Date updated: Tuesday 9th January 2024

What is changing and why does it matter?

Right-to-work non-compliance is due to become even more financially burdensome for employers.  From January 2024, the fines for employers who are employing individuals without the necessary permissions will be three times higher than in 2023, as a result of  “the biggest shake up of civil penalties since 2014”. Now is the time for HR leaders to audit their right-to-work records and practices to ensure compliance and get ahead of government plans for enforcement action.  

What is the financial risk?

The civil penalty for employers for failing to establish a right to work has been raised to up to £45,000 per employee, from its previous limit of £15,000. The civil penalty for repeat failures to establish the right to work has been raised to £60,000, from its previous limit of £20,000.

What is the probability of financial risk? 

Employers are aware of the risk of non-compliance with the right-to-work rules – with many concerned about the large fines that may be enforced.

Nevertheless, over the last decade, there has been a relatively low probability of fines due to limited levels of enforcement action from the Home Office. In fact, since the start of 2018, only 5,000 civil penalties have been issued to employers in the UK.  

In 2024, the probability of fines is set to increase significantly. We expect strengthened Home Office enforcement action to accompany these substantial fine increases. We expect that more businesses across the UK will be visited and/or reviewed and, as a result, non-compliant practices will lead to far greater levels of civil penalties. Without greater focus on the civil penalty regime, the government cannot meaningfully deter illegal working and ensure that the hostile environment for illegal migrants is effective.   

Does this risk apply to all employers?

Yes. These fine increases relate to the Prevention of Illegal Working document check regime in place for all UK employers, whether you employ overseas workers or not. The right-to-work regime is used to supplement criminal sanctions and means that civil penalties can be set for employers who may not intend to use illegal workers, but who fail to take appropriate care when onboarding staff or checking documents. The threshold for culpability under the right-to-work regime is much lower than the criminal sanctions threshold for knowingly employing illegal workers, therefore it’s likely that more employers will incur fines.

The Minister for Immigration has said: “There is no excuse for not conducting the appropriate checks and those in breach will now face significantly tougher penalties”.  

Surely this is just about ‘criminal’ employers?

No. Employers who think that they don’t need to consider right-to-work issues – because they don’t have a sponsor licence or aim to recruit migrants – are at the greatest risk. An employee can easily present a fraudulent British passport and, unless you had conducted a check based on strict requirements, you would have no excuse against a charge of illegal working.  

For genuine criminal enterprises, the criminal sanctions for illegal working remain unchanged. Individuals who purposely break the law can be sent to jail for five years and asked to pay an unlimited fine if found guilty of employing someone who they knew or had ‘reasonable cause to believe’ did not have the right to work in the UK. This includes knowing that an employee does not have a visa, or their visa has expired, or their type of visa does not allow work, or that their papers are incorrect/false.

What action should employers take?

As part of standard onboarding processes, employers should already be checking all employees’ right to work before the start of employment. 

Employers should urgently consider whether they fully understand their right-to-work obligations and have systems in place that ensure compliance. Our Immigration Team offers a range of services – including standard policies, training and audits – to assist you.  Please get in touch to discuss your needs further.