Author: Peter Walker
Employers will be expected to check whether EU nationals have the right to work in the UK if there is a no-deal Brexit, 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, which have said they have “serious concerns” that the Home Office may give them an impossible task with just five months left until Britain leaves the EU.
In a fractious appearance before the home affairs select committee, Nokes said it would be up to companies offering jobs to EU nationals after Brexit to determine whether those applicants were eligible to work in the UK.
“If somebody hasn’t been here prior to the end of March next year, employers will have to make sure they go through adequately rigorous checks to evidence somebody’s right to work,” Nokes said, in an apparent new policy disclosure.
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 staff who are EU citizens.
When questioned by MPs, Nokes conceded that it would be difficult for employers to make such checks, given that longstanding residents from EU member states had a guaranteed 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.
EU citizens are required to apply for “settled status” to stay in the UK after Brexit, but the registration process is still being tested in a live trial and MPs heard that so far only 650 of the estimated 3.5m who will need to apply have gone through the process.
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 come to 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. Even if there was no deal, EU nationals would still have 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 that 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.”.
Repeatedly questioned on the practicalities of any checks, Nokes struggled to respond, at first saying she hoped that “a pragmatic approach” would prevail.
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 that she did not know what checks might be required.
Green replied: “I think it would be very important to employers to know very soon what it is you’re expecting them to check.”
After Cooper allowed more questions from MPs, Nokes protested that the session had gone 45 minutes over schedule and she was being kept away from important Brexit planning.
Cooper said with only five months to go to a potential no-deal Brexit, the committee had “a whole series of questions that parliament hasn’t had answers to”. Kristiina Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Today in Parliament shared a video of the tense exchange on Twitter:
Nokes said that in talks with business groups, no employer had raised that issue with her. This was disputed, with some saying they had repeatedly raised the issue of what they would be required to do in the event of no deal and had not been given any guidance.
“We’ve raised this as a source of serious concern for business communities given the shortening timeframe,” said Mike Spicer, director of economics and research at the British Chambers of Commerce. “Businesses can’t plan on the basis of warm words; they need to see written in black and white directions from the government about how exactly this scheme will operate if no deal is reached.”
The Home Office said the government was “considering a number of options” for a no-deal scenario and would “set out more information shortly”.