With the introduction of the new points-based immigration system, the UK government has pledged to make a number of improvements to the work visa sponsorship process for sponsors and workers.
Given the new immigration rules require UK employers to have a sponsorship licence to hire most non-UK residents, the imperative for reform of the system has become greater since more employers now require a sponsor licence.
In its recently published ‘sponsorship roadmap’, the UK Home Office has set out a number of additional reforms to be rolled out over the remainder of 2021, and into 2022 and beyond, with a view to making the sponsorship system simpler, more streamlined and accessible.
The following guide for existing and prospective sponsors provides an overview of these recent and proposed sponsorship reforms, and what these changes mean for UK businesses.
Sponsorship reforms to date
UK employers are required to sponsor any skilled migrant workers they wish to employ if they’re not a settled worker or do not otherwise have the appropriate immigration permission to work in the UK.
To sponsor a worker, the employer must hold a valid sponsor licence for the route on which they intend to sponsor them, for example, under the Skilled Worker, ICT or Temporary Worker routes. This means that for those employers who do not currently hold a sponsor licence, or permission to sponsor under a relevant sponsored work route, they must be granted permission from the Home Office under that route before they can sponsor a migrant worker.
The sponsor licence application process in particular is recognised as being cumbersome, costly to administer and onerous on sponsors. In a bid to deliver a system that is faster and simpler, with a reduced administrative burden on sponsors, the Home Office has made efforts to implement some changes to help improve the time it takes to recruit a worker from overseas, and the accessibility and usability of Home Office systems.
The Home Office states it has redesigned the official guidance for sponsors, that the sponsor licence application has been made fully paperless, and a priority service now gives employers the ability to apply for a faster decision on sponsor licence applications.
The pre-licence priority service is for employers applying to join the register as a sponsor, whilst the post-licence priority service is for existing sponsors wanting to make a change. While the offering has improved, sponsor processing services continue to be subject to delays, due largely to the pandemic and surges in demand from sponsors who under the old rules did not require a licence to employer but now must be licensed to hire foreign workers.
The most notable reforms to date, designed to reduce the length of time it takes to recruit a migrant worker by up to 8 weeks, include removal of the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) and suspension of the cap on Skilled Workers. The removal of the RLMT means employers no longer have to face the lengthy process of advertising a role for 28 days before assigning a Certificate of Sponsorship, whilst suspending the cap on Skilled Workers means there is now no limit on the number of migrants who can come to the UK on this route, reducing the timeline for sponsoring skilled workers by up to 4 weeks.
The use of new technological innovations, including the secure ChipChecker functionality for a fully digital application system for EEA nationals applying under the new points-based system, has also reduced the time it takes from applying for a visa to getting a decision by up to one week. This enables those with a chipped biometric passport to remotely prove their identity, and to verify the authenticity of their passport and that they’re the genuine holder.
Overall, these enhancements for both sponsors and applicants alike should mean a faster end-to-end process from a sponsor getting a licence to a new recruit coming to the UK.
Sponsorship reforms for 2021
The focus for sponsorship reforms in 2021 is ‘to remove and demystify perceived barriers to use of the system’, enabling businesses to feel more confident in making future investment decisions with a degree of certainty, especially when they’ve not used the system before.
On 26th August 2021, the UK Home Office published a ‘sponsorship roadmap’ setting out a commitment to deliver further sponsorship reforms between now until the first quarter of 2024. Building on the reforms already delivered to date, this multi-year programme of change is based on three core objectives, with the following ‘deliverables’ for the last quarter of 2021:
- To speed up end-to-end processing: the Home Office is looking to simplify the documentary evidence required to become a sponsor to help reduce the time between applying for a sponsor licence to a worker being approved for a visa. Given the time it can often take to collate the supporting documents in a Home-Office approved format, this is likely to be welcomed by start-ups and smaller businesses applying for a licence for the first time.
- To improve a sponsor’s experience of using the sponsor system: various proposals are outlined by the Home Office here to reduce the burden on sponsors to maintain their licence and improve functionality. These include establishing a new support service for small and micro businesses, commencing a review of sponsorship fees to ensure fairness, and introducing an enhanced Skilled Worker eligibility checking tool to make it easier for employers and prospective recruits to understand if a job is eligible under this route.
- To prevent abuse of the system: in terms of compliance reforms, including effective management of information risk, the Home Office will pilot a new salary check process in conjunction with HMRC to verify if employees are being paid the amount specified by their employer during the application process. This will enable the Home Office to automatically check PAYE data to ensure compliance with salary requirements.
Sponsorship reforms for 2022 & beyond
The sponsorship roadmap sets out a ‘range of ambitious technological and system reforms’ with a phased roll-out timetabled between 2022 and 2024. The focus here is on improved customer service and the introduction of a brand new sponsorship IT system. The precise details of these reforms are yet to be determined, but the end goal is to make it far easier and faster for UK employers to access overseas talent, and simpler for sponsors to understand their licence and what actions they need to take through a more user-friendly system.
Customer service reforms
The proposals are only broadly outlined to date but the customer service reforms planned over the course of the next couple of years include:
- A review of Home Office service standards, with a view to delivering a faster end-to-end customer journey from the application for a sponsor licence through to approval. Prior to the introduction of the Home Office priority service, sponsor licence applications would typically take up to eight weeks to be decided.
- More detailed research with various different organisations to understand and address the barriers that may prevent SMEs from applying for a sponsor licence in the first place, with a view to delivering the right support package for prospective sponsors.
- A shorter, simplified service for compliant ‘straightforward’ applicants. To this end, sponsor licence renewal patterns will be reviewed by the Home Office, which may mean certain sponsors will no longer need to renew their licence every 4 years.
IT system reforms
The build of the new online system is to be broken up into three key stages and rolled out to a limited cross-section of businesses, before gradually increasing the volume of users. The Home Office aim to have all licensed employers on the new system by early 2024:
- Sponsor a visa: this initial IT package, set for mid-2022, aims to deliver a streamlined customer journey for existing sponsors. It will provide the functionality to invite prospective recruits to make their visa application once their role details have been approved. It will also pre-populate that application with information provided by the sponsor, removing duplication of data entry to make the process quicker and simpler for the applicant.
- Manage a licence: the second IT package, set for the end of 2022, aims to deliver an improved sponsorship management system (SMS) for sponsors to carry out post-licence activities. The new SMS will include better functionality for notifying sponsor changes, as well as a sponsored migrant worker dashboard with key information about their status with prompts to action. The Home Office is also changing the way it collects and shares data with other government departments, including automatic checks against data held by HMRC and Companies House, to help improve understanding about sponsors and workers.
- Become a sponsor: the third and final IT package, set for early 2023, aims to make it easier for prospective sponsors to apply for a sponsor licence. It will introduce automatic checks to verify key information about employers and individuals employed by the organisation. This will reduce and simplify the evidential requirements placed on prospective sponsors, reduce casework processing times, and minimise the potential for abuse.
Implications for employers
The long-term ambition set out by the Home Office in the sponsorship roadmap is to deliver a digital, simplified and modern system, one that will enable employers to have a migrant worker ready to start work in the UK faster than in any other G20 country.
Whilst the Home Office is optimistic about its efforts so far to simplify and streamline the sponsorship process, it’s too early to say if the sponsorship reforms will successfully meet the needs of system users. A great deal of complex technical work is still required to deliver the proposed new streamlined user journey. That said, the Home Office is promising that the future design and delivery process is set to be accompanied by an engagement strategy, including customer feedback from external stakeholders — where the Home Office at least recognises the need to work collaboratively with new and prospective sponsors to help ensure the system is a success.
What is clear, however, is that compliance will remain central to the approach to sponsorship. Key protections for workers will continue to be monitored by the Home Office via compliance visits, with a particular focus on sponsors who present a higher risk of non-compliance or who have no track record of compliance, and the transformed sponsorship system will make greater use of technology and data sharing to identify abuse. The Home Office will also retain the power to impose sanctions for breaches, such as managed action plans, conditions or limits on recruitment, or sponsor licence suspension and revocation.
The Home Office promises much over the next three years, some of which could really help sponsors to better understand and navigate the sponsorship system. If the promised reforms come to fruition, it’s also likely that employers will reap the benefits of quicker access to overseas talent. Still, in the meantime, any employer who is looking to sponsor a migrant worker must continue to endure the current delays and complexities of the existing process, and ensure compliance with their post-licence duties using the SMS.
DavidsonMorris are UK business immigration specialists. We support employers with all aspects of corporate immigration to meet their UK talent needs through international recruitment and global mobility. By seeking expert advice from an immigration specialist at the earliest possible opportunity, prospective and existing sponsors can maximise the chances of a successful licence application outcome and better understand the actions that they need to take right now. For advice and guidance for your organisation, contact us.
UK sponsorship reforms FAQs
What is UK sponsorship?
UK sponsorship refers to the process of obtaining permission from the Home Office to employ someone to work for you from outside the UK. Following the end of free movement between the UK and EU, this includes EEA nationals.
How much does it cost to sponsor someone for a job in the UK?
There are various costs involved in sponsoring a migrant worker, including a sponsor licence fee (depending on the size of the organisation), the cost of assigning a Certificate of Sponsorship and, where applicable, an Immigration Skills Charge.
How long does it take to get a sponsor licence?
Most sponsor licence applications are dealt with in less than 8 weeks, although it may be possible to pay for a faster decision. However, in some cases, the Home Office may need to first conduct a pre-licence compliance visit.
Last updated: 9 September 2021