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Overseas workers: When a visit goes wrong

Britain is home to thousands of international businesses, so overseas employees will often visit the UK for business. However, employers need to be aware that all employees must enter the UK with the appropriate visa, or face serious consequences.

A common scenario is an employee who might travel over for a meeting with some partners to work on an important deal. Perhaps they are in the UK on holiday and want to pop in and visit the UK office. It may seem like a completely harmless act but it is important to think carefully about what the reasoning behind a visit might be. There are only a limited number of 'permissible activities' allowed while in the UK on a visit visa.

For example, should an employee find themselves travelling over from the US to have a one-off meeting with a colleague advising on an important report, this will count as a permissible activity - but only if the meeting is arranged in advance. Yet complications can arise if the employee finds themselves actually working on the report. This is when someone would cross the line from conducting a permissible activity to being in breach of their visit visa. The margins are fine, yet the consequences are serious.

Getting it wrong could lead to an employee facing a UK re-entry ban of up to 10 years, with the business risking a fine of £10,000, increasing to £20,000 next year. Furthermore, if the UK business holds a sponsor licence, it will risk the removal of that licence and the enforced repatriation of key migrant workers. If it doesn't have a licence it would be likely to struggle to obtain one given its negative immigration history. The business may have real difficulty in ensuring that it can bring overseas workers into the UK in the future. Keeping a clean immigration record is key as once an error is made the effects will be long lasting.

Tightening controls

The officers at the UK Border Control have become increasingly vigilant over recent years, so it's an issue businesses need to be aware of. The Home Office now questions visitors carefully, and conducts spot checks on businesses, sometimes based on tip-offs. The chances of being caught out are greater than ever.

Employees who find that their role has a global remit and requires them to travel internationally into the UK on a regular basis should aim to formalise the situation by arranging a multiple-entry visa. Employees entering to work on a specific project should again make sure that they do not seek to arrive on the basis of a business visit but obtain short-term permission to work.

HR departments should know the basics of immigration law and should check the position with specialists if there is any uncertainty. My advice is always, if in doubt, get the appropriate working visa and avoid the potentially serious consequences. If your company is already a licensed sponsor this will only take a week or so to arrange.

The Home Office are of the (probably correct) view that the business visit rules have been abused in the past. In recent years there has been increased scrutiny and questioning of many business people at Border Control, particularly those who are frequent visitors to these shores.

While the Home Office recognises that the business visit rules can be difficult to follow and that some grey areas exist they regularly prevent business people from entering the UK. While going through the process of getting the correct business visa can seem to be a bureaucratic hassle, the reality is that a little work now can prevent significant future problems from arising.

Owen Jones is partner and head of business immigration at employment law firm, Doyle Clayton