13:18, October 30 318 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-30 13:18:06
Employers must check EU nationals' right to work, says minister

Employers will be expected to check whether EU nationals have the right to work in the UK during any Brexit transition period, even though it will be almost impossible to assess this, and the nature of the checks remain unknown, Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, has told MPs.

Her disclosure caused dismay among employers’ groups, who have said that they have “serious concerns” that the Home Office is now landing them with an impossible task with just five months left until Britain leaves the EU.

In a sometimes difficult appearance before the home affairs select committee, Nokes said it would be up to companies offering jobs to EU nationals post-Brexit to determine whether those applicants were eligible to work in the UK.

This appears to contradict a press briefing this summer in which the Home Office indicated it would not require employers to make immigration checks on existing staff who are EU citizens.

Questioned by MPs, Nokes conceded it would be difficult for employers to make such checks, given that long-standing residents from EU member states had a two-year period to go through the “settled status” programme, proving their right to remain and to work.

When asked how employers could be expected to make the checks, Nokes said she did not know, and would have to write to the committee later.

The MPs heard that in a test of the settled status programme about 600 EU nationals had been processed from a total of more than 3 million people who would need to be assessed.

They were also told that the digital system allowing people to apply for the scheme only worked with Android devices, as it had not been possible to get an agreement for it to work on Apple’s systems.

While confirming that a promised immigration bill would “turn off free movement” once Brexit happened – removing the automatic right of EU nationals to live and work in the UK – Nokes said that determining people’s status would be tricky during the planned two-year transition period, whether or not there a deal was agreed. This was because people had until March 2021 to apply for settled status.

“In the intervening period of any transition period it will be incredibly difficult to differentiate between an EU citizen coming here for the first time, for example, and somebody who has been here for a significant period of time and hasn’t yet applied for their settled status but would be perfectly entitled to it if they were to,” Nokes said.

Asked by Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, whether companies would be expected to distinguish between the groups, Nokes confirmed they would.

“As part of the right-to-work check, we expect employers to make sure that they are not employing people who do not have the right to work here,” Nokes said.

Repeatedly questioned on the practicalities of any checks, Nokes struggled to respond, at first saying she hoped “a pragmatic approach” would prevail.

“I’ve said that it’s going to be an enormous challenge for both employers and for EU citizens who do have the right to work to make sure that we get them through the settled status scheme as efficiently as we possibly can.”

Cooper said she was “really baffled”, adding: “Either you’re going to have a system that in practice is unworkable because employers can’t implement it, or you’re going to have to accept that people who are arriving after March 2019 will just be covered by exactly the same rules as people who are already here.”

Questioned by Kate Green, the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, Nokes conceded she did not know what checks might be required. “As far as the challenge of how someone who hasn’t yet been through the scheme but has a right to be here evidences that – I think that might be something I need to write to the committee about,” she said.

Green replied: “I think it would be very important to employers to know very soon what it is you’re expecting them to check.”

Nokes said that in talks with business groups no employer had raised that issue with her.