Why reinstating in-person right to work checks is a backwards step

The government’s decision to stop online document screening after Covid will damage business recovery, argues Keith Rosser

In the third week of April, the Home Office made the surprising announcement that it would be re-introducing physical right to work checks from 17 May, and then subsequently pushed back the deadline to 21 June following a backlash from employers and business groups. While the delay of 17 working days has helped some, for most UK employers this is a fundamental retrograde step and could harm economic recovery.

Many companies are now operating with a remote workforce and working in a new hybrid way. This is set to continue as great leaps in digital innovation have been possibly one of the few positives of the terrible pandemic.

Reverting to face-to-face right to work checks introduces an unnecessary hurdle to both employers and potential employees and could cause significant damage to the UK’s economic recovery. Even beyond 21 June, businesses will continue to work in a more digital, innovative, hybrid way meaning a requirement for physical checking will severely hamper our ability to build back better and hinder both the economic and jobs recovery.

Since 30 March last year, the government has been allowing employers to use video calls and accept scans, or photographs, of right to work documents. Remote screening services, with verification taking place over video with a trained professional, has enabled thousands more people to start work during lockdown easing the damage caused by the pandemic. Digital checks have given employers more flexibility and enabled them to adapt quickly to spikes in demand over the last year. This has helped the move towards more flexible working hours enjoyed by millions of UK workers as well as helping in the fight against Covid.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift towards virtual working that the UK government has promoted for a long time. Indeed, last year allowed companies to trial digital checking systems and this demonstrated how effective they are. As well as being more secure and compliant, remote checks take 75 per cent less time to complete, removing red tape and delays from the hiring process. 

A retrograde return to physical checking also derails the government’s strategy for digital identity led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), a project in which I represent hiring in my role as chair of the Better Hiring Institute and the use case for digital identity for employment – potentially a very large and very beneficial use case. Imagine being able to get a job remotely, digitally anywhere across the UK. It would revolutionise opportunities for individuals and widen the access to talent for employers. 

The reintroduction of physical checks will also mean there will be unnecessary travel and face-to-face meetings, when we are still trying to limit journeys and the spread of the virus. For all of those people shielding, or with Covid anxiety, this effectively removes them from the jobs market.

With many offices still closed, or at least having a hybrid of remote and in-work employees, this system will be unworkable and will add unnecessary burdens to already struggling businesses.

So much progress has been made in successfully adapting the right to work checks into a virtual process over the past year, why take a backwards step now? If the government truly has a ‘digital by default’ strategy and wants to evolve working conditions, how does this policy align with that and help the UK to be a global player in the future?

Yet, from 21 June, employers will once again have to check applicants’ original right to work documents in person, or by post, reopening offices they never planned on returning to, or sending employees to coffee shops and bars to scrutinise passports to apparently prevent illegal working. 

But after 21 June, the system also gets more complicated than it looks on the surface.

Some digital hiring is allowed – online checks will be permitted if employees have been provided with a share code by the Home Office and this is restricted to EU settled status workers and certain visa holders, therefore making the recruitment of non-UK nationals easier and cheaper than the recruitment of UK nationals in a post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain.

With regards to businesses operating remotely, the Home Office guidance says that in this instance the applicant will need to courier original copies of documents to their employer, who will need to verify their identity over a video call. This raises its own problems. As well as the issue of people having to post confidential documents and the risk of them getting lost or stolen, there are also some significant protection issues – does an HR manager who is working remotely really want to give out their private address to a prospective employee. Who is responsible for the safe return of identity documents soon to be making their way across the UK?

Following the APPG inquiry report back in October chaired by Dean Russell MP, which we spearheaded, we were optimistic that the government would make the temporary changes permanent.

This was a prime opportunity to make the biggest improvement in recruitment for decades. Instead, this retrograde move could be a serious barrier to hybrid working, flexible working, an agile and modern labour market, and put the UK at a competitive disadvantage. We are urging them to reconsider this decision, which will have a devastating impact on the economy’s ability to bounce back quickly and build back better.

The pandemic has changed every part of our lives – from the way we live, how we shop and where we work. Going back to the pre-Covid way of hiring and carrying out security checks will prevent thousands of people getting back into work at a time when the government’s focus should be on economic recovery, supporting businesses and helping the unemployed, not putting up barriers to all of them.

The old right to work check system is not fit for purpose, but in this post-pandemic climate it is worse than that. It will cause significant economic harm.

Keith Rosser is director of group risk and Reed Screening at REED