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Immigration inspector: Home Office lacks a clue on illegal working


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Government attempts to tackle illegal working are halting, aimless and ill-adapted to the post-Windrush dispensation, an independent inspection report has found.

David Bolt’s latest report says that “the Home Office’s efforts are not really working and may have had the unintended consequence of enabling exploitation and discrimination by some employers”. The inspector also found that Windrush had radically changed both the public mood around enforcement and the level of enforcement activity, leaving the department fumbling to define a more subtle role than simply chasing removal targets.

Of Mr Bolt’s six recommendations for improvement, the “pivotal” two are for the Home Office to come up with an actual plan for illegal working, and for how it will measure the plan’s success.

Inspectors had last looked into illegal working in 2015. They were told then that enforcement officers were keen to move away from the blunt instrument of workplace raids. Instead, they would “create a more collaborative relationship with employers, through visits to educate and encourage employers to comply with the relevant legislation”.

The new inspection found that efforts had been made to create this brave new world. But:

there were no metrics in place to measure how successful or otherwise these had been, and it was unclear what level of support they enjoyed at the most senior levels in the Home Office and elsewhere, especially since the Windrush scandal.

This is similar to Mr Bolt’s assessment of another Home Office enforcement scheme, Right to Rent fines for landlords. That report found that the department was “failing to… measure effectively its use” as an enforcement tool.

The new inspection also notes that immigration enforcement officials are not a deterrent to many of those working illegally. Almost half of their visits are to restaurants and takeaways, and almost two thirds of arrests are of Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese citizens.

Whatever the logic of this approach from a removals perspective, the inference for other nationals working illegally, especially if they were not employed in restaurants and takeaways, was that the likelihood of being arrested for working illegally was low and the likelihood of removal was negligible.

Mr Bolt points to the dramatic fall-off in fines for businesses found to be employing undocumented workers (as we reported last year) and the low collection rate. Although all figures on illegal working are necessarily quite rough, the report comments that

it is hard to imagine that businesses that knowingly employ illegal workers, or those that are negligent in carrying out ‘right to work’ checks, consider they are at serious risk of receiving a Civil Penalty, the more so if they are not in London and the South East and not a restaurant or hotel.

Immigration enforcement is also concerned about activities of hostile activists such as the Anti-Raids Network. Since April 2016, officers have been filing “Activist Intel Reports” and are given training in “how to manage members of the public who were intending to disrupt enforcement activity”.

The general public, too, is becoming more hostile to enforcement activity, with the inspection putting this partly down to a Windrush effect. Illegal working tip-offs, for example, have fallen in each of the last few years and “at senior levels it had made engaging with businesses more challenging”.

Internally, the ditching of removal targets — the issue that led to the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd — have left officials confused about what they are supposed to be doing if not kicking out as many undocumented migrants as possible:

the absence of removals targets had made it harder to evaluate the impact of their work and to define “success”… A number of staff referred to IE being “on a journey” moving beyond targets.

Despite this, there was “there was little sense that IE had fundamentally rethought its approach to illegal working”. The chief inspector hints that a new approach could involve some recognition that those found to be working illegally may need help rather than handcuffs. The inspectors found that staff talked a good game on recognising vulnerability in illegal workers but that was not translating into their work on the ground (apart from an obsession with exploitation in nail bars). One car valet operator was found to be illegally employing 54 people — a decent indicator of systematic exploitation — but no action was taken.

In response, the Home Office said that it fully accepts all six of the recommendations.

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CJ McKinney

CJ McKinney is a specialist on immigration law and policy. Formerly the editor of Free Movement, you will find a lot of articles by CJ here on this website! Twitter: @mckinneytweets.