Business people who knowingly employ illegal immigrants should face the same penalties as drug dealers, terrorists and other organised criminals, a Home Office minister said on Tuesday.

Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, said that he thought a crackdown on employers who used illegal labour – due to begin later this year – might not be enough. He wanted the authorities to use legislation introduced to combat organised crime to confiscate the earnings and possessions of people who were deliberately employing
illegal immigrants.

He told MPs he was commissioning an impact assessment of the new rules to see if it was necessary to increase penalties even further.

From later this year, when a new regime of sponsored work permits comes into effect, companies that unwittingly employ illegal workers will face a new range of civil penalties, including higher fines. But employers who knowingly flout the rules face criminal prosecution and up to two years in prison.

He urged a “pretty strong approach” to illegal employment, asking whether the Proceeds of Crime Act, introduced in 2002 to crack down on organised criminals, money laundering and terrorist financing, could be used. He said: “If people are knowingly employing illegal immigrants and there is a financial gain there, why can’t we take steps to confiscate those assets and use the proceeds to take those cases and to send people home?

“Businesses benefit from immigration a great deal,” Mr Byrne said, “but with those benefits do come responsibilities.”

Anthony Thompson, head of employment at the CBI, the employers’ organisation, rejected the suggestion that new tools would be necessary. “We have a regulatory framework which, if enforced properly, would have a real impact on cutting down
illegal working without the need to place more of a burden on employers.”

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