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Chief Inspector’s report on the social care sector finds issues with sponsor licences and compliance

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The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s report An inspection of the immigration system as it relates to the social care sector’ has been published and has identified some serious shortcomings in the sponsor licence process for the sector, while noting that the Home Office has started putting systems in place to address some of these. The inspection covered the period August to November 2023 and was published just seven weeks after it was sent to the Home Secretary.

Sponsor licences

It seems that the Home Office was unprepared for the popularity of the care visa when first introduced. Forecast data had predicted there would be 6,000 to 40,000 applications on the Health and Care Worker route [3.23], whereas from 1 February 2022 to 31 October 2023 146,182 care worker applications were granted (including dependants).  

Issues were reported with sponsor licences being issued without proper checks. At 7.50 the report states that one company purporting to be a care home had obtained 275 certificates of sponsorship, 181 of which were then used to obtain a visa. Border Force subsequently raised concerns with them about those arriving to work for this employer. On investigation, it was found out that the care home whose details had been used to get the sponsor licence had no knowledge of it [7.49].

In its response to the report, the Home Office confirms that this is correct, while complaining about slight inaccuracies in newspaper coverage of this. The report points out that a result of poor decision making at this stage is that people have arrived in the UK to find that no work is actually available to them.

In another example, a company was issued a sponsor licence and was described by the Home Office caseworker as low risk. That licence was issued in December 2020 and suspended in September 2022 for failure to comply with its sponsor duties and for supplying workers to a third party as labour. The director of this company applied for a fresh licence for a new business in October 2023 and the proposed authorising officer had previously been convicted of illegally facilitating the entry of a large number of migrants while working at the Home Office and sentenced to prison.

It appears that the Home Office was unclear on whether this application could be refused outright, suggesting that a visit may be needed before a decision was made [7.36]. Indeed, Home Office managers told inspectors that the requirements and criteria in the guidance was not robust enough to allow refusals even where there were significant concerns [7.45].

The report said that by October 2023 the Home Office had started to address some of these issues and was asking for more evidence from employers at the licensing and allocations stages. For example, asking employers to demonstrate the need for workers by providing copies of the contract they had with local authorities to provide care [7.42]. In November 2023 Home Office officials told ministers that they would be bearing down on non-genuine sponsor licence applications [3.16].

Compliance

Despite a substantial increase in the number of sponsors on the register, which was 94,704 on 30 November 2023, up from 32,264 at the end of December 2020, the compliance team did not have an increase in staff and also had issues with recruitment and retention. The lack of staff led to inefficiencies such as an officer travelling from the south west of England to Inverness to carry out a visit [1.8].

Between 1 August 2022 and 31 July 2023 2,157 compliance visits had been carried out, 388 of which were to employers in the health and social care sector [10.46]. Of those visit that had been completed, 80% found that the sponsor had not met their duties.

Engagement with stakeholders

The report also highlighted concerns raised by stakeholders about the quality of engagement with the Home Office, with 27 of the 60 responses describing this as a concern [6.5]. The report noted that “There was a marked contrast between the Home Office’s and social care sector’s view of the quality of Home Office communication and engagement. Many in the sector felt the Home Office ‘told’ stakeholders what they should do, rather than actively listening to the sector’s needs and concerns” [1.3].

The Home Office response did little to dispel that view, stating: “we believe that the reality has been, and continues to be, substantial engagement with the care sector. Between January 2022 and November 2023, the Home Office delivered 44 external events to 3,760 attendees from private care providers, the NHS and care sector bodies.” There is an obvious and clear difference between delivering an event and actively listening to and engaging with stakeholders, particularly when we see report after report from the sector making recommendations that seem to be ignored.

Local authorities reported not being told when a sponsor licence was suspended or revoked, which inhibited their ability to check on the workers and those they were caring for [6.8]. The Home Office’s response to this was that they should check the register of licensed sponsors, an Excel spreadsheet updated almost daily, with over 94,000 entries, to see whether an organisation no longer appeared on there [6.36].

Safeguarding

Unsurprisingly given the widely recognised fact of exploitation of migrant care worker, caseworkers described identifying cases of modern slavery on a daily basis [9.3]. The lack of safeguarding was the top issue reported by stakeholders and included debt bondage, labour exploitation and physical and sexual abuse. In August 2023 a new ‘sponsor of concern’ process was created to speed up the suspension and revocation of licences held by high risk employers, particularly those set up recently and where a significant number of certificates of sponsorship had been granted [9.6].

Another change made to address concerns was a rule change on 7 August 2023 requiring the applicant to genuinely intend to undertake the role, be capable of doing it, and does not intend to carry out other employment [9.18]. The Home Office established a ‘Genuineness Team’ to assess cases where concerns had been raised [9.21]. It was acknowledge by caseworkers that debt bondage concerns in particular were difficult to evidence because people know that raising concerns will put their leave at risk [9.24].

Recommendations

Five recommendations were made:

  1. Carry out a review of the route as committed to in the Equality Impact Assessment dated January 2022 (which said this would be done in February 2023 [3.14])
  2. Carry out a review of the sponsor licensing application and decision making process
  3. Conduct for each area covering compliance, including headcount, performance targets and processes
  4. Agree a multi-partner memorandum of understanding with enforcement and regulatory partners that defines responsibilities, goals and working together
  5. Produce a concise ‘migrant’s guide to UK employment rights’ that will be proactively shared with migrants as soon as possible

Conclusion

The Home Office accepted all five of the recommendations but said that they were going to take those actions anyway. The introduction to the report does acknowledge this, saying “the Home Office, beginning in late summer 2023, has begun to make policy and operational changes to address the most flagrant examples of both exploitation and abuse”.

The Home Office also state that the changes prohibiting care workers from bringing dependants that came into effect from 11 March 2024 will “go some way” to assist with improvements to the route, but no explanation is given as how removing a care worker’s ability to have their family with them will, for example, help them in avoiding exploitation.

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Sonia Lenegan

Sonia Lenegan is an experienced immigration, asylum and public law solicitor. She has been practising for over ten years and was previously legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association and legal and policy director at Rainbow Migration. Sonia is the Editor of Free Movement.

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