In late 2008 the applying for, and the issuing of work permits for non-EU foreign nationals wishing to work in the UK in the entertainment industry changed forever. Up until that point the application had to be made on paper and a whole pile of supporting documents had to be sent off to the visa office in Sheffield where the Sports and Entertainment team operated from. Post-November 2008 the system switched to an oline version, and in order to apply you have to be a licensed sponsor. The Sports and Entertainment team (the only ones who had any clue about the entertainment industry) was disbanded some time ago.
I applied for a sponsor licence immediately. The application consisted of filling in a lot of forms, sending off bank statements and proof that my premises (in my case, my home) could be legally used for the business. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the fee of £400. (It’s more than that, now!)
I applied in October 2008 but didn’t get my licence until January 2009 – a whisker before I needed it for my first application. In fact I recall making several phone calls and jumping up and down about the delay. At that point (unlike today) there was a phone number for the Sheffield office and a real person you could talk to. (Sadly not any more, but I digress.)
The system works like this: a licensed sponsor puts in all the information for a visiting artist online via a heavily encrypted website called the Sponsor Management System, and issues the Certificate of Sponsorship online. There’s no adjudication, no one to say ‘that person doesn’t deserve a CoS’. It’s right there.
Anyone coming in from a country whose nationals do not require a visa to visit the UK for leisure (i.e. The USA, Canada, Australia etc.) can come in to work in the entertainment industry on that CoS for up to three months. If they are coming in for more than three months or if they are from a country whose nationals require a visa to visit the UK (most African, South American and Asian countries) then they have to take that CoS and apply for Entry Clearance (a visa in all but name) via the British Embassy or High Commission in their own country. This costs somewhere in the region of £230 per person in addition to the cost of getting a CoS from me. (That means a group of four has little change from a thousand pounds, and there’s no refund if your visa application is refused.)
The system effectively means that the licensed sponsor now has to act as judge and jury. We have to make sure that the artists we’re applying for are legitimate. We have to ask if they have a criminal record, because anyone who has served ‘time’ is automatically banned for a number of years (the length of the ban depends on the length of their sentence). Of course, other than checking to see if there’s anything online in the newspapers of their own country, we have no way of knowing if we’re being lied to, however when a visa application is made the embassy has a more effective means of checking.
The applicant must be qualified in order to get a CoS. Initially they must be provably ‘internationally renowned’. A band coming in must prove that the people whom they say are members are really members. Any support staff must have provable qualifications to do the job they are coming in to do (sound engineers for example). Since we sponsors don’t have the resources the government has, and since we can’t check Interpol’s databases, we have to do the best we can. If we get it wrong, or don’t take enough care over the checks, we could not only lose our licences, we could be prosecuted. Yes, I said prosecuted. (They remind you all the time that they can ‘take action’ against you if you fail in your duties.)
You can imagine what licensed sponsors think about that.
Our record keeping has to be impeccable. We have to be able to put our hands on relevant information at the drop of a hat. If someone from the government knocks on our door and asks where Fred Bloggs is today, we have to know where he spent the night last night, where he’ll be spending it tonight; what his plans are for the day; where his gig is tonight, or, if he’s not gigging, where he is and what he’s doing.
And every so often the ‘men (or women) from the ministry’ turn up on our doorstep to check that our record keeping is up to snuff. Sometimes they give us advance warning. Sometimes they just turn up. (Very embarrassingly at nine a.m. – and since I don’t open the office until eleven, because I work late into the evening to deal with people in different time-zones, they’ve caught me in my pyjamas twice!)
So… that’s the background.
I had a licence check on 15th March this year. My previous three licence checks had all been OK, but I hadn’t had one for about five years. No matter, my record keeping is good and I was quite happy to let the inspectors (2 of them) look at my database and poke into any of my records.
But right from the first moment the interviewers adopted the stance of ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ They were polite in that they didn’t say anything quotably offensive, but they were unnecessarily fierce/combative in their manner, and obviously looking hard to expose any faults in my system. Two of them and one of me. They had a script – a list of questions – and mostly stuck to it, but it was obvious from the word go that they didn’t really understand the entertainment business. If I’d been the manager of a care home employing Ugandan nursing staff, the questions and their assumptions might have been more appropriate.
It was decided some years ago that as an entertainment agent I am not necessarily the employer of the people I get Certificates of Sponsorship for. However Mr. MD (no names) vehemently told me that I was the employer. No doubt about it. He asked if I’d actually read the Guidelines for Tier 2 & 5 Sponsors (all 233 pages of it). I have, but I don’t think he has. This is what it says about agents being Tier 5 employers.
So the whole interview was conducted on the wrong basis from almost the first time we actually spoke to each other.
There were other anomalies which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into, though at one point when we were talking about the responsibilities loaded on to sponsors, the other interrogator did say: ‘Think how much trouble you’d be in if the Salisbury poisoner had come into the country on your CoS.’ Scare tactics or what? But it does show the level of suspicion I encountered in that interview.
Since I’d already been wrong-footed on the ’employer’ question and one or two relatively minor things, I was honestly not sure whether I’d passed or failed the inspection. The inspectors don’t make the decision, they record your answers, then pass the file on to someone in Sheffield who decides whether they’re going to take your livelihood away from you or not. You get absolutely no indication about the likely outcome.
Now, the problem a licensed sponsor has is this…
If the powers that be are not happy with your record keeping or anything about your interview, they can end your sponsor licence with a snap of their fingers. If that happens all the CoS that you’ve issued become instantly null and void. Anyone already in the country on a full visa has 90 days to find a new sponsor or get out. Anyone in the process of applying for a visa suddenly finds that their application is refused on the grounds that they no longer have a valid Certificate of Sponsorship. Surprise, surprise, they don’t get a refund of the £230 per person that they’ve paid for the visa application.
Anyone who only needs a CoS to enter, suddenly finds themselves turned back at the airport of (if there’s time) scrambling for a new sponsor.
All this did happen to a colleague who lost his licence without warning (though he has since regained it). As you can imagine it caused a wealth of trouble for him and for his customers.
So, with that in mind, any sensible sponsor will not continue to supply Certificates of Sponsorship while there is any doubt about the outcome of their licence inspection.
I’m pleased to say that on 8th May I got a letter from the home office telling me that I have maintained my A-Rated Sponsorship licence. BUT you will recall that my licence inspection was 15th March. Yes it took seven weeks (and three letters of complaint) to deliver the verdict, and in the meantime I was on a self-imposed hiatus because I didn’t want to let anyone down should the worst happen.
The worst didn’t happen, for which I am grateful, however I have written to the relevant department outlining my complaints. Will I get a reply? I don’t know, I haven’t yet.
So for all those people I put off during my self-imposed hiatus, I’m sorry. With hindsight I needn’t have done that, but I didn’t want to let you down if the inquisitors had taken against the colour of shoes I was wearing.
Please note I am now open for business again.
P.S. Re the Salisbury poisoner – I would just like to point out that I don’t believe I’ve ever done a sponsorship certificate for a Russian spy or an assassin of any stripe, though if Moscow was going to send a deadly balalaika player to the UK, they’d probably have a watertight cover story that would not look suspicious to someone with as few official resources as me. <shakes head sadly>