The ability to work illegally can leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation and allow unscrupulous employers to undercut compliant businesses. To minimise these risks, all employers in the UK have a duty to prevent illegal working.
The following guide provides an overview of the rules relating to illegal working, from how to conduct a right to work check to the possible penalties for breaches.
What is the prevention of illegal working legislation?
The prevention of illegal working refers to the duty on an employer to ensure that anyone they employ is not disqualified from working in the UK, or carrying out the work in question, by reason of their immigration status.
This means that employers have a responsibility to prevent illegal working by conducting a right to work check on all prospective employees before employing them, even if they claim to be UK nationals, as well as carrying out checks on existing employees whose right to work in the UK is time-limited.
Even if you are not the direct employer of the workers involved in your business, there are compelling reasons why you should still seek to establish their right to work. This includes the risk that if illegal workers are removed from your business it could disrupt your operations and result in reputational damage.
What does prevention of illegal working mean for employers?
Where an employer is found to have employed someone who, by reason of their immigration status, is prohibited from legally working in the UK or undertaking the work in question, they may be liable to pay a civil penalty.
Where a right to work check has been carried out, as long as this is done in the correct way, an employer ought to be able to establish a statutory excuse against any civil liability, even if someone is found to be working illegally for them.
The responsibility for carrying out a right to work check rests with you as the employer, even where the check has been delegated to members of your staff. If the prescribed check is not carried out correctly, you will remain liable for the civil penalty in the event that any employee is found to be working illegally.
Further, you may not delegate this responsibility to a third party. This means that whilst you can use a third party to provide technical support or specialised equipment in the prevention of illegal working, you will not be able to establish a statutory excuse if the check is performed, for example, by a recruitment agency.
How do employers comply with the prevention of illegal working regime?
Employers, as well as any members of staff with delegated responsibility within the business for the recruitment and employment of individuals, must fully understand their responsibility to carry out right to work checks in the prescribed manner, and therefore ensure compliance with the law.
To comply with the prevention of illegal working regime, you should always conduct a right to work check ‘before’ you employ a person to ensure they are legally allowed to do the work in question for you. If an individual’s right to work is time-limited at the point that you employ them, you should also carry out a follow-up check shortly before this right is due to come to an end.
There are two types of right to work checks to demonstrate compliance: a manual check and an online check. By correctly conducting either type of check, this will provide you with a statutory excuse to avoid any civil liability.
What are the rules relating to manual right to work checks?
There are three basic steps to conducting a manual right to work check:
- Obtain original versions of one or more acceptable documents from the prospective or existing employee
- Check the document’s validity in the presence of the holder
- Make and retain a clear copy, and record the date the check was made
The documents you may accept from someone to demonstrate their right to work are set out in two prescribed lists: List A and List B.
List A contains the range of documents you may accept from a person who has a permanent right to work in the UK, for example, a British passport. In contrast, List B contains documents for those with a temporary right to work in the UK, for example, a biometric residence permit that indicates that they can currently stay in the UK and are allowed to do the work in question.
Where you correctly conduct a right to work check before employment begins by relying on relevant List A documents, you can rely on a continuous statutory excuse relating to that individual’s right to work for the duration of their employment with your organisation. This also means no further checks will need to be conducted on this individual while they remain employed by you. However, when relying on documents from List B, you will only establish a time-limited statutory excuse and will need to conduct a follow-up check in order to retain protection against civil liability.
In either case, you must check that the documents are genuine and that the person presenting them is the rightful holder. You must also make a clear copy of each document in a format that cannot manually be altered and retain the copy securely. You should keep the copies for the duration of the employment, and for a further two years after, with a note of the date when you conducted the check.
What are the rules relating to manual right to work checks?
Since 28 January 2019, in certain circumstances employers have been able to conduct free online checks. The Home Office’s online checking service is designed to make it easier and quicker for employers to carry out the necessary checks, providing access to up-to-date and real-time information about a migrants’ right to work.
It also provides greater security, as you no longer need to rely on physical documents when checking a migrants’ immigration status, reducing the risk of forged documents being presented to you and exposing you to liability.
It will not be possible to conduct an online right to work check in all circumstances. This will depend on whether an individual has an immigration status that can be checked online. Currently, the online service supports checks in respect of non-EEA nationals who hold current biometric residence permits or biometric residence cards, and for EEA nationals who have been granted status under the EU Settlement Scheme.
Alternatively, EEA nationals continue to be able to demonstrate their right to work by presenting their EU passport or national identity card until the end of the planned post-Brexit implementation period on 30 June 2021.
To use the online checking service you will need to obtain the employee’s permission to request the check. If an individual does not wish to prove their right to work using the online service, even if their immigration status or documentation is compatible, you should conduct a manual check instead.
The online service works on the basis of the individual accessing their right to work record held with the Home Office. They may then share this information with you by providing you with a ‘share code’ generated by this service.
It is not sufficient to view the individual’s profile in the migrant part of the checking service, where the Home Office has an audit record of online checks conducted by employers. To obtain a statutory excuse you must access the service using the employer section entitled: ‘View a job applicant’s right to work details’ available on gov.uk.
There are three basic steps to conducting an online right to work check:
- View the individual’s right to work details by typing in the share code, together with their date of birth
- Check that the photograph on the online right to work check is of the individual presenting themselves for work
- Retain a clear copy of the response provided by the online right to work checking service
You must retain the profile page confirming the individual’s right to work. This is the page that includes the individual’s photo and date on which the check was conducted. You can print the profile or save it as a PDF or HTML file. You should store this securely, either electronically or in hard copy format, for the duration of the employment and for two years after this ends.
It is important to bear in mind that if you employ someone following an online check but it is reasonably apparent from the photograph that the individual working is not the individual to whom the information provided in the check relates, you may still face a civil penalty in the event of illegal working.
What is the Employer Checking Service?
In most cases you will be able to conduct either a manual or online check. In certain circumstances, however, you will need to contact the Home Office’s Employer Checking Service to establish a statutory excuse.
You must ask the Home Office to check the immigration status of a prospective or existing employee in any of the following circumstances:
- The individual cannot show you their documents because of an outstanding appeal, review or application with the Home Office
- The individual has an Application Registration Card
- The individual has a Certificate of Application less than 6 months old
- The employee is a Commonwealth citizen who started living in the UK prior to 1988
In any of these circumstances, you will only establish a statutory excuse if you are issued with a Positive Verification Notice from the Home Office confirming that the named person is allowed to carry out the type of work in question.
What are the penalties for breaching the rules?
If you are found to be in breach of the prevention of illegal working rules, you may be facing a civil penalty of up to £20,000 per illegal worker. There is also a range of additional sanctions that may flow from this:
- Disqualification as a director
- Seizure of earnings made as a result of illegal working
- Closure of your business and a compliance order issued by the court
- A review and possible revocation of your sponsor licence, affecting your ability to sponsor migrants who come to the UK in the future
- A review and possible revocation of a licence in the alcohol and late night refreshment sector and the private hire vehicle and taxi sector
If you know that you are employing someone who is not allowed to carry out the work in question, you will not have a statutory excuse against liability for a civil penalty, regardless of whether you have conducted a right to work check.
Where you know or have reasonable cause to believe an individual does not have the right to work and employ them anyway, you also risk criminal prosecution punishable by imprisonment for up to 5 years and an unlimited fine.
DavidsonMorris’ immigration lawyers can help with all aspects of immigration compliance, including guidance on effective and efficient procedures to conduct Right to Work checks and meet prevention of illegal working duties. We also offer specialist assistance if you are facing a civil penalty for employing illegal workers. For help and advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts.
Prevention of Illegal Working FAQs
What can be used as proof of eligibility to work in the UK?
There are various documents that can be used as proof of eligibility to work in the UK. These include, for example, a passport or national identity card showing that the person is a national of the European Economic Area or Switzerland, or a biometric residence permit or biometric residence card for non-EEA nationals.
What is the fine for employing someone illegally UK?
If you are found to be employing someone illegally in the UK, unless you can show that you have carried out a right to work check in the prescribed manner you may be liable to a civil penalty of up to £20,000 per illegal worker.
How do you carry out a right to work check?
A right to work check can be carried out manually or online. When carrying out a manual check the employer must obtain and retain copies of original documents, such as a passport. When conducting an online check, where applicable, the employer must verify the photograph of the employee and retain a copy of the official online response from the Home Office.
Can an expired passport be used as right to work?
An expired passport can be used as proof of the right to work in the UK in limited circumstances, for example, a British or EEA passport, provided the passport photo is not too dated and it resembles the person in question. In most other cases, the passport would need to be current, where endorsements in expired passports for non-EEA nationals are not generally allowed.
Last updated: 20 May 2020