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

Posted on May 29th, 2014 | 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.

[Article updated 2017]

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 is 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.

The Government has been publishing further guidance in this area, and on 16th May 2014 amended the relevant legislation in this area.

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.

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 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.

On 12th May 2016 the Immigration Act became law, and will be implemented through a series of new regulations that come into effect over the next few months. The 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 ilegal 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 will not 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 6 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. To apply from April 2017. Smaller companies, charities and universities will pay £364 per annum.


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

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 did not 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 3 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 did not; 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 Immigation 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 has not been decided by the Home Office or has been withdrawn or has an appeal against a refusal outstanding.

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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