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How to check a person’s legal right to work in the UK

Posted by Lesley Furber on May 29th, 2018 | Employment law

There has been a lot of recent activity by the government to prevent illegal working. In our guide for small business owners – “What documents you need when employing staff” – we look in detail at all the points you need to consider and the documents you need when employing staff, casual workers and freelancers/contractors.

However, all employers have a legal obligation to check that all their staff have a legal right to work in the UK before they can employ them, as it’s illegal to employ a person who does not have permission to live and work in the UK (the company can be prosecuted and fined if they do).

All staff need to be treated the same (regardless of their nationality, place of birth etc.), so all staff must be checked. When a member of staff joins an employer, they must provide evidence of their right to work in the UK by showing the company an original document from List A or List B (that the government publishes). If a member of staff ceases to be entitled to work in the UK whilst in employment the employer may have no option but to terminate their employment.

Government guidance

At the end of October 2013, the Home Office published an updated version of their “Full guide for employers on preventing illegal working in the UK”. The guide is aimed at employers and human resources staff involved in the recruitment and employment of staff in the UK, and was updated in March 2016.

The guide covers the following:

  • The law on illegal working
  • The role and duties of an employer
  • The document checks which an employer is required to carry out
  • Consequences for the employer if they do not carry out the document checks and are found to be employing an illegal worker.

In addition, the Immigration (Restrictions on Employment) legislation was amended on 16th May 2014. A summary of the changes are as follows:

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  • The maximum penalty for an employer, in respect of each illegal worker they employ, increased from £10,000 to £20,000
  • The range of documents that can be used as evidence of the right to work is to be reduced
  • An employer must keep a record of the date on which it checked a person’s right to work in the UK
  • An employer will no longer be required to copy the front cover of a passport
  • An employer will no longer be required to carry out a “follow-up” check at least once every 12 months, in relation to an employee who has a temporary right to work in the UK. Now, an employer must check the employee’s right to work in the UK only when their temporary right to work in the UK has expired (so employers must arrange reminders for themselves where this is relevant).

The government published a further guide in May 2014, called “An Employers Guide to Right to Work Checks”, which you can see here.

The Immigration Act 2016

On 12th May 2016, the Immigration Act became law. This Act:

  • extends the existing criminal offence of an employer ‘knowingly’ employing an illegal migrant, to one where the employer ‘has reasonable cause to believe’ that a person is an illegal worker. The maximum sentence for this offence will rise from 2 to 5 years and is effective from 12th July 2016. (At present if you ‘unknowingly’ employ an illegal worker the fine is £20,000 per illegal worker; if you ‘knowingly’ employ an illegal worker you can face a prison sentence and unlimited fines).
  • will allow immigration officers to issue ‘illegal working closure notices’ to shut down a business for up to 48 hours for committing multiple breaches under the Act.
  • has measures to make it more difficult for illegal migrants to live and work in the UK – they won’t be able to have a bank account or hold a driving licence and landlords must check the immigration status of their tenants. From 12th July 2016 it will be a criminal offence to work illegally (and those convicted could face up to six months in prison, an unlimited fine and have their wages seized as a proceed of crime).
  • requires public authorities to ensure that those working in the public sector in ‘customer facing’ roles have adequate English language skills. A Code of Practice will be introduced (a draft code has now been issued but will be updated when this part of the act comes into force).
  • A new ‘immigration skills charge’ will be imposed on employers who sponsor skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area – £1000 per employee per annum under a Tier 2 visa for larger employers. Smaller companies, charities and universities will pay £364 per annum.

Terminating employment if the individual has no right to work in the UK

Nayak v Royal Mail Group Ltd 2016

In Nayak v Royal Mail Group Ltd in 2016, the Employment Appeal Tribunal had to decide whether the employee’s dismissal was fair when the Employer genuinely believed the employee didn’t have the right to work in the UK. Mr Nayak started work for Royal Mail in January 2008 and had a succession of legitimate visa’s. He applied for a Tier 4 general student visa and this was initially refused but he made a successful appeal to the immigration tribunal in May 2011 and his application was passed to the Home Office for processing.

In March 2012, Royal Mail sought confirmation from the Home Office who said he had the right to work in the UK on the basis of an outstanding appeal. In 2012/13 the Royal Mail wrote to Mr Nayak three times to ask him for updated proof of his right to work in the UK and he did not reply. Further confirmation was sought from the Home Office and Mr Nayak (the details are complicated so we’ll shorten this), and in the end Mr Nayak was warned that a failure to provide evidence of his immigration status could result in his dismissal and he was eventually dismissed.

He appealed and the Royal Mail suggested he contact the Home Office, which he didn’t; the decision to dismiss was upheld so Mr Nayak bought a claim for unfair dismissal. The original Tribunal rejected his claim so he appealed. The EAT agreed with the Tribunal that there was sufficient evidence to support Royal Mail’s genuine and reasonable belief that Mr Nayak no longer had the right to work in the UK.

Under section 3c of the Immigration Act 1971, when, before the expiry of a current visa, an individual makes an application for a new visa, they will retain the right to live and work in the UK under the terms of their previous visa – so long as the new application hasn’t been decided by the Home Office, has been withdrawn or has an appeal against a refusal outstanding.

Afzal v East London Pizza Ltd ta/ Domino’s Pizza 2018

In 2018, in Afzal v East London Pizza Ltd t/a Dominos Pizza, an Employment Appeal Tribunal found that a pizza shop worker who couldn’t prove his right to work, and was therefore dismissed, was entitled to appeal his dismissal. Afzal was employed by a franchise of Domino’s Pizza as a delivery driver from October 2009 and was promoted to reach a manager-in-training by August 2016.

Afzal had time-limited leave to work until 12th August 2016 (he was married to a EU national), and at that point he could apply for evidence of his right to permanent residence (although he couldn’t apply until 15th July, and did so, and had the right to continue working while his new application was being considered).

In early June and again in mid-July, the company wrote to him to remind him to provide evidence showing he had applied to extend his right to work. However, he didn’t reply until 12th August. This reply had two attachments which his manager couldn’t open. When Azfal failed to provide the evidence by the end of 12th August, he was sent a notice of dismissal with no right to appeal. The original Tribunal said he hadn’t been unfairly dismissed but the EAT disagreed – they said that while the original decision was ‘justified’, the appeal process would’ve allowed Afzal to demonstrate he had the right to work in the UK. The EAT sent the case back to a new Tribunal for reconsideration.

Baker v Abellio London Ltd

In Baker v Abellio London Ltd, at the EAT in December 2017: Mr Baker is a Jamaican national with the right to live and work in the UK, who was employed as a bus drive by Abellio since July 2012. In 2015, Abellio became aware that another employee didn’t have the correct documentation to prove he was legally entitled to live and work in the UK, so decided to audit their staff to ensure they all possessed the correct documentation. Baker was asked to produce one of a list of documents to prove his right to work in the UK, but he didn’t have an appropriate document.

He was suspended without pay until he could produce evidence of his right to work, even though the Home Office had confirmed Mr Baker had the right to work in the UK. Abellio scheduled meetings with Mr Baker about the issue but he didn’t attend the meetings; he did, however, get letters sent on his behalf explaining that he didn’t need documentation to prove his right to work, and explaining the Home Office’s confirmation that he had the right to work in the UK. He was however dismissed on 6th July 2015, because (the Company said) although he had the right to work in the UK, he had failed to provide documents proving this.

At the original Employment Tribunal, they agreed with Abellio that he had been dismissed due to a statutory requirement – section 15 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 (IANA) requires employers to collect certain documents if employing foreign workers. Mr Baker appealed and the Employment Appeal Tribunal clarified what the immigration rules actually require an employer to do, and say the original ET had made two errors:

  • Section 15 of the IANA did not apply to Mr Baker as it only applies to those who are subject to immigration control
  • Section 25 makes it clear that a person who has the right to live and work in the UK isn’t subject to immigration control.

If Mr Baker had been subject to immigration control, the ET had misread S15 – the EAT said S15 does not impose a requirement on an employer to obtain certain documents, it actually provides for an ‘excusal from penalty’ i.e. if an employer has obtained documentation establishing a worker’s right to work in the UK, they may avoid or have reduced any fine imposed on them by the Home Office, if it transpires that worker did not actually have such a right.

Abellio were fixated on getting the documents required to prove Mr Baker had the right to work, ignoring the fact that he did have the right to work in the UK. Another problem for Abellio was that he was suspended without pay – a concern that an employee does not have a right to work may not be sufficient reason to cease their pay (as it could lead to an ‘unauthorised’ deduction from wages claim).

If you have any questions then please let us know!

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to Lesley at The HR Kiosk – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – our fees are low to reflect the pressures on small businesses and you can hire us for as much time as you need.

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.


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