‘Quite unreliable’: Alarm over suspicious healthcare institutions licensed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to act as visa sponsors

Hundreds of newly established healthcare providers have been given Home Office permits to sponsor workers from abroad, despite being newly established and having no track record of providing services in Britain, the Observer can reveal.

Suspected fake companies with copy-and-paste websites, fake reviews and PO boxes as addresses are among those granted licenses allowing them to sponsor workers to come to Britain.

Sponsorship licenses have been granted to newly formed companies that have never filed corporate accounts and are only a few months old. At least 268 companies that have never been inspected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) have also been granted a permit. Others appear to have been granted licenses by the Home Office, despite not being registered with the watchdog at all.

The findings come in the wake of a damning report by former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Neal into the Home Office’s handling of the social care visa route.

In an unpublished report leaked to the Time Last month, Neal found that lax oversight led to blatant abuses of the sponsor licensing system, including one case where the Home Office issued 275 visas to a care home that did not exist.

In another case, the Ministry of the Interior issued 1,234 visas to a company that declared it had only four staff when it was granted an operating permit. Neal, who was fired after a dispute with the ministry, also found that the Home Office had only one compliance officer for every 1,600 employers licensed to sponsor migrant workers.

A Observer Analysis of companies awarded sponsorship licenses shows that errors in basic controls are widespread.

Professor Brian Bell: ‘Some of these companies that are setting up do not provide care at all. They settle down, get visas and sell them.” Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

In one case, a home care agency was established in Britain in January 2023, registered with the CQC in May and granted a sponsor license in July. It has never been inspected by the CQC, appears to have no proven track record of providing care and lists a council office as its address. The website also contains signs that it may not be legitimate, including reviews from customers named “Jane Smith” and “John Doe.”

Another company was given a sponsorship license despite its online profiles stating it was a health and social care recruitment agency. The company, which says it offers services such as ‘CV preparation’, ‘interview skills coaching’ and ‘work permit/visa assistance’, was granted a license despite Home Office rules that say employment agencies are not eligible come to sponsor health workers.

In another case, a newly incorporated company was granted a license two months after registering with the CQC, misspelling the town where it is based as “Doncascter” in its application to the Home Office, but was still granted a licence. Records show the company was never inspected and filings were made late.

Immigration experts and charities said the cases were evidence that lax oversight of the sponsor licensing system led to bogus providers being allowed to recruit internationally, some of whom then defrauded and exploited workers, including charging thousands of pounds to obtain UK visas provide. sponsorship.

The government’s top immigration adviser, Prof Brian Bell, said: “Some of these companies that are setting up are not providing care at all. They settle, get visas from the Ministry of the Interior and then sell them. Bell, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee, said he had seen evidence of companies setting up and then “immediately applying for a sponsorship license”, and said it seemed “quite dodgy”.

He added: “A big question needs to be asked. If you set yourself up and the main reason you do so is to become a sponsor, is that what we want? Even if they are providing care and it is not entirely fraudulent, why is it a good idea to have companies set up for the sole purpose of international recruitment?”

David Neal’s report found that the Home Office had issued 275 visas to a care home that did not exist. Photo: https://www.gov.uk/

Adis Sehic, senior policy officer at the Work Rights Centre, said: “These findings appear to confirm our long-held concerns that the Home Office’s due diligence activities in granting sponsorship licenses to employers, especially in the healthcare sector, are woefully inadequate. are inadequate.”

The Home Office said it was strengthening oversight of the sponsor licensing system in the healthcare sector to address “significant concerns about the high levels of non-compliance, exploitation and abuse of workers”.

Under rules coming into force this month, providers in England will only be able to sponsor migrant workers if they do so registered with the CQC. Data published last week also shows there has also been an increase in government crackdowns on bad employers with sponsorship licenses. In 2023, the Ministry of the Interior revoked 337 permits and suspended another 569 permits, compared to 331 suspensions and 273 revocations the year before.

But that level is far below the level between 2014 and 2017, according to data published last week by the Ministry of the Interior. The number of companies with the power to sponsor skilled workers has more than doubled in the past two years, from 41,621 in early 2022 to 84,730 last year, due to a surge in recruitment of healthcare workers abroad.

Campaigners are calling for better minimum standards for visa sponsors, including a requirement that providers must have been trading for at least two years before being licensed, and a requirement that they must have recently been inspected by the CQC. They say it is not enough for businesses to simply register with the CQC, as newly registered providers are not always inspected straight away.

They also criticized a government plan to remove the need for sponsors to apply for a renewal of their license. This plan will come into effect next month. Sehic said: “This removes an additional layer of administrative responsibility, leaving the door open for bogus companies to continue sponsoring, defrauding and exploiting migrant workers indefinitely.”

More than 350,000 health and care worker visas were issued to main applicants and their family members in 2023, almost twice as many as in 2022. Reports of exploitation in the healthcare sector have also increased dramatically, with more than ten times as many potential victims in 2022 than in 2022. 2021, according to the charity Unseen UK. Examples include employees being trapped in ‘reimbursement clauses’, being given false promises, being forced to live in squalor and being charged illegal recruitment fees.

In a report sent to the Home Secretary in December, anti-trafficking charity Focus on Labor Exploitation warned that an emerging trend of “rogue companies… set up to profit from recruitment fees” was fueling abuse in the sector, and accused the government of carrying out “insufficient checks” before granting permits. “The gaps in due diligence and lack of regulation (mean) that Britain is facilitating exploitative practices,” the report said.

The Home Office said: “We strongly condemn the offering of employment to health and care worker visa holders under false pretenses and will continue to revoke permits from those who abuse the system, as we will not tolerate illegal activities in the labor market .”