Immigration issues can sometimes be neglected or overlooked altogether but there are good reasons why businesses should pay close attention to this area. Some of the key issues to consider are:
Businesses which already hold a sponsor licence need to ensure they maintain them. Sponsor licence holders are subject to onerous record-keeping and reporting obligations and the Home Office may audit them at any time to check their compliance. Where significant failings are found the sponsor licence can be revoked altogether. Alternatively, the sponsor licence may be downgraded and the sponsor may be placed on an action plan.
Ensuring that the business has the correct HR and record keeping processes in place to demonstrate its compliance is critical. In many cases sponsor compliance issues are not thought about when changes to the business occur – e.g. changes to premises, corporate structural changes and redundancies. All of these can have a serious impact on the sponsor licence and/or sponsored workers and it’s important to consider any immigration angle early on.
With recruitment being a major issue for many industries at the moment, including the life sciences sector, those who do not already hold a sponsor licence should consider obtaining one to enable them to sponsor non-UK/non-Irish nationals in skilled roles.
Fee increases on the horizon
Significant fee increases are looming and should be taken into account for any immigration/sponsorship budgets for the coming year. Where immigration applications can be submitted slightly earlier this could be an option to avoid the hike in fees. In particular:
- Immigration application fees for many work and visit visas are due to rise by at least 15% from 4 October 2023. Some increases are significantly more – for example, the overseas priority service fee is due to rise from £250 to £500 per application.
- The Immigration Health Surcharge is also due to rise from £624 per year to £1,035 per year in 2024 (though no specific implementation date has yet been given).
In the post-Brexit era, European nationals can be at particular risk of breaching UK immigration laws by entering as a visitor and carrying out activities that are not permitted under the visit rules. Visitors are generally limited to certain permitted activities such as attending meetings and site visits. Immigration permission is usually required if the individual will be working or studying in the UK or if they will be undertaking an internship or work experience placement.
Helpfully, there are additional permitted business activities for scientists and researchers who are able to come to the UK as a visitor to gather information for a specific project relating to their overseas employment, or to share knowledge or advise on an international project that is being led from the UK (provided they are not carrying out the research from the UK).
UK companies which host overseas visitors can be at risk if that individual is effectively working for them in the UK and could incur civil penalties for employing someone who does not have immigration permission (due to rise from £20,000 to £60,000 per worker in early 2024), as well as reputational damage (as civil penalties are listed publicly) and, where relevant, sponsor compliance action may also be taken.
Similarly, for UK companies hosting interns or offering someone work experience (paid or unpaid) it’s important to check that this is possible before offering the internship.
Where the proposed intern does not already have the right to work in the UK, the company is likely to have to use the Government Authorised Exchange route to bring the intern to the UK.
This usually entails the company registering with an overarching sponsor and that overarching sponsor then requests a certificate of sponsorship for the proposed intern. The individual then needs to submit their immigration application from overseas and this must be approved before they can travel to the UK and start the internship.
This immigration route can only be used for paid internships. Furthermore, the lead times to obtain the certificate of sponsorship (which can vary according to the different overarching sponsors) and the immigration leave should be taken into account. It’s a good idea to start looking into the process three to six months ahead of the internship start date.
It’s worth putting immigration on the agenda as early consideration of these issues can save time and money. Ensuring the flow of key staff to work in the UK is critical and can be stymied by immigration issues that arise if not properly considered. It can also put the UK employer at risk of sponsor compliance action and/or significant civil penalties.
Our life sciences team has extensive experience advising businesses in the sector on immigration issues, and we would be delighted to answer any questions you may have.