Contractors, Right to Work checks are dangerously close to wrongly resetting to non-digital

In a blow to contractors and others invested in the fourth Industrial Revolution, ministers this week reiterated their stance to halt the current remote, digital hiring practices that have saved companies and boosted employment during the coronavirus pandemic, writes Keith Rosser, chair of the Better Hiring Institute.

So in under three weeks, from September 1st, the government wants UK companies to hire British and Irish nationals face-to-face, yet at the same time as these companies will be able to hire overseas workers digitally, remotely, and for the foreseeable. 

Our hiring landscape cannot absorb a reset to non-digital

The UK is in the grip of the worst staffing shortages since 1997, with vacancies almost 10% higher now than before the pandemic (according to the ONS). We've had an estimated 1.3 million non-UK workers leaving during the pandemic and fewer EU workers now arriving in the UK. Plus there are fewer offices open for employers to meet applicants, with a recent survey of 2,000 employers showing that as many as two-thirds are adopting ‘hybrid working.’ And only 1 in 5 workers wants to work exclusively from an office moving forward. Furthermore, the volume of adverts on job boards stating 'home working' (or similar) has grown exponentially, meaning more employers want remote working -- something more workers are keen to do. 

The stance to enforce face-to-face hiring from September will therefore harm the UK at a time when ‘Build Back Better’ is dependent on filling the high number of vacancies. Lifestyles have changed too. Workers want the flexibility to live where they want and to work for the employer they want, and not be limited by geography.

Wiping away the good

As a result, employment rates in traditional employment ‘blackspots’ have, in many cases, actually held firm or improved during the pandemic, and employers have put this down (in part) to the ability to hire remotely using online methods. The result of these methods? People in Wales, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the West Midlands have been hired by companies without physical locations in those areas -- something that will be heavily impacted by a return to face-to-face hiring. The so-called covid-inspired ‘adjusted’ right to work checks have helped the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, and the insistence on in-person hiring will only adversely affect it. 

More positively, the campaign to keep right to work checks digital this month secured a Parliamentary Question by Baroness Neville-Rolfe, which elicited a response from the Home Office. The response shows that officials now see the benefits of digital technology, and the need to expand this to British and Irish nationals. The response also confirmed a research study being undertaken by the Home Office on this very subject.

Government switching on, just as the clock runs down

However, at the time of the ministerial letter at the start of August, the study was then not complete -- four weeks until the September deadline. This means a fuller digital solution will not be ready, so it is essential the current adjusted checks are extended beyond September 1st.

Yesterday, I led a roundtable chaired by Lord Lucas on behalf of the Better Hiring Institute. As ContractorUK pre-empted, we heard evidence from over 50 employers, ranging from major international corporations to SMEs and public sector organisations. Real examples we heard of point to hundreds of thousands of UK-based staff getting hired during the pandemic using digital hiring and, the estimates indicate, this is set be more than cut in half in the near future.

Harm, need and the risk of exacerbation

It is my firm belief (informed by both such estimates and the 50+employers) that Britain's ability to compete internationally will be harmed by restrictions on hiring that create lifestyle barriers, limits opportunities and disadvantages people from employment blackspots, or people who have restrictions on travel.

The purpose of the session was to create a one-page submission for Number 10 Dowing Street, parliament, MPs, and respective parts of government on what employers practically need to help tackle the worst staffing crises in over 20 years. This includes how online work eligibility checking can be made more robust than physical checking quickly and effectively and, most importantly, in time for September 1st.

Ominously, there is no predicting whether UK government will support Build Back Better, Levelling Up, and so ensure that the UK can compete internationally -- or whether they will actively make the acute staffing shortages worse, at the same time as harming people's choices and opportunities, but the business case is a strong one and it is important that it gets heard. 

Editor’s Note: The author, Keith Rosser, has put together a template that contractors can use to write to their local MP in support of Right to Work checks remaining digital.

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Written by Keith Rosser

Keith Rosser is a labour market expert with almost 20 years working in hiring. Currently a Group Director at Reed, the UK's largest family-owned recruitment business, and Chair of 2 joint UK government and industry bodies: the Better Hiring Institute and JobsAware.
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