In recent weeks, the government has announced changes to the ways in which employers can check and employees’ eligibility to work in the UK, with digital right-to-work checks becoming a permanent option. Nicola Smyrl examines the detail and looks at the potential costs for employers.
It is unlawful to employ someone who does not have the right to work in the UK. If you ignore these laws and decide to employ an illegal worker, then you could face serious punishment, including a criminal conviction and/or a penalty of up to £20,000 per illegal employee. When an employer has carried out an adequate right-to-work check, the employer has a statutory defence if that worker is later found to be working illegally.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Home Office rules stated that most of these right-to-work checks had to be conducted in-person. During this process, the prospective employee showed their documents evidencing their right to work and the employer took copies and kept them on record.
In response to the pandemic, strict social distancing measures prompted the introduction of temporary adjustments to the requirement for in-person right-to-work checks, which were officially introduced on 30 March 2020. The adjustments allow the checks to be carried out over video calls and for job applicants to send a photo of their documents to employers via email, rather than sending the originals.
Digital right-to-work checks
As it stands, the government has said that the temporary adjustments to right-to-work checks will end on 30 September 2022, although this date has been pushed back on various occasions in response to concerns by employers about having to return to in-person checks. Given that a large number of workers now operate remotely, this may be more difficult for some businesses to achieve.
The government has recognised that many employers will not wish to return to in-person checks and has announced plans to implement the option to carry out digital right-to-work checks for all employees.
Under the new rules:
- From 6 April 2022, foreign nationals who have a biometric residence card, biometric residence permit or frontier worker permit can only be checked online, not manually. They must provide their date of birth and share code to allow the employer to check their status using the Government’s online checking service. This is a free service and as a result, manual checks will no longer be permitted. It will not be necessary for employers to carry out a retrospective check for employees where a manual check was completed on or before 5 April 2022.
- In place of adjusted right-to-work checks, from 1 October 2022, employers will be able to use certified Identity Service Providers (IDSPs) to complete digital right-to-work checks for British and Irish citizens with valid passports. This will be an alternative to manual checks and the IDSPs will complete these digital right-to-work checks on behalf of employers for a fee. The digital check will involve submitting images of personal documents rather than the original documents using Identity Document Validation Technology instead.
- Manual checks can continue to be carried out for employees not covered by point 1 above. This will mainly cover British and Irish nationals who do not require permission to work in the UK.
Employers who have been conducting right-to-work checks under the current temporary adjusted measures will need to consider their approach to these checks in the future. If employers do not wish to return to manual checks, they will also need to factor in the costs of performing these checks in their future budgets.
Ultimately, business owners need to consider the current structure of the organisation and make a decision that is practical for them. These checks cannot be ignored, so it is important to find a solution and approach that works for everyone.
Impact of right-to-work changes on employees
At present, it is common for prospective employees to be asked to provide right-to-work documentation during the early stages of the recruitment process.
Many employers delay undertaking checks until the later stages of the process, so they do not incur unnecessary costs in relation to candidates who will not ultimately be offered employment. Given the current financial pressures that most businesses are facing, it is expected that a large number of organisations will take this route.
An approach which involves checking the right to work at the latest stage possible is also advisable from the perspective of avoiding claims for discrimination. Conducting checks at an early stage of the recruitment process may enable prospective employees to argue that their application has been rejected due to their race or ethnicity.
The government has issued a new code of practice in relation to avoiding discrimination when conducting right to work checks, which all employers would be well advised to review. The code states the importance of treating all candidates fairly and having clear procedures in place for the recruitment and selection of workers based on equal and fair treatment.
Remember, falling foul of discrimination laws could result in claims being made against your organisation, so it is important that you proceed with caution throughout the entire process.
This article was first published on 13 April 2022 and updated on 24 August 2022.