One of the requirements on sponsor licence holders is to appoint ‘key personnel’, who will be responsible for certain compliance duties related to managing the organisation’s licence.
Failure to appoint key personnel, or to meet the sponsor compliance duties, can result in Home Office enforcement action, impacting the sponsor’s ability to hire sponsored workers.
In this guide, we explain the roles and responsibilities of each of the key personnel under a sponsor licence, and how to avoid penalties for non-compliance with the sponsor licence management rules.
What are the key personnel roles?
When you apply for a sponsor licence from UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the online application will require you to give certain roles and responsibilities to members of staff, some or all of whom will be able to access the Home Office sponsorship management system (SMS) after your licence is granted. This essentially means that you will need to nominate people within your business to manage the sponsorship process on your behalf.
For the purposes of your licence application, you will initially need to select a permanent employee, director or partner to fill one or more of the following three key personnel roles:
- an authorising officer: a senior and competent individual within your organisation responsible for the actions of all members of staff or any representatives using the SMS
- a key contact: your main point of contact with UKVI
- a level 1 user: responsible for all day-to-day licence management using the SMS.
If your licence its granted, and once access has been given to use the SMS, the level 1 user will be authorised to appoint optional level 2 users. These are SMS users with more restricted access and fewer permissions than a level 1 user, where level 2 users can only be appointed by a level 1 user. Equally, only level 1 and 2 users can access the SMS.
The authorising officer or key contact will not automatically have access to the SMS, where they will need to be set up in the system as either a level 1 or 2 user if access is required. Importantly, the three initial key personnel roles named on your application can either be undertaken by the same person or different people, although there can only ever be one authorising officer and key contact. You can appoint additional level 1 users post-licence.
Once the sponsor licence has been granted, the organisation may then nominate individuals as Level 2 Users.
Failure to comply with licence management duties can result in Home Office enforcement action, such as difficulties with licence renewals, or even downgrading, suspension or revocation of the licence.
With so much at stake, it is important that appointed key personnel understand and meet their duties. But what exactly is involved with each of the roles? What are the duties of each key personnel and who can be appointed?
When applying for a sponsor licence you must appoint an Authorising Officer. And you must have one at all times whilst you hold a licence. If you fail to have an Authorising Officer in place at any point, or have one who doesn’t meet UKVI requirements (e.g they’re not based in the UK) your licence can be suspended, downgraded or revoked.
When the Points Based System was first introduced the Home Office required the Authorising Officer to be a senior member of staff. UKVI has since recognised that it is not generally helpful or practicable to have an Authorising Officer who is so senior in the company that they have no involvement with recruitment or immigration and therefore are unable to answer many of UKVI’s queries. The requirement was therefore amended so that for new licence applicants their Authorising Officer had to be the “most senior person responsible for the recruitment of all migrant workers and ensuring that sponsor duties are met”.
If there is more than one person who could fill this role, the sponsor can decide who to appoint. Whoever you nominate, you must be sure that they fully understand the importance of the role.
The authorising officer should be responsible for the recruitment of all migrant workers in your organisation and ensuring that you meet all your sponsor duties. This means that you must have an acting authorising officer throughout the lifecycle of your licence.
The Authorising Officer will be UKVI’s first and primary point of contact with your organisation. They will receive e-mails concerning changes to sponsors’ duties, the need to renew Certificates of Sponsorship or renew the licence itself.
They are also required to authorise most of the changes or updates you might make to your licence (e.g notifying UKVI that you’ve opened a new branch). They do this by signing the Submission Sheet that will be generated whenever you submit a notification of change via the Sponsorship Management System (SMS).
However, they don’t themselves have automatic access to the SMS to carry out any of the practical functions relating to sponsoring migrant workers – unless you also choose to make them a Level 1 user.
The individual appointed as authorising officer will be responsible for deciding how many members of staff need to have access to the SMS, what level of permission they should have and for the activities of all SMS users. The SMS will allow you to carry out all day-to-day activities and to report any changes to UKVI. You will also use it, amongst other things, to manage or renew your licence or services, to create and assign Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS) to migrant workers that you wish to sponsor, and to report any change of circumstances in relation to your sponsored workers, including withdrawal of sponsorship.
The authorising officer must ensure that all SMS users comply with UKVI’s requirements for using these online functions, so you must have a system in place for them to check these activities. It is recommended, for example, that CoS assigned to migrant workers are checked at least once each month. You will need to assign a valid CoS to anyone you wish to sponsor before they will be able to apply to UKVI for a visa.
As the authorising officer is ultimately responsible for the conduct of all SMS users, it is also recommended that you do not have more level 1 and 2 users than you really need, provided you have sufficient users to cover periods of annual, sick or other kinds of leave.
Your Key Contact is, as the name implies, the UKVI’s other main point of contact for the sponsor licence. UKVI will contact them in the event that they have queries about your sponsor licence application, the documents submitted or the payment.
If the Home Office has any concerns about your sponsor licence application, this may trigger an UKVI pre-licence compliance visit or the Home Office may also conduct an immigration audit at random once a sponsor licence has been granted; the key contact will play a key role in either of these scenarios, along with the authorising officer. In many cases, the key contact and the authorising officer will be the same person, given that the authorising officer is responsible for overseeing the sponsor licence and ensuring that the organisation is compliant with the sponsor licence key personnel duties.
As the individual acting as the main point of contact between UKVI and your business, the key contact will be responsible for addressing any queries that UKVI may have about your sponsor licence application, the documentation sent or any payments. As the point of contact with UKVI, you must have a key contact in place for the duration of your licence.
The Key Contact also does not have automatic access to the SMS. If they require access to the system they will need to be set up as a Level 1 or Level 2 user.
Level 1 users
Your Level 1 users will be the people who are doing your day-to-day immigration work.
They have full access to the Sponsorship Management System (SMS), which means they can :
- Undertake routine sponsorship activities, including assigning Certificates of Sponsorship, reporting migrant activity and changes of circumstance, request CoS, apply for and assign restricted CoS and apply to renew your licence.
- View information about your licence, notify UKVI of changes to your organisation.
- Apply to renew your licence and track the progress of your application.
You must always have at least one Level 1 user in place, who can access the SMS to carry out these tasks.
In your sponsor licence application, you can only nominate one Level 1 user, and since November 2014 this person must be an employee.
Once your licence has been granted you can appoint more Level 1 users, including your representative or other members of staff. UKVI recommend that you keep numbers to the minimum necessary for effective business operation.
As with the other key personnel roles, you must have at least one active level 1 user in place at all times for the duration of your sponsor licence, where it will not be possible for you to meet your sponsor duties without one. This person must also be an employee, partner or director. However, any additional level 1 users can be individuals outside of your organisation, such as a UK-based representative or an employee of a third-party organisation engaged by you to deliver all or part of the HR functions for your business.
As the individual responsible for carrying out all day-to-day sponsorship activities using the SMS, a level 1 user can perform all of the following actions using that system:
- assign CoS to migrant workers
- ask for an increase in your CoS limit, ie; the number of CoS you can assign
- ask for more level 1 users and add level 2 users to the SMS, or remove them
- tell UKVI about minor changes to your details
- tell UKVI about any change of circumstances
- report worker activity to UKVI, for example, if a worker leaves the business, is missing or does not come to work
- withdraw CoS
- tell UKVI of any change to work addresses
- change user details
- view information about your sponsor licence and key personnel
- access key messages posted by UKVI from time to time
- apply to renew your sponsor licence and track the progress of that application
- apply for premium customer service, and again track the progress of that application.
Any SMS level 1 user should also access your online account at least once every month to regularly review and update your licence details, and to keep up-to-date with messages and news of any changes that may be coming up. Your SMS account has a message board where UKVI post useful messages, such as updates to the official sponsor guidance.
Level 2 users
A level 2 user is an SMS user with fewer permissions than a level 1 user. This basically means that they have more restricted access when using the SMS, for example, they cannot withdraw a CoS issued to a migrant worker, or report any changes about your organisation, where these tasks can only be done by level 1 users. You can appoint as many Level 2 users as you need once your licence is in place.
Level 2 users can perform the following SMS actions:
- create and assign CoS to migrant workers
- report migrant worker activity to UKVI in respect of any CoS that they have personally created and assigned, or which have been transferred to them by a level 1
- user, although a level 2 user cannot report on CoS assigned by a level 1 user.
- Access your general licence information
- Report any changes to the organisation
General sponsor licence duties
The key personnel that you appoint to certain roles will not only be responsible for using or overseeing the SMS, or liaising with UKVI, but for overall immigration compliance within the organisation. As such, it is recommended that all key personnel appointed to one of these roles, especially the authorising officer, familiarise themselves with the associated wider duties and on how to be a compliant sponsor as set out in UKVI’s sponsor guidance.
The sponsor guidance is frequently amended and updated, where sponsor licence-holders should ensure that those responsible for the maintenance of their licence regularly review the latest guidance in order to ensure that they are up-to-date with their sponsor licence key personnel duties. These immigration compliance responsibilities include:
- Record-keeping duties: to retain any documents submitted as part of the sponsor licence application, together with documents relating to each migrant worker sponsored, including proof of their right to work in the UK and their up-to-date contact details;
- Reporting duties: to report certain information or events to UKVI using the SMS within a specified timeframe, for example, any changes to a sponsored worker’s employment, such as if they are dismissed, or certain migrant worker activities, such as non-attendance, as well as any significant changes in the structure of the organisation itself;
- Monitoring duties: to monitor the attendance and absences of any migrant workers sponsored by the business, and to also monitor their immigration status in order to prevent illegal working where they have a time-limited right to lawfully work in the UK.
Eligibility requirements for all key personnel
There are some requirements that all of your key personnel must meet. They must be:
Based in the UK
For the duration of the period that they fill one of the licence roles they must be permanently based in the UK. In other words even if your UK company is a subsidiary or branch of an overseas company and your HR function is based outside the UK you must still appoint someone based in the UK.
Free from criminal convictions
UKVI will check Authorising Officers, Key Contacts and Level 1 users for unspent criminal convictions at the time of your licence application, and can check at any point after that during the life of your Licence.
The Home Office will refuse your application for a sponsor licence if checks that they undertake reveal that your Key Personnel, including your Authorising Officer, Key Contact and Level 1 Users, have unspent criminal convictions for offences under or relating to:
- The Immigration Act 1971
- The Immigration Act 1988
- The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993
- The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
- The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002
- The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006
- The UK Borders Act 2007
- Trafficking for sexual exploitation
- Any other offence listed in Appendix B
- Any offences of espionage/terrorism
- Dishonesty (theft, corruption, deception and fraud)
- Proceeds of crime
- Money laundering
- Abuse and neglect of children (applies only for Tier 5 (Creative and Sporting)
The checks for criminal convictions may be repeated at any time during the life of the licence as well and when new individuals take up any of the Key Personnel roles.
In most cases a paid member of staff or an office holder
With some exceptions (detailed below) all key personnel must be paid employees or office holders of the company. Office holders include the Company Secretary, Directors and owners of the company.
If you contract out some or all of your HR functions to another company or organisation you can appoint an employee of that organisation as a Level 1 or Level 2 user on your licence. You must still have at least one Level 1 user who is an employee or office holder of the licence-holding company.
A UK-based legal representative can fill any key personnel role except the role of Authorising Officer.
Who cannot be appointed as key personnel?
None of your key personnel can be:
- A representative who is not based in the UK
- A contractor or consultant who is contracted for a specific project
- Subject to a Bankruptcy Restriction Order, or Undertaking
- Subject to a Debt Relief Restriction Order, or Undertaking
- Legally prohibited from being a company director
Note also that UKVI may refuse an application where any of the key personnel were involved with a sponsor institution whose licence has been revoked within the last 12 months.
Compliance with key personnel rules
You must provide contact details for all key personnel at the time of your licence application and if any changes occur subsequently. The contact address given for each of your key personnel must be either:
- Your main address
- A branch or head office included in your licence
- Your representative’s business address
If your organisation moves location you must update the contact details for your key personnel, as well as updating the licence address itself.
All email addresses you provide for key personnel must be secure, personal to and only accessible by the named individual.
You must have a minimum of one Level 1 user who is a settled worker. The only exceptions to this rule are if your Authorising Officer has valid leave as a:
- Start-up visa holder
- Innovator visa holder
- Global Talent programme participant
- Representative of an Overseas Business
- Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) migrant
- Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) migrant
Assigning a CoS
SMS users must not assign a Certificate of Sponsorship to themselves or assign a CoS to a close relative or partner including a:
- Civil partner
- Unmarried partner
- Same sex partner
- Mother or step-mother
- Father or step-father
- Son or step-son
- Daughter or step-daughter
- Brother or half-brother
- Sister or half-sister
Changing key personnel
A common area of risk for sponsors is ensuring that the key personnel roles are always filled and that their contact information is kept up to date on the SMS.
If an appointed individual takes a period of extended leave or leaves the organisation altogether, or if they change their job in the company and they are no longer suitable to act as key personnel, the employer has a duty to ensure that a suitable replacement is appointed and that this change is reported on the SMS by updating their contact details. This should be actioned within 20 days of the change.
Failure to report the change and the keep the SMS updated can result in enforcement action.
Guidance issued in March 2023 advises that requests submitted from the SMS to replace the AO or KC, and add new Level 1 users, will be fulfilled immediately, subject to certain criteria being met.
These criteria are if the postcode of the address stated for the new AO, KC or Level 1 User matches either the postcode of the sponsor’s main organisation address or that of its head office address or, for KCs and Level 1 Users, the postcode of a legal representative organisation that it has told the Home Office is acting on its behalf. Also, the licence must be fully active and the sponsor must be an A rated sponsor.
If these criteria are not met, the request will be considered manually, in the usual way. Relevant checks will still be carried out further to automatic decisions.
Failure to meet key personnel duties
Holding a sponsor licence is a privilege not a right, where employers must play their part in ensuring that the immigration system is not abused. Significant trust is placed in a sponsor, where you must ensure that you comply with the UK’s immigration law and not behave in such a way that is not conducive to the wider public good. As such, if your sponsor licence key personnel duties are not met, compliance action may be taken against you.
Importantly, if UKVI are considering taking action against you, you will be responsible for anything done by anyone set up as an SMS user, as well as the actions of your authoring officer or key contact. As such, you must ensure that anyone appointed to any one or more of the key personnel roles is both suitable and reliable, and fully understands the importance of meeting their sponsor licence key personnel duties. If you fail to meet your sponsor responsibilities, you could see your CoS allocation limited, unused CoS allocations withdrawn, or your licence may be downgraded, suspended or revoked.
Sponsor licence downgraded
UKVI may downgrade your sponsor licence from an A to B-rating if, for example, they think that you do not have the necessary processes in place to be able to comply with your sponsor duties. In general, UKVI will only downgrade your licence for fairly minor breaches that they believe can be resolved by issuing an action plan. In more serious cases of non-compliance, UKVI will suspend or revoke your licence instead.
If UKVI downgrades your licence, to be able to get this upgraded you will be required to comply with and pay for a time-limited action plan. You will also not be allowed to sponsor any new migrant workers until you have regained your A-rating.
Sponsor licence suspended
If UKVI believes that you are breaching your sponsor duties or pose a threat to immigration control in the UK, or are engaging in conduct that is not conducive to the public good, they may suspend your sponsor licence whilst making further enquiries.
You will not be allowed to assign any CoS during the period in which your licence is suspended. You must also continue to comply with all sponsor licence key personnel duties and any wider compliance requirements throughout the period of suspension.
Sponsor licence revoked
Your sponsor licence may be revoked if, for example, there is a serious or systematic breach of your sponsor licence key personnel duties or you are deemed to pose a threat to UK immigration control. If your licence is revoked, you will no longer be able to sponsor any more migrant workers and UKVI will cancel the permission of any existing workers that you are sponsoring. You will also have a cooling-off period of 12 months from the date that UKVI notified you of the revocation decision before you can re-apply for another licence.
At DavidsonMorris, our business immigration specialist are recognised leaders in sponsor licence applications and licence compliance. We provide support in various ways to help employers meet their compliance duties through auditing, webinars and training for efficient and effective policies and processes.
The Sponsorship Management System is notoriously difficult to use, and the Home Office’s SMS user guidance is extensive and far from user-friendly. Many employers also have only a small number of sponsored workers, meaning key personnel are not familiar with the SMS as they are not using it regularly. With no Home Office support service, level 1 and 2 users are left without any source of advice and are at risk of making mistakes and exposing their employer to compliance penalties. Our specialist training has been developed to help level 1 & level 2 users reduce legal risk and gain the confidence and knowledge to use the SMS correctly.
We also act as appointed key personnel on behalf of sponsors, in all expect Authorising Officer roles.
For help and advice with any aspect of your licence or meeting the compliance duties as key personnel, contact us.
Key personnel FAQs
What are sponsor duties?
Sponsor duties are the responsibilities that must be met by key personnel appointed to manage sponsorship, including the sponsor licence key personnel duties of the authorising officer, key contact, and level 1 user, who can also appoint level 2 users.
Who can be key contact for sponsor licence?
The key contact acts as the sponsor’s main point of contact with the Home Office. The authorising officer, the person responsible for the actions of all staff or representatives using the sponsorship management system, can also be the key contact.
Who can Level 1 SMS?
To be a level 1 user of the sponsorship management system (SMS), a person must usually be a paid member of staff or engaged as an office-holder based in the UK, and not have a recent criminal history.
What does a company need to do to sponsor someone UK?
To sponsor someone in the UK, a company must apply and pay online for a Home-Office approved licence. Once their application has been approved, they can then issue Certificates of Sponsorship to migrant workers using the Sponsorship Management System.
Who can be an Authorising officer?
What is a Level 1 user?
The Level 1 user is responsible for the day-to-day management of your sponsor licence using the Sponsor Management System.
Last updated: 28 February 2023