UK’s immigration system transformation under way

But what exactly does the new-look immigration system hold in store for UK employers?

The government’s overhaul of UK immigration started last week (29 February) with the introduction of the new points-based system.

The new rules will mean that businesses will face more administration and significantly higher penalties for failing to comply. But what all organisations need to appreciate is that these rules are not just about rogue employers or gangs of illegal workers: they are there to catch everyone.

New beginnings

The new regime begins with the highly skilled tier one, which builds on the current Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. It will apply first to those employees already in the UK before being rolled out overseas, starting with India in April.

Closer to home, 29 February also saw the government’s proposals on preventing illegal working taking effect, with a new code of practice on employment checks and a new system of penalties and fines for offending businesses.

The employment checks are structured around the two-list system (A and B) as with the current rules.

If a person has the permanent right to stay in the UK, they should be able to produce a document from list A, which covers them throughout the employment. List B covers those who have only limited leave to remain in the UK, and checks need to be carried out prior to employment and then once every 12 months thereafter.

For many organisations, this will require investing in some form of IT support. It will also require investing considerable time in carrying out the checks on an ongoing basis.

Price to pay

Where a business has been found to have employed an illegal worker, whether intentionally or not, it will be penalised by up to £10,000 per illegal employee. The system also rewards employers that report illegal workers or co-operate with enforcement, while punishing repeat offenders.

Additionally, if an employer has carried out all of the employment checks in the required way, then no penalty will apply. However, if the checks have not been carried out or have been carried out incorrectly, there is a sliding scale of penalties, starting from £2,500.

A key difference between the old and new systems is that under the old system, punishment was by way of a prosecution based on criminal law. This was time consuming and expensive, and meant that, for many employers, enforcement was simply not a reality.

This will all change with the new system of civil penalties, which can be issued with minimal process (although there will also still be a criminal offence for those who know that they are employing an illegal worker).

The changes must also be seen in the context of the forthcoming points-based system and the obligations of sponsorship for employers. This will require businesses to register with the Home Office if they want to bring in overseas workers, and those that do not have an impeccable record on immigration matters could face warnings and may have their sponsorship rights removed if improvements are not made.

Looking ahead

All in all, 2008 will be a year of ongoing change and disruption for businesses on the immigration front. With the stakes being higher than ever, all employers need to spend the time and the money to get it right. By the end of the year, businesses may have a simpler immigration system to deal with and greater transparency on who has the right to work for them. Beyond that, though, it is difficult to see the benefits for them – but it seems fair to say that was never the intention.

Michael Bradshaw, partner, Charles Russell

Immigration changes: key points

  • From 29 February 2008, new employment checks were introduced, including follow-up checks every 12 months.
  • Fines of up to £10,000 per illegal worker await those businesses that fail under the new system.
  • Criminal sanctions for those who knowingly employ illegal workers.
  • Further changes are to follow during the course of 2008.

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