ArticleSponsor Licence pitfalls in UK’s care sector

In the wake of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s illuminating report, the UK’s immigration system, particularly its handling of the social care sector, is under critical scrutiny. Spanning August to November 2023, the report, a mere seven weeks in the making, exposes significant lapses within the sponsor licence process and the subsequent compliance issues, albeit with a glimmer of hope as the Home Office implements rectifying measures.

The report unveils a stark unpreparedness within the Home Office for the surge in care visa applications. With a prediction of 6,000 to 40,000 applications, the figure reached a staggering 146,182, including dependants, between February 2022 and October 2023. More troubling is the revelation of sponsor licences being granted without adequate checks. One alleged care home managed to secure 275 certificates of sponsorship, with 181 used for visa applications, raising serious concerns about the genuineness of the operations.

The narrative deepens with the discovery of a company, initially deemed low-risk, which failed to comply with sponsor duties and engaged in unauthorised labour outsourcing. Adding to the complexity, a director with a history of legal transgressions sought a fresh licence for a new business, highlighting gaps in the Home Office’s decision-making framework and criteria.

As of October 2023, the Home Office has shown proactive steps, seeking additional evidence from employers at the licensing and allocation stages. This includes requests for detailed contracts with local authorities to substantiate the need for workers. However, the report indicates that this may be too little, too late, as individuals have arrived in the UK with non-existent job prospects.

With 94,704 sponsors registered by November 2023, the compliance team, plagued by staffing shortages, has struggled to keep pace. The inefficiency is underscored by an instance of an officer travelling from the southwest of England to Inverness for a compliance visit. The daunting number of 2,157 visits conducted within a year, with 80% uncovering non-compliance, paints a grim picture of the current state of affairs.

The sector’s view contrasts sharply with the Home Office’s self-assessment of engagement quality. While the Home Office claims extensive outreach, stakeholders lament a lack of genuine dialogue and attentiveness to their needs and concerns. The inability to inform local authorities about suspended or revoked sponsor licenses further exacerbates the disconnect.

Caseworkers encountering modern slavery cases daily highlight the dire need for effective safeguarding mechanisms. Debt bondage, labour exploitation, and abuse are prevalent, prompting the establishment of processes to expedite action against high-risk employers and to vet applicants’ genuineness.

Recommendation for change

The report concludes with five recommendations, including a comprehensive review of the route, the sponsor licensing process, compliance mechanisms, a collaborative memorandum of understanding with regulatory partners, and a guide for migrants on UK employment rights. The Home Office, while accepting these recommendations, suggests that many of these actions were already underway.

A complex future ahead

With changes effective 11 March 2024, preventing care workers from bringing dependants, the Home Office anticipates improvements to the route. However, clarity is needed on how these changes will tangibly reduce exploitation risks and bolster the system’s integrity.

The report, thus, serves as a crucial wake-up call for the Home Office, underscoring the need for immediate and effective reforms to safeguard the interests of migrants, employers, and the broader social care sector in the UK.

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