The government has released details of its sponsorship “roadmap” for employers recruiting skilled workers from abroad. This follows on from the publication of its New Plan for Immigration back in March 2021. The new roadmap sets out the Home Office’s proposals for long-overdue “radical changes” to the sponsorship system, which will come into effect over the next three years. It promises to create a simpler and streamlined service, which – in theory – should be easier to navigate and substantially reduce the sheer time and effort it currently takes to employ an overseas national in a sponsored role.
Progress so far
As well as offering insight into the plan for upcoming changes, the roadmap highlights progress made since 1 December 2020. This includes
- removal of the Resident Labour Market Test
- suspension of the cap on skilled workers
- introduction of the pre-licence priority service
- a paperless sponsor licence application process, and
- redesign of guidance for sponsors.
The Home Office claims that these changes have resulted in the processing times for recruiting an overseas national being reduced by up to eight weeks. There has been a global pandemic going on, though, so that might conceivably also have had an impact.
In practice, the removal of the Resident Labour Market Test means we are likely to see a greater emphasis on compliance monitoring. The frequency of Home Office visits to business premises may therefore rise. As to the priority service, this has proven difficult to secure with extremely limited availability (not submitting a request within seconds of 9.00am can make all the difference!). The redesigning of the sponsor guidance has also been met with some frustration. Moving from an extremely large single document to numerous merely very large documents does not make the process any easier for an employer to navigate and in fact demands a greater number of “clicks”.
Whilst the Home Office is optimistic about its efforts so far to simplify and streamline the sponsorship process, it is too early to judge it a success from an actual user’s point of view.
Upcoming in 2021
The roadmap sets out a number of upcoming changes to the current sponsorship system which will be delivered by the end of 2021.
The Home Office is looking to simplify the supporting evidence required to become a sponsor with a view to speeding up the end-to-end processing of applications. This would be welcomed given the time it can take to collate the documents in a Home-Office approved format, particularly for start ups and smaller businesses.
The Home Office also plans to set up a new support service for small and micro businesses. The details are not yet known but one would hope that this does not require additional ‘premium sponsor’ fees for access to such a service.
A new Skilled Worker eligibility checking tool will also be introduced to make it easier for employers and workers to check whether a particular job is eligible under the Skilled Worker route.
In terms of compliance reforms, the Home Office will pilot a new salary check mechanism, in conjunction with HMRC, to verify that employees are being paid the amount specified by their employer during the application process. Not all employees will be paid using PAYE for various reasons so it will be important for the Home Office to ensure these checks do not result in its software generating an automatic compliance breach and instead provides an employer with an alternative way to evidence salary payments.
Finally, the Home Office will be conducting a review of its fees to ensure they remain “fair” as the new system is rolled out. Given that historically we have seen an increase in fees, it would be surprising, even for the smaller businesses, if the result would be a reduction in existing fees.
The outlook for 2022 and beyond
The Home Office plans to implement a range of technological and system reforms between 2022 and 2024 with the intention of creating, so the Home Office says, a faster and simpler end-to-end journey for sponsors and workers, with a more user-friendly system and less bureaucracy. The focus of the reforms is on customer service, IT, compliance and the Home Office’s engagement strategy. The new system will be extended to student sponsorship and a separate document is expected to be published at a future date.
Customer service reforms
There will be a quicker simplified service for compliant ‘straightforward’ sponsors. To this end, the Home Office will be reviewing licence renewal patterns meaning certain sponsors will no longer need to renew their sponsor licence every four years.
The Home Office is also reviewing its service standards with a view to delivering improvements by Spring 2022. Its aim is to deliver a faster end-to-end journey from sponsor licence application to approval. Prior to the introduction of the priority service, sponsor licence applications would typically take up to eight weeks to be processed, often being processed much quicker than this. Applicants are currently seeing delays which, in part, may be due to the rise in applications. It will be interesting to see how the situation progresses by early 2022.
The Home Office is also carrying out research into the barriers facing SMEs applying for a sponsor licence in order to deliver the right support package. As well as the overhaul of the Sponsor Management System (SMS), we hope this includes a review of fees, the hefty sponsor guidance materials, and making the sponsorship requirements more accessible.
A potentially exciting development for those beaten down by the SMS and application woes are the IT reforms. The changes will be delivered in three stages, with each phase being rolled out to a test group of SMEs and larger employers before gradually being extended to a larger cohort. The Home Office anticipates that it will take two years to implement the new IT system, with all sponsors being transferred to the new system by early 2024.
Phase 1: Sponsor a visa
The first stage will be delivered in mid-2022 and aims to implement a streamlined “customer journey” for sponsors. Once the details of a sponsored worker’s role have been approved by the Home Office, the worker will be invited to submit their immigration application. The worker’s application will then be pre-populated with information previously submitted by the employer, removing duplication of data entry.
Phase 2: Manage a licence
The second stage to be delivered by the end of 2022 will introduce an improved online SMS for sponsors. The revised SMS will include a sponsored worker dashboard with key information about a worker’s status and actions that need to be taken. A significant change will be the way the Home Office collects and shares data with other government departments. The Home Office plans to implement automatic checks against data based on information held by other departments, such as Companies House and HMRC. This may create huge issues for sponsors if the information held by other departments is incorrect or has not been updated, particularly given the time it can often take for reported changes to be made.
Phase 3: Become a sponsor
The final phase will be delivered in early 2023 and will introduce automatic checks to verify key information about a prospective sponsor and whether certain key personnel are employed by, or are office holders of, a sponsored organisation. Prospective sponsors are not currently required to provide evidence of this as part of the application so it would be useful to know how this is currently being verified, if at all.
Compliance checks under the new system will largely reflect those under the current system; however, the Home Office has said its compliance visits will target sponsors who present a higher risk of non-compliance or who have no track record of compliance. It is important that the Home Office provides guidance on which sponsors it deems at higher risk, not only to ensure fairness in its assessment but also to put sponsors on notice. The new salary checks will also be a way of checking employees are being paid as required and discrepancies may trigger a visit. Again, given that certain sponsors will not typically use PAYE, and are not required to, it will be important to ensure systems in place to avoid potential discrimination.
The new system is to be accompanied by a ‘comprehensive’ engagement strategy that will inform its design and implementation. This will include customer feedback from external stakeholders, including premium sponsors, SMEs, education organisations, and advisory groups.
Global Business Mobility route
In its strategy statement for the New Plan for Immigration, the government announced the launch of a single, sponsored Global Business Mobility route in Spring 2022 that will merge, reform and expand several existing sponsored worker categories. Rather than creating something new, this sounds more like an umbrella term under which to group and revise existing work routes, such as the Intra Company Transfer route.
A success for the Home Office?
The Home Office promises much over the next few years, some of which could really help sponsors and workers to better understand and navigate the immigration system. However, we have historically seen that Home Office changes tend to bring a host of new unintended issues. Automated checks rely on information being accurate and up-to-date. Creating better sponsorship navigation tools for “straightforward” sponsors lends itself to a two-tier system, leaving some sponsors without the right support. Fewer pieces of supporting evidence for applications is also encouraging but needs to ensure that this does not favour larger existing companies over start-ups, smaller businesses or those with non-traditional business models.
Time will tell but in the meantime, we are being hopeful but cautious…