Employers will be expected to inspect the birth certificates or passports of job applicants as part of tough new measures to “flush out” illegal migrant workers, Liam Byrne, immigration minister, said on Tuesday.
Employers knowingly employing illegal workers will face up to two years in jail and unlimited fines under the proposals, published in a consultation paper. Businesses that fail to conduct proper checks to establish the rights of foreigners to work in the UK could face fines of up to £10,000 per worker.
The proposed penalties were unveiled ahead of an expected announcement on Wednesday by the European Union calling for tougher criminal sanctions against businesses employing illegal workers. Under the EU crackdown companies can expect more spot checks of employees’ papers as well as restrictions on working on public sector contracts.
Under the British proposals, foreigners seeking to work in the UK would require a sponsoring employer and would have to apply for work permits in their own countries. They would also be required to obtain a biometric visa to make it easier for businesses to check their identity.
A government telephone helpline will be launched under a pilot scheme to provide advice “so that employers can verify the entitlement of individuals” to work in the UK. Employers failing to carry out due diligence could be removed from the list of registered sponsors for overseas workers.
Some 500,000 illegal immigrants, many of them working in the black economy, are estimated to be living in Britain. Mr Byrne said: “What we are proposing here will, I think, flush illegal migrants out. We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally. We have to make Britain much less of an attractive place if you are going to come here and break the rules.
“That means making it easier for companies to check whether someone is here legally, but also coming down much harder on businesses which break the rules or turn a blind eye.”
Police, tax and benefit officers would be expected to work with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and immigration officials to expose traffickers and rogue employers. The initial sums to be spent on enforcement will be £10m-£20m a year, while the number of immigration enforcement officers is expected to increase “over time” from about 700 to about 1,200.
John Cridland, deputy general secretary of the CBI employers’ group, said the measures would only work if the employers’ checking service reduced the burden on business, and the ID card system for migrants was effective. But he said that tough penalties should apply where employers “have messed up without good reason”. It was also reasonable to expect employers to check on staff. The CBI already inspected passports or birth certificates of job applicants.
Mr Cridland said: “Rogue employers give all employers a bad name and undermine competition, particularly for small businesses.”
The new measures are designed to give teeth to an Australian-style immigration points system to be introduced next year. The scheme will favour professionals, entrepreneurs, highly skilled workers and young high fliers. Workers with low skills would not gain entry unless sponsoring employers could prove there were not enough British workers to fill the jobs.