Immigration Bill to introduce six month jail sentence for illegal workers
The Government has announced that the forthcoming Immigration Bill will include a new criminal offence of illegal working, punishable by up to six months' imprisonment and an unlimited fine in England and Wales. The creation of the criminal offence would also allow wages to be seized as the proceeds of crime.
If implemented, these proposals might mean that,illegal migrants who are caught working could be arrested, charged, and processed through the courts before being taken to jail, instead of being detained in an immigration detention centre, before removal.
The Government also said that new powers in the Bill will also make it easier to prosecute employers who know, or even just reasonably suspect, that an employee has no permission to work in the UK. It appears that the Government intends to lower the standard of proof in order to boost prosecutions and the current maximum sentence will be increased from two to five years. Employers are already obliged to carry out right to work checks before employing any non-EEA nationals.
The Government stated that employers who continue "to flout the law and evade sanctions" could see their business closed for up to 48 hours while they prove right to work checks have been conducted on staff. The worst offenders would be placed under special measures as directed by a court, which could lead to continued closure and compliance checks.
Further new powers would also mean that any pub, off-licence or takeaway that fails to comply with immigration laws or employs illegal workers could lose their licences. The Government is also considering extending these powers to cover minicab drivers and operators. There has already been criticism that these proposals in particular seem to target businesses where migrants are most publicly visible.
Precise details of the new measures will not be known until the Bill is published later in the autumn but they are expected to mean that the onus will now be on accused businesses to prove they carried out all relevant checks before employing an individual.
Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said that the new powers are intended to make it clear that the UK is not a "soft touch" destination, stating:
'... [I]f you are here illegally, we will take action to stop you from working, renting a flat, opening a bank account or driving a car.
As a one nation government we will continue to crack down on abuse and build an immigration system that works in the best interests of the British people and those who play by the rules.
Through our new Immigration Bill, illegal workers will face the prospect of a prison term and rogue employers could have their businesses closed, have their licences removed, or face prosecution if they continue to flout the law.'
According to the head of the National Police Chiefs' Council, Sara Thornton, in July, police budgets have been cut by 25% over the last four years and are expected to be cut further. Over 70,000 police posts are said to have been lost over the last 10 years. Ms Thornton said that the public should no longer expect to see a police officer after crimes such as burglary. The police intend to focus on sexual crime, terrorism, and cyber crime. This begs the question as to how the new law on illegal working will be enforced should it be passed. Will it be left entirely to immigration officers - in which case, why is the existing law, which allows for the detention and removal of illegal migrants and those working in breach of their visa conditios, not sufficient? Or will the police be required to prioritise illegal working over other so-called "traditional crimes" such as burglary and criminal damage?
In any event, the UK's prisons are already significantly overcrowded. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, there are currently 8,616 more prisoners being held than the prison service can provide decent and safe accommodation for. Some prisons, such as Kennet, are overcrowded by more than 80%. If the new law is intended to be anything more than cosmetic, then it gives rise to the possibility of thousands more migrants being held on remand or imprisoned, which will exacerbate the already serious problem of prison overcrowding.
Finally, is there any public interest in prosecuting and imprisoning illegal migrants for illegally working? For the most part, they will be in the UK unlawfully. As things currently stand, upon being caught they can be detained and removed almost immediately. This is surely the most cost-effective way of dealing with the problem, rather than imposing the additional cost of prosecution and imprisonment upon the public purse.
These new measures were announced on 26 August, the day before the latest quarterly immigration figures were published. The new figures showed that annual net migration had reached an all time high of 330,000, despite the Government's promise in 2010 to reduce the figure to the tens of thousands. The timing of the announcement of these new measures was surely no coincidence, even though they are likely to have little, if any, impact upon the net migration figures, which do not include illegal migrants. It does raise the question as to whether the real intention is to bolster the appearance that the Government is tough on immigrants, rather than to actually address the problem of illegal immigration.