Whilst everyone's attention has been focused on COVID-19 for the last few weeks, the Brexit transition period is due to end at the end of the calendar year. The new immigration rules are set to come into force as planned on 1 January 2021: so employers need to prepare for that notwithstanding the business interruptions of COVID-19.

From 1 January 2021, employers will need to have a sponsor licence in place in order to sponsor European nationals and their family members (who were previously exempt from sponsorship requirements). European nationals already in the UK by 31 December 2020 who can apply through the settlement scheme will not require to be sponsored under the new rules - but new entrants will.

Although many larger employers will already have a sponsor licence in place and will be familiar with the sponsorship process, many small to medium sized employers will not have needed one before and may need to get to grips with the process.

Employers who have medium or highly skilled jobs starting with a salary of £20,480 may require a sponsor licence. If you are in doubt if this applies to you, please contact us for advice.

Below are our top tips for employers who need to apply for a sponsor licence:

Apply early and no later than summer 2020

UKVI processes around 80% of applications within 8 weeks of receiving the paperwork. In some cases it can take a few weeks to pull together the supporting documents needed for a licence application. Some applications take longer than 8 weeks to process and in some cases a compliance check is required before a sponsor licence is granted: therefore apply early and do not delay.

We would recommend that you apply no later than the summer of 2020 if you want to have your licence in place in time to apply under the new rules when applications open in the autumn. Delays may be possible due to COVID-19 as we expect that UKVI may have a backlog of applications to process.

Identify who should be the 'Authorising Officer' named on the sponsor licence and provide them with training on compliance obligations and their responsibilities

The Authorising Officer should be the most senior person responsible for the recruitment of all migrant workers and ensuring that all of your sponsor duties are met. You should ensure that they fully understand the importance of the role, which usually involves training on the sponsor management system and the compliance obligations that apply. Brodies provide online training to Authorising Officers and other users of the sponsor management system.

Audit your HR record keeping processes and consider what additional information you need to hold on file to comply with UKVI requirements

UKVI guidance requires employers to hold various documents on file for migrant workers. This information must be up to date and available for inspection in the event of a compliance check by UKVI. Consider what is needed in relation to record keeping in advance of applying for a sponsor licence so that you can demonstrate that these processes are in place.

Consider how you will comply with UKVI reporting requirements

UKVI require various matters to be reported to them – sometimes within as little as 10 working days. Some of these are HR related matters and some relate to changes to your organisation. Allocate responsibility for complying with these reporting requirements to specific individuals and ensure that those tasked with this are trained about what to report. Put a process in place to ensure that timescales are met. In some cases where line managers may become aware of reportable changes and HR may not know about these matters, consider whether a policy or line manager guidance may be needed to ensure that these requirements can be complied with and that HR are informed timeously of any reportable changes.

Put in place an Illegal Working policy and spot check your HR files to check if you are missing any illegal working checks / have any gaps

UKVI can take enforcement action against a sponsor if it does not have in place appropriate specific HR Processes to comply with illegal working laws or if there are compliance breaches associated with illegal working. Many employers consider that they have comprehensive records but from our experience, there are often gaps in practice if an audit is carried out. Having a diary system in place for follow up checks is important. We recommend that you put in place a written Illegal Working policy and carry out an internal audit of your procedures.

Organise supporting documents for the licence application before you apply

There are strict timescales in place to submit supporting documents with the sponsor licence application. This paperwork must generally be an original document or a copy which is certified by a solicitor. Take advice on these requirements before submitting your paperwork and have this ready before pressing submit on your online application.

For details of assistance that we can provide on HR compliance processes, audits, training and in applying for a sponsor licence, please get in touch.