Brexit and immigration: got your sponsor licence?
The new immigration landscape follows the end of free movement between the UK and EEA countries (EU plus Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and for these purposes, Switzerland). It came into force at 11:00pm on 31 December 2020.
If you are a UK employer who regularly recruits EEA nationals, or will need to rely on EEA workers (or other non UK based workers) in the future, then you will need to consider applying for a sponsor licence. You will also need to be aware of the effects on the right to work checks necessary for all employees that these changes will bring.
Do you need a sponsor licence?
Sponsor licences have previously permitted UK employers to recruit skilled workers from non-EEA countries but as of 1 January 2021, all employers will need to apply for a sponsor licence if they need to recruit EEA nationals and non-EEA nationals alike. Any business that is a genuine UK employer operating lawfully in the UK can apply for a licence; once they obtain a licence it will be valid for 4 years before it will need to be renewed.
Employers applying for a sponsor licence will need to satisfy all eligibility requirements and following approval, will need to continue meeting these requirements (which includes regular reporting to the Home Office) throughout the licence period.
What about EEA nationals already in the UK?
Employers can still employ EEA nationals without holding a sponsor licence but only if the individual they wish to hire was residing in the UK on or before 31 December 2020. If this criteria is met, then the employer will still need to carry out the necessary right to work checks. All EEA nationals residing in the UK prior to 31 December 2020 are eligible to apply for settlement in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme. The deadline to apply is 30 June 2021.
When should companies apply for a sponsor licence?
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have recommended that companies apply for a licence as soon as possible to ensure their licence is obtained in good time prior to any need to recruit EEA nationals or non-EEA nationals. Applications usually take between 8-10 weeks to be considered, however the pandemic has caused unpredictable delays to the process.
Employers wishing to apply will need to complete an online form and compile specific documentary evidence in support of the application; the documents required depend on the type of organisation applying. The evidence must be submitted 5 days after the application date or the company will risk having to start the process again. If an application has been refused by UKVI, companies may be subject to a 'cooling off' period of 6 to 12 months before a new application can be made.
What steps should employers be taking?
Employers should consider applying for a sponsor licence early in 2021 if they wish to recruit non UK nationals including EEA nationals not resident in the UK prior to 31 December 2020. It is also possible for employers to apply for a licence if they merely suspect that they might need to recruit from beyond the UK workforce in the future. If employers want to recruit EEA Nationals resident in the UK prior to 31 December, they should continue to carry out right to work checks in the usual way. From 1 July 2021, employers will need to see proof of immigration status either under the EU Settlement Scheme or a different route under the new immigration system that came into force in December 2020.
The Home Office has recommended that all employers publicise the EU Settlement Scheme widely amongst their staff.