Clause 9 - Offence of employing illegal worker

Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 27th October 2015.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:30 pm, 27th October 2015

I beg to move amendment 67, in clause 9, page 7, line 6, leave out subsection 1 and insert—

“(1) In section 21 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 (offence of knowingly employing an illegal worker), delete subsection (1) and substitute—

(1) A person commits an offence if he knowingly or recklessly employs an adult subject to immigration control, where—

(a) this adult has not been granted leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom, or

(b) this adult’s leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom—

(i) is invalid,

(ii) has ceased to have effect (whether by reason of curtailment, revocation, cancellation, passage of time or otherwise), or

(iii) is subject to a condition preventing him from accepting the employment.”

To adopt a test of recklessness rather than negligence for the offence of employing an illegal worker, so as to avoid discriminatory employment practices by employers.

I can be relatively brief. The extension of the offence has been advanced on the basis of the need to deal with repeat offenders, but there is nothing in the Bill that requires an offender to have already offended before the new test is applied. Therefore, it is applied more generally. In our submission the right approach is to move to a position of recklessness rather than negligence for fear of the default position of employers, which could be discriminatory in its effect.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

As the hon. and learned Gentleman says, the amendment seeks to avoid discriminatory practices by employers through adopting a test of recklessness for the offence of employing an illegal worker. The Government’s intention of using the “reasonable cause to believe” test is to make the current test more objective and easier to prove. It is intended to capture those employers who have wilfully turned a blind eye to someone’s immigration status.

It must be emphasised that the test of “reasonable cause to believe” is not the same as negligence, as the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras will well understand. The intention is to continue to apply the civil penalty sanction to those employers who are simply negligent; that is to say, those employers who act without reasonable care and skill in terms of not checking a person’s right to work, or not doing so correctly.

We judge that introducing a test of recklessness would not assist in increasing the number of prosecutions of those employers who flout the rules on illegal working. It would remain a subjective test and would require proof that the employer foresaw a risk that the person had no right to work, yet went on to take that risk and employ them. It is precisely the difficulties in establishing the state of mind of the employer that the Government are seeking to address in the Bill, by introducing an objective element to the test. Having “reasonable cause to believe” will capture circumstances in which an employer wilfully turns a blind eye to anything that would give them reasonable grounds to believe that the employee has no right to work.

In addition to being more difficult to prove, a test of recklessness would also potentially go too wide and be more likely to lead to discriminatory behaviour, which the amendment seeks to avoid. In our judgment, the Bill’s test that the cause to believe must be a “reasonable” one strikes the right balance between making the offence easier to prove and guarding against discriminatory behaviour.

I do not believe that the test of “reasonable cause to believe” will encourage further discriminatory behaviour on the part of employers, because they are already required to undertake prescribed right to work checks to establish a statutory excuse in the event of illegal working. That does not change.

The Secretary of State has published a statutory code of practice on avoiding discrimination while preventing illegal working. If an employer is simply negligent, they will be dealt with under the civil penalty scheme. What we are changing is our ability to prosecute those employers who choose not to undertake the necessary checks because they have reasonable grounds to believe that such checks will reveal that the employee has no right to work. That is in addition to our intention to continue to prosecute those we can show actually know that someone has no right to work— which is where we largely sit currently—as we can do now under the current wording of the offence. Obviously, however, it inhibits and limits that sense of having to prove the knowledge of the employer in those circumstances. That is why the change has been brought forward.

Having given that explanation, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

As part of our drive against illegal working in the UK, the Government intend to toughen their approach to employers who deliberately, cynically or systematically use illegal workers. The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 introduced a civil penalty scheme, under which employers of illegal workers may be liable for a civil penalty of up to £20,000 per worker. That remains the principal means of dealing with cases of non-compliance by businesses that negligently employ illegal workers. In 2014-15, 1,974 civil penalties were issued to employers, with a total value of £29.6 million.

The 2006 Act also introduced a criminal offence of knowingly employing an illegal worker, which provides the appropriate response to those employers who deliberately flout the law. The Government believe that we continue to need both the penalty scheme and the facility to prosecute in order to provide a comprehensive and appropriate response to the whole spectrum of employer non-compliance. However, we have concluded that we should take action in this Bill to strengthen the capability to prosecute where employer non-compliance goes beyond negligence or error.

Some employers are deliberately not checking whether their employees have the right to work. They routinely choose not to know, and so cannot be found to be knowingly employing an illegal worker. The new offence will also capture those employers who should have known that the employment was illegal. In addition, some employers are dissolving their businesses and simply creating a new business, in order to evade civil penalties for illegal working. In such circumstances, it is appropriate to hold an individual employer personally to account in their capacity as a company officer, and that can be done by prosecuting the individual for committing a criminal offence. Clause 9 amends the criminal sanction in the 2006 Act to make it easier to bring prosecutions successfully and to increase the maximum custodial sentence that a Crown court may impose.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Civil Liberties)

Is the Minister not concerned that making it easier to bring about prosecutions and prove negligence will mean that employers are much more fearful of employing someone who, to them, does not sound, look or seem British? My fear is that people who genuinely intend to do the right thing will steer clear of employing anyone who does not appear to be British because they will be frightened of being prosecuted. They will be taking a big risk.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

That is why I made the point about negligence and how that is dealt with under the civil penalty regime but not the criminal provisions that I explained earlier. That feeds back into the debate we have had in respect of the bar that needs to be set for bringing prosecutions. That is why I made the comments I did in the previous debate about discrimination. The most serious cases involving the exploitation of illegal labour will continue to be dealt with under legislation that prohibits facilitation and trafficking. It is important to make that point in the broader context of the provision.

Subsection (1) amends section 21(1) of the 2006 Act by inserting, after “knowing”,

“or having reasonable cause to believe”.

That is the test. It is not negligence. The effect is to amend what is known as the mens rea, the knowledge or intention needed to make out the offence, in order to make the test more objective and the offence easier to prove, but still with that safeguard.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn

My understanding is that for an employer to take on an employee the latter needs a national insurance number. Would that not automatically say that someone had the right to be here?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

It is rather that the employer has to show the right-to-work check, which is what the provision relates to. There is certain documentation with which employers should be familiar. We still work on the basis of trying to raise awareness of the issues. We are not trying deliberately to catch out employers. I certainly want employers to know the relatively simple steps they have to take to comply. The obligation was introduced into law in 2006, when the civil penalty scheme was put in place by the Labour Government. That is, therefore, what needs to be shown and it is why the negligence piece sits within the civil penalty regime.

The amendment to the definition of the offence—having reasonable cause to believe—is for those who close their eyes and put their fingers in their ears so that they cannot be liable, trying to get around the existing knowledge requirement of the Act. Those employers are, frankly, trying to play the system, and we are making the changes because of the problems that the pre-existing offence presented for our ability to bring prosecutions. I think that hon. Members would want us to be able to bring prosecutions in such circumstances.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Building on what the Minister said in response to my hon. Friend, what would be a reasonable defence for an employer?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Minister of State (Home Office) (Security and Immigration)

It will depend on the circumstances. It is about the distinction between negligence and having reasonable cause to believe. The legal tests are slightly different, and I do not want to hasten into issues of law as I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for  Holborn and St Pancras will be well enough equipped with his knowledge and expertise in those matters to be able to underline the distinction, as will the Solicitor General. I will not hasten to stray into matters of law with such august representatives in the room.

At the moment, if a document that looks legitimate and real is presented to someone, that is often a defence in relation to the negligence argument. The employer has not been negligent. They have checked. We are not trying to make employers, or landlords—we will come on to them, I am sure, under the right to rent—into some sort of extension of immigration enforcement teams. If it is shown that the basic checks have been conducted in good faith, the civil penalty regime would not apply, even on the test of negligence—let alone the criminal sanction in clause 9. On that basis, the measure is an important step forward and fits within the broader enforcement strategy. I hope the clause will stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.