Archive 4: Work Permit System Changes

From 7th march 2009 – as originally blogged on myspace
As an agent and tour manager for musicians coming in from the USA, Canada and Australia I have to (amongst other things) secure work permits, so that my guys are all legal and above board when they fly into the UK. In November 2008 the whole system changed to a points based system. Instead of the old method of filling in the multi-page WP3 form and sending it off to the Sports and Entertainment Unit of the DFEE in Sheffield with a hefty cheque, copies of contracts and proof of performer-status, and then waiting approximately a week and receiving a shiny paper work permit in the post, now I have to be a Licensed Sponsor and make an application online for a Cerificate of sponsorship
for my guys, whereupon I pay up via Worldpay and get a simple Sponsorship Certificate number. I give my guys the number which they then present at Immigration when their plane lands. Hilarity ensues while puzzled Immigration staff try and work the new system by punching the number into the database, and then my guys get a warm and friendly welcome to the UK.

OK? Sounds reasonable? Yeah, it does and (apart from the fact that actually obtaining the licence cost me £400, a lot of grey hairs and two days of my life chasing the damn thing up when it was delayed) it should all now be working fine… except it isn’t. Or at least it wasn’t this week

The system was broken.

Really broken.

Here follows the trials and tribulations of someone trying to stay legal, written as it happened. You honestly couldn’t make this stuff up.

MONDAY
I’ve done two applications already so I know when the system is not broken it does work efficiently, however I undertook to apply for the Sponsorship Cerificate for an America blues singer, KD. KD is leaving
the USA on Wednesday afternoon and arriving at Garwick sometime shortly
after 6.00 a.m. on Thursday. That means he leaves home Wednesday for an
overnight flight, right?

So KD’s contracts and information
arrive over the weekend and on Monday I sit down in front of the
keyboard to process the Certificate of Sponsorship, maybe an hour’s job at the most… except… I go through the whole process in the online Sponsorship Management System (all fine), click on ‘pay’ and get taken to the Worldpay site (all fine), pay by debit card (all fine, payment accepted) and then… I get a screen that says there’s a fault and although Worldpay has taken my money it can’t redirect me to the Sponsorship Management System site where I will then pick up the vital Sponsorship Certificate number. It gives me a helpline number to call.

Okay, thinks I. I’ll just make the call and obviously be given the number over the phone instead once I give them the Worldpay receipt number. Presumably they’ve got a handy-dandy backup system in place… haven’t they?

Errr… no. Actually they haven’t.

I’m in a phone queue for about fifteen minutes and then a harrassed but pleasant young lady on the other end talls me: no, sorry, the system is broken. It’s been down since mid-morning and we don’t have any way  of issuing certificates without it. In fact, it’s not the system itself, but the link between the system and Worldpay. They’re working on it right now,  she tells me, so I have to email the ‘Change of Circumstance Team’ to request a refund of my money and then start the whole process all over again… only not yet. Wait for the system to come back on line.

Since it’s not possoible to tell whether the system is still broken or if it’s been fixed until the very last step (when Worldpay takes my money and fails to redirect me to the Sponsorship Mangement System) I ask how I can tell if the system is back on line. Ah, she says. You can’t. Better phone the helpline first to ask if it’s safe to go ahead and do a second application. And oh by the way the helpline office is not manned after five p.m.

There’s not much I can do at this point except say OK and tell her gently that though I know it’s not her fault, personally, she knows what I think of the system, doesn’t she? Yes, she knows. Okay, I say, I’ll phone later.

I give it until four p.m. and my heart sinks when the phone message says the wait time in the queue is thirty minutes and fifty six seconds, but I grit my teeth and let it ring out, hoping I’m not being charged premium rates
by the minute. At five minutes past five I give up. The office staff went home five minutes earlier and my phone call has not been answered. Great. is the system fixed? I don’t know. I can’t tell.

I wait until late evening and conscious that it’s Monday night and my guy is leaving the US on Wednesday afternoon, I risk it and go through the whole process again. Worldpay eats my money and once more tells me the system is broken.

Fuck!

I send off a second request for a refund to the Chage of Circumstances  Team.

TUESDAY

This time there’s a recorded message on the phone answering system  saying ‘If you have experienced trouble paying for Sponsorship  certificates online please press 1.’ I press. A recorded message tells me the system is broken and that as soon as it is fixed there will be a
message, so keep checking in.

But it’s now only a day before my guy leaves the USA. If he arrives in the UK without a Certificate of Sponsorship and admits to working, he’ll get put right back on a flight for home. So I wibble my way around the recorded phone system and eventually get a young chap who confirms that the system is broken. Yes, I explain gently, I know the system is broken, but I have Mr KD leaving the US in twenty four hours, so please, if he can’t tell me when the system will be fixed, can he please tell me what backup system is in place. Ah, yes – he sounds wistful – a backup system would be nice.

Okay, I say, I’ve done all I can. You say you have no backup system, but my guy is flying in to the UK on Thursday morning with a gig lined up for Thursday night and an audience waiting for him. Yes, he says. That’s right. So what can we do? I ask him in the spirit of hopefully asking the right question to get a light turning on in his head. Do? he says… We can’t do anything. The System is Broken.

I remind him that this is the online application for work permits for the  whole of the UK. Yes, he says. He knows.

So, I say, I presume your senior management is – as we speak – talking to the senior management in the Immigration service at all the major airports, trying to find a temporary fix for all the people who will be flying in without Sponsorship Cerificates, through no fault of their own? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? he replies in a tone that says Maybe in your  wildest dreams.

So what can I do? I ask again. You could try calling the airport, he says (then there was what should only be descibed as a pregnant pause except it didn’t give birth to anything useful)… but I wouldn’t bank on  them being cooperative.

Okay…

So I got on the phone to Gatwick and, surprisingly, after only a short runaround with the switchboard, got a direct line for the Immigration people at the North Terminal where I spoke to a Mrs Lee. No, she hasn’t heard that the Sponsorship Management System is broken and wonders why I’m calling her since she has nothing to do with issuing Sponsorship Certificates. In fact, staff there are still getting used to being presented with them. I take a deep breath, start from the beginning with all of the above. She grasps the implications immediately and the gist of the conversation is that I can keep an eye on the broken system (keep phoning to see if the recorded message has changed) and keep trying to get the Certificate number, even while KD is in the air, and as soon as I get the Certificate number I can fax it direct to the Duty Chief Immigration Officer at Gatwick North.

And if I don’t get the Certificate number? If the system remains broken? I ask, reminding her that KD is making a leap oif faith if he leaves the  USA before I have a Sponsorship Certificate.

Well, she says, it’s hardly KD’s fault. I don’t see why he should suffer.

In this whole mess that’s the first ray of hope that someone is going to apply commonsense at the sharp-end. And I’m clinging to that. Hoping against hope that if the system remains broken the Duty Chief Immigration Officer at Gatwick North at 6.00 a.m. on Thursday is of a mind with Mrs Lee and is not a jobsworth or someone so stressed out he can’t see beyond the paperwork..

Ah the joys of being an agent.

Part Two: WEDNESDAY

So this morning the recorded message has disappeared from the helpline number and when I click on ‘talk to the technical department’ the wait time is 1 hr and 5 mins. Great!

So I wait until after 12.00 and try again knowing that wait times drop dramatcally at lunchtimes as all the people phoning from businesses go to lunch. Wait time 78 seconds.Bingo. I wait. It’s actually closer to five minutes, but – hey – that’s OK.

While I’m waiting I click through the Sponsorship Management System yet again to get to the stage where all I have to do is make one click to finalise the payment.

So then I get a girl on the other end of the phone line who tells me: Yes the system was up and running again this morning, but it’s broken again now. In other words if there had been the correct recorded message on the line when I rang the first time, I could have gone through and got the Sponsorship Certificate for Mr KD with no problem, but now I can’t.

Buggerbuggerbugger! Fuckfuckfuck!

The guy is due to leave home for the airport in the USA at 2.00 p.m. It’s now 12.30 p.m.

So I tell her exactly what I think of her senior management, without actually resorting to words of Anglo-Saxon origin, which I think is very restrained of me. I tell her that it’s a simple matter to set up a manual payment line with a credit card phoine payment and shouldn’t they be thinking about having a manual backup system and I tell her that while I appreciate this is not her fault personally the senior management deserve a rocket.

Yes, she knows all this. She damn well should, she’s probably been  listening to it all morning from hundreds of us.

And then – because – hey – I’ve already got two refunds coming for previous failed attempts so why not make it three in a row – I Press Go.

And the bloody thing goes through, sweet as a nut. Just thirty seconds  after the lady on the Home Office helpline has told me not to try it.

I now have the Sponsorship Certificate number for Mr KD and have sent it to him with an hour to spare.

The story has reached a satisfactory conclusion but the plot twists were, frankly, incredible.

SATURDAY
I go to the hairdressers and have the big grey streaks dyed out of my  hair.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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