There are less than four months until the UK’s new points-based immigration system comes into force. For employers, this marks a huge change in the way businesses will recruit and bring international workers to the UK. However, there is a real concern that employers do not understand the new requirements and that they have not considered the implications this may have on their businesses and future talent recruitment.

The Home Office statistics are also starting to look concerning. The number of new applications for sponsor licences has fallen in the most recent quarter. This is most likely due to the pandemic, but now that businesses are up and running, they should ensure that they start putting in place the apparatus for recruitment in 2021.

In order to help employers understand their requirements and how to apply for a sponsor licence, we outline some common questions below:

1. Why do I need a sponsor licence to bring international workers to the UK?

From 1 January 2021, free movement of people from the EU will end and the UK will implement its new points-based system. It is therefore really important that UK employers have a Home Office sponsor licence to enable them to bring that international worker to the UK. Without such a licence, it is not possible to bring non-EU nationals as workers and from 1 January 2021, employers will need a licence in order to hire new EU nationals too.

2. I already have a sponsor licence; do I need to apply for a new one?

Companies who already employ international workers or who have sponsored overseas workers in the past may already have a licence in place. From January 2021, it will be called a Skilled Worker Licence. However, many employers have not fully engaged with the implications of post-Brexit hiring. To understand their requirements, employers should undertake an audit to check that they are currently compliant with the requirements of sponsorship.

HR teams have been incredibly busy during the pandemic and it is easy to let the migrant reporting and recording obligations slide. In some cases, organisations might choose to hire an in-house immigration HR specialist, to oversee the transition into the new system or to ask their immigration lawyers to work with them closely to get up to speed.

3. What if I have no current plans to employ an international worker?

It is strongly advised that employers apply for a sponsor licence now, even if it is in anticipation of future non-UK hires. It is perfectly acceptable to submit a licence application requesting a zero certificate of sponsorship allocation and to explain to UK Visa & Immigration (UKVI) that the organisation wishes to ensure that it is ready for post-Brexit recruitment for its business operations.

4. How do I apply for a sponsor licence?

The first step employers should take is to plan and familiarise themselves with the requirements – to do so could save the business money and time. Employers should give thought to their talent pipeline for the coming 12–18 months, decide what roles will need to be filled and perhaps even consider hiring before 31 December 2020 if the ideal candidate holds European nationality.

The application process itself requires the potential sponsor to complete an online application form. A number of documents will then need to be submitted to UKVI in order to demonstrate that the organisation is genuine and trading in the UK. Examples of documents that can be submitted include banks statements, VAT certificates or evidence of the employer’s liability insurance.

5. How long might this whole process take?

Application approvals can take up to 16 weeks, but generally it is expected to take anywhere between 3 and 8 weeks. It’s absolutely essential to have the supporting evidence ready before submitting the online application as there is only a 5-working-day window from online submission to getting the documents to UKVI. It’s best to send in certified documents, rather than originals. This all takes time and planning.

Additionally, organisations wishing to apply for an Intra Company Licence will need to prove the link by common ownership between group companies and also provide details of branches and subsidiaries. This is important for those organisations who have EU group entities and have thus far relied on free movement for the transfer of European colleagues into the UK.

6. What are the risks if my business isn’t up to speed?

The implications of not being ready or aware could be far-reaching. It is important to check the status of existing EU employees, to make sure they have status, since after 30 June 2021 an employer could be deemed to be employing an illegal worker if they haven’t carried out the correct prescribed Right to Work check and they haven’t applied under the EU Settlement scheme.

There are still gaps in the guidance for the new points-based immigration system.