Illegal working: EEA and Swiss nationals

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:15 pm ar 16 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘Section 24B of the Immigration Act 1971 does not apply to any work undertaken by an EEA or Swiss nationals.’—

This new clause would limit the offence of illegal working so that it did not apply to EEA or Swiss nationals.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Illegal work was made a crime in its own right in the Immigration Act 2016. Lots of groups and MPs raised concerns at the time about the negative implications that would have, compared with any benefit it might bring. I think it is important always to revisit changes that this Parliament makes and to push the Government to explain what impact they really had.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the impact of that legislation. How many prosecutions have there been? What were the results of those prosecutions? What sorts of sentences were handed down? When the Government or law enforcement took that approach—the other side of the coin—what action was taken against those employers who were found to be employing people illegally?

As the Minister will be aware, at the time that legislation was introduced, all sorts of concerns were raised about the fact that it would strengthen the hand of exploitative employers, who would be able to have greater control over undocumented workers, essentially by having the knowledge that these individuals were committing a crime by undertaking that work and making it much less likely that they would even consider, never mind actually report to the authorities, the abuse and exploitation that they were suffering.

The offence applies to any migrant found to be working while they do not have valid legal status granting them leave to be in the UK, or when visa conditions ban them from working, such as in the case of asylum seekers, or if they work hours beyond those permitted by their visa, as may be the case for students. The penalty includes a maximum custodial sentence of six months and a fine at the statutory maximum. It also allows any wages paid to an illegal worker to be seized as the proceeds of crime.

The concerns raised in 2016 were that undocumented migrants in the UK forbidden from working illegally are forced to rely on illegal work, on charity and on the support of friends or family members, which can lead to situations of abuse and dependency, as well as instances of survival sex, for example, and destitution, homelessness and starvation. Often, agents who find work for undocumented migrants also run overcrowded, slum-like accommodation for the workers, keeping them isolated and cheaply accommodated.

Undocumented migrants who find work despite the prohibition are forced to look for work among some of the most unscrupulous and exploitative of employers. They are often underpaid or unpaid, forced to work extremely long hours, denied all workplace health and safety protections and threatened with being reported if they complain. As much of the work can be carried out cash in hand, the state sees none of the tax benefit either.

There are huge concerns here about modern slavery. I am grateful to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference on migration for its briefing, which states:

“Those perpetrating the horrors of modern slavery will seek every chance to take advantage of new migration policies. The government has a responsibility to ensure that proper safeguards are in place… the fear of prosecution currently deters people from escaping abusive employment practices or presenting themselves to the police. One particularly important step towards protecting people from exploitation would therefore be to repeal the offence of illegal working, so that no victim is at risk of being punished.”

Will the Government explain how this measure has helped in any way with what they want to achieve, and what steps they have taken to assess all the negative implications that we have been warning about and to militate against them?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

We have one or two unanswered questions on how the new clause would work in practice. We want to ensure that we have done all our due diligence before lending it our support. We may well come back to this on Report.

The new clause gives us the opportunity to say to the Minister that we are incredibly concerned that there are people who, when free movement ends—innocent, ordinary, decent, hard-working people—for the whole raft of reasons that we have already been through in the Committee, may find that they have missed the deadline. They have then not only got a precarious migration status, but could, if they continue to wait, find themselves in the criminal justice system and criminalised. We need to address the issue now.

One example that we have mentioned is that which the BMA raised with me. Its doctors, on the frontline of fighting coronavirus, will potentially leave applying to the EU settlement scheme to the last minute for that reason. If they continue to work as a doctor, would they be criminalised if they had not done their due diligence in making sure they have their applications in, but were continuing to work in our NHS? Will the Minister reassure us that nobody will be criminalised and in our criminal justice system who absolutely does not belong there when free movement comes to an end at the end of this year?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

To respond to my shadow, the hon. Member for Halifax, as we touched on at some length earlier, there would be grounds for reasonable excuse as to why someone had filed a late application. We will set out the criteria; it will not be an exhaustive list, because it would be impossible to come up with an exhaustive list of things that would be reasonable in many individual circumstances.

It is worth noting that the scheme has now been open for more than a year. The first group who started to apply to it were NHS workers, and there has been some very welcome work by NHS trusts and employers to make sure their employees are aware of it. For those very skilled people working in our NHS, it is worth remembering that what we are talking about is using an app on their phone with chip checker technology—it is a relatively simple and appropriate process. Certainly, any enforcement will be proportionate throughout the system, as people would expect.

New clause 15 intends to exclude all EEA citizens from the criminal offence of working illegally created by the Immigration Act 2016, as stated by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. I am grateful to him for the opportunity to debate this important topic. Again, as he would expect me to say, the amendment is at odds with our commitment to introduce a single global migration system. I accept that he wants to pick the issue up in the scope of the Bill, but that is a core reason why the Government believe it is right for us to have a single system.

Under the new system, everyone will be required to obtain the correct immigration status, and we will clearly distinguish between those who are here lawfully and those who are not, regardless of where their passport is from. Working illegally is a key driver of illegal migration and we are determined to tackle it. Illegal working results in businesses that do not play by the rules undercutting legitimate businesses that do. It encourages people to break our immigration laws, leaving people vulnerable to exploitation, and means that they are paid under the legal minimum wage.

The offence of illegal working applies if an individual works in the UK when they are or have reasonable cause to believe that they are disqualified from working because of their immigration status. The new rules will be clear and will set out what is expected of people as well as their entitlement. Any person who wants to work in the UK will need to have the correct status before starting a job.

EEA citizens with EU settlement scheme status will continue to enjoy the right to work and access the same services as they do now. As I have already said, we will continue to encourage applications to the EU settlement scheme before the deadline, and will implement the new points-based system that treats EEA and non-EEA citizens equally.

The new clause would discriminate in favour of EEA citizens, which is not justifiable after we have left the European Union. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s principled position in the provisions. I have touched on the provisions that are implemented proportionately, where they are applied. There is enforcement, particularly against employers who seek to exploit people. I hope that, in the light of those points, he will withdraw the clause, because it is not one that the Government can support.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I am grateful to hon. Members for discussing the subject, but I do not think we really got into the meat of it. I do not think that only EEA nationals should be exempt from the criminal offence of illegal working; there are good grounds for getting rid of it altogether. I wanted to find out whether the Government have done any analysis about how it has helped in any way and, in contrast, about the unintended consequences, such as making exploitation more serious and more significant. We will perhaps return to some of those issues when we debate other aspects of the hostile environment later. I might write to the Minister to try to press again for answers to some of the questions that I raised at the outset. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.