ongoing sponsor licence management.
Home Office inspection FAQs
What is a home office inspection?
A Home Office inspection is when an employer is visited by UK immigration officials, who will assess the organisation's compliance with its UK immigration obligations. Where any breaches are established, the Home Office can take enforcement action against the organisation.
What happens in a UKVI audit?
During a UKVI audit, the investigators will assess the organisation's HR and personnel documentation and procedures, and speak with relevant personnel such as HR staff and sponsored workers.
What is a compliance visit?
A compliance visit is an on-site visit by a Home Office compliance officer, where the purpose of either a pre or post licence visit is to ensure that the sponsor is capable of, or is currently, meeting their sponsorship obligations.
What is a Home Office audit?
A Home Office audit is where a UK Visas and Immigration compliance officer is tasked with checking that any organisation approved to sponsor migrant workers is meeting their sponsorship obligations, including the obligation to prevent illegal working in the UK.
What happens in a UKVI audit?
During an audit undertaken by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the UKVI compliance officer will typically speak to the Authorising Officer, and review the sponsor's relevant HR procedures and records. They may also speak directly with any sponsored migrant workers.
What is the Home Office sponsor license audit?
A Home Office audit is where a compliance officer conducts an on-site visit with any organisation applying to be licensed or already approved to sponsor migrant workers, checking they are capable of, or are currently, meeting their sponsorship duties.
Last updated: 1 September 2023