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Skilled Worker Sponsor Licence

Skilled Worker Sponsor Licence (formerly known as Tier 2 sponsor licence) allows UK-based companies to employ skilled workers who are based overseas or within the UK (applicants can “switch” into the Skilled Worker visa from most other visa types, for example, Tier 4 Student and Tier 2 visas).

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The Skilled Worker visa is a sponsorship system: a foreign worker cannot simply apply for this visa unaided. Applicants need a job offer from an organisation holding a skilled worker sponsor licence willing to employ them before they can apply.

The first step is for the would-be employer to secure a Skilled Worker sponsor licence. This enables them to issue “certificates of sponsorship” (virtual work permits, in simple terms) to applicants so they can get their visas.

What kind of sponsor licences are there?

There’s actually a plethora of possible sponsor licences that a non-educational organisation can apply for, reflecting the different types of sponsored work visas:

Eligibility criteria

The eligibility criteria are pretty straightforward. The would-be sponsor has to submit evidence to show that it is a genuine employer with a lawful trading presence in the UK. I’ll give some examples in the next section.

Suitability criteria

The suitability criteria is a much broader assessment. The Home Office will look at whether the organisation is “honest, dependable, reliable”, and capable of meeting the responsibilities that it expects from sponsors. The department will check the following (adapted from paragraph L8.5 of the guidance):

  • That the sponsor has the human resource and recruitment systems in place to meet, or continue to meet their sponsor duties — the Home Office will judge this by either visiting the sponsor before or after the licence is granted
  • That the Home Office are able to visit and conduct checks to ensure that the sponsor duties are being complied with on an immediate, unannounced basis; this includes checks at any physical addresses where the sponsored employees would carry out their employment duties
  • That the sponsor can offer a genuine vacancy which meets the criteria of the category the sponsor is applying to be licensed for
  • If any of the key personnel within the business have an unspent criminal conviction for a relevant offence
  • Any evidence of the previous non-compliance by the sponsor

This is vitally important, as sponsorship is a two-way street. In the paternalistic eyes of the Home Office, a sponsor is benefitting from employing migrant workers, and so must shoulder some of the burdens in ensuring the system is not abused. The Home Office makes clear in its guidance that “sponsorship is a privilege, not a right” and wants to be reassured that sponsors can live up to the “significant trust” that the department places in them.

Putting aside the condescending overtones, it is important that your client understands this. Failure to do so has serious consequences (more on this below).

Genuine vacancy

A familiar refrain that is peppered throughout the guidance is the need for a sponsor to demonstrate that they can offer “genuine employment” that meets the skill and salary thresholds of the Skilled Worker route. The Home Office will assess whether a business truly needs the role they are wishing to sponsor, by examining the business type and the people they already employ to see if the sponsored role makes sense within their current structure.

Sponsors should also take note that the Home Office will consider the degree to which someone is required to attend a place of work as part of their job, implying that remote working will be taken into account when assessing whether a role is genuine. The Home Office will have to accept that it cannot require businesses and workers to meet overbearing rules that are out of step with current workplace practices.

What documents do I need to send in to meet the general eligibility criteria?

The answer lies within Appendix A: supporting documents for sponsor licence application. Appendix A is split into four tables. It is easiest to go through them, in turn, to see if you can find the documents which fit your client.

For instance, table 1 confirms that a public authority or a company listed on the London Stock Exchange does not have to submit documents other than those specific to the licence they are applying for. Table 2 covers start-ups (organisations that have been trading for less than 18 months), as well as franchises and charities. Table 3 lists the specific evidence that needs to be sent for a particular tier.

Table 4 then lists all the other possible documents you could provide, one of which must be the latest set of audited accounts if the organisation is legally obliged to submit them.

In my experience, the average private limited company tends to find the following easiest to find, although this is very much case by case:

  • Evidence that the sponsor has coverage for employer’s liability insurance up to £5 million
  • Certificate of VAT registration
  • Evidence of registration as an employer with HM Revenue and Custom
  • Recent bank statement or a letter from the bank setting out dealings with the organisation
  • Proof of ownership or lease of the business premises

Specific evidence required for a Skilled Worker visa

Most of the visa-specific documents are covered in table 3 of Appendix A. But for reasons which remain mysterious, the specific documents required for the Skilled Worker route are listed near the start of Appendix A.

Alongside some basic information about the organisation, the role they want to fill and the candidate they have in mind, the organisation must also tell the Home Office why they are applying for a licence. With the Resident Labour Market Test now consigned to the Immigration Rules graveyard, this does not require a sponsor to necessarily go through an advertising process or even have a candidate or role in mind. The Home Office will accept applications from businesses that simply anticipate a sponsorship need. However, it is best to err on the side of caution and put forward as much evidence as can be gathered to support your case which may include presenting the results of a recruitment process.

Key personnel for the licence

The Home Office also requires the organisation to nominate certain individuals to take on roles in respect of the sponsor licence.  The people nominated must be primarily based in the UK. The main roles are:

  • authorising officer –  perhaps the most important of all the roles, this should be given to someone senior. Ideally, it should be someone who has some involvement with recruitment and/or HR as they will be ultimately responsible for the licence and ensuring that the sponsor licence duties are met.
  • key contact –  this person is the main point of contact with the Home Office.  A legal representative can undertake this role, and it is recommended you do so, as this will enable you to chase the application on your client’s behalf if needs be.
  • level 1 user –  responsible for all day-to-day management of the licence via access to an online portal, the sponsorship management system (SMS). At the application stage this has to be an employee but once the licence is secured, others, including representatives, can be set up as level 1 users, or level 2 users who are able to undertake certain limited tasks on the SMS.

It is important to carefully consider whether anyone nominated has skeletons in the closet, particularly any criminal conduct or previous adverse involvement with the Home Office. Applications for sponsor licences can be refused due to the character and past behaviour of the key personnel. The Home Office can and will run its own checks on nominees.

What about the suitability criteria?

This is more complex, I’m afraid. Essentially the Home Office will want to be sure that the organisation and the key personnel are bona fide.

Specifically, they will want to know that the organisation has the HR or recruitment systems in place to meet the myriad sponsorship duties that an employer effectively signs up to when they become a sponsor. These are set out in Part 3 of the guidance for sponsors.

Sponsorship Duties

Sponsorship duties include reporting certain information about sponsored workers via the sponsorship management system. The report must be made within ten working days of the event occurring. Reportable events include a delay in a start date or a change in work location for a Skilled Worker.

They also include keeping detailed records on sponsored workers, such as contracts of employment, salary details and evidence that a vacancy is genuine. Further details on this can be found in Appendix D: keeping records for sponsorship.

The duties are certainly burdensome, and in some cases entirely pointless. One particularly irksome duty is to report when a worker has changed their immigration category — for instance, when they have been granted indefinite leave to remain after holding a Tier 2 (General)/Skilled Worker visa for five years. It is maddening to be required to report something the Home Office already knows.

Compliance visits

In particular, sponsors should be warned that the Home Office can visit them as part of the sponsor licence application process to check that their systems are robust enough. This is the principal method by which the Home Office can assess the suitability criteria.

Pre-licence visits are due to start again shortly after a hiatus from the pandemic. They will usually occur if the application is deemed high risk in some way, or if the sponsoring company is newly formed.

Even if they avoid a visit during the application process, a sponsor can be inspected by the Home Office at any point while they remain a sponsor licence holder.

During a visit, the inspector will want to check the sponsor’s HR systems and speak to the authorising officer. They can also request to interview sponsored employees to ensure that the vacancy they have filled is a genuine one.

This puts the worker at risk of losing their job and their right to remain in the UK, not to mention operational and reputational damage for the employer.

Spending some time with your client during the application process, checking their policies and systems to see if they can meet the standards that are expected of them, is a useful exercise. You can then spot and iron out any deficiencies which could come back to haunt them in the future.

How do I actually submit the application?

You will have to grapple with an online application form specific to sponsor licensing, which crashes regularly and is badly in need of an update.

It then asks for the key personnel on the licence and which supporting documents you are going to provide to meet the eligibility criteria, as discussed above.

A legal representative can help a sponsor to complete the form but the Home Office guidance is clear that it must ultimately be submitted by the sponsor. If you can’t be with the client when they submit it, you can prepare the form and pass on the login details for them to press submit themselves.

Once the online form is submitted, a fee is paid depending on the size of the organisation: £536 for a small company or a charity and £1,476 for a medium or large company.

Then a submission sheet is generated which previously had to be printed off and signed by the authorising officer. The Home Office will now accept a pdf and a digital signature.

You then have five working days from the point of submission to send your bundle of supporting evidence to the Home Office.

When do I get a decision?

Decisions can take up to eight weeks but tend to come through within four to six weeks. Always with an eye on ways to make an extra buck, the Home Office has recently introduced a service to expedite a sponsor licence application for an extra fee of £500 which will ensure an application is decided within 10 working days. Predictably this has seen waiting times for applications submitted via the standard service slip, so if you are on a deadline you may have to stump up the extra cash.

Details on how to use the expedited service are emailed once the application is submitted. Only a limited number of applications will be expedited per day so prepare to set a timed email to go out at midnight to stand any chance of being accepted.

The sponsor will be emailed with the result of the application and if successful they will be granted a licence valid for four years from the date of the decision. This will usually be an “A-rated licence” which means they will be granted access to the sponsor management system via login details for the nominated user. The organisation will then have the ability to start sponsoring workers.

If the application is refused, there is no right to appeal against this decision and a six-month cooling-off period will kick in. This prevents the sponsor from making another application during this time period.

How Our Immigration Advisers Can Help Skilled Worker Visa Applicants

Our immigration advisers have experience in assisting foreign skilled workers and employers with skilled worker sponsor licences, certificates of sponsorship, and skilled worker visa applications.  Our advisers are experts in immigration options and will guide you through the complex Home Office rules and policies.

We pride ourselves on being approachable and proactive in understanding and meeting our client’s needs. We are a highly driven team, dedicated to providing clear and reliable immigration advice to clients as part of a professional and friendly service.

Skilled Worker Sponsor Licence (formerly known as Tier 2 sponsor licence) allows UK-based companies to employ skilled workers who are based overseas or within the UK (applicants can “switch” into the Skilled Worker visa from most other visa types, for example, Tier 4 Student and Tier 2 visas).

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