Our new digital Right To Work checks system only went live on October 1st, but already it needs fixing

Hiring not going back to being a face-to-face, in-person practice as it was before the coronavirus pandemic was certainly a tremendous step forward for the UK and officially, this happened with permanency on October 1st 2022, writes Better Hiring Institute (BHI) chair Keith Rosser, director of Reed Screening.

The now-in place digital Right To Work checks system was the result of quite a lot -- parliamentary briefings; parliamentary questions, and a submission I penned to Number 10 Downing Street. But was it enough? I ask because there are concerns -- well-founded concerns -- that the new system enables illegal working; has built up barriers around Brits, and even is dogged by an information blind-spot affecting those who need details the most. And that's job candidates, including contractors.

Building barriers for Brits

For British and Irish citizens, getting a job in the UK is now done through one of three routes:

  • completing a digital identity check remotely, or
  • by visiting an employer in-person, or finally,
  • by sending original identity documents by post.

Only routes one and three allow remote, virtual hiring -- essential for busy contractors on the move with clients all over the UK. It’s even more of a must now all of us are in a cost of living crisis, which will increase the need to change job or get a second job to pay the bills. Even for once-upon-a-time well-heeled contractors, having multiple assignments is becoming increasingly important as the new economic realities hit, so for them it’s ‘digital’ all the way. 

The blunt passport requirement is stunting uptake, opportunities, growth

There's a catch however, a pretty big catch. Digital right to work checks (with verification provided by an Identity Service Provider), is only allowed under Home Office rules, and these rules effective since October 1st dictate that the citizen must have an in-date, valid passport.

So, for anyone who does not want to use a digital route, or does not hold a valid and in-date UK or Irish passport, it’s worryingly a case of risk losing your passport by sending it in the post, or get your hiking boots out because you’ll need to travel across the UK to an employer so you can present yourself and your documents in-person. The extra snag here is many organisations have reduced their office footprint since the pandemic.

And we’re not necessarily talking about small numbers. The number of working age people in the UK without an in-date passport is as high as one in every five. This drops to 1 in 10 in places like London, but gets up to three in five people out in the regions. 

While I’m obviously a massive supporter of digital right to work checks, this requirement makes it look like an anti-growth policy from, ironically, a growth-obsessed government.

Enabling illegal working. Here’s how…

A digital Right To Work (RTW) checks system is, by itself, more secure. But there are concerns right now that the UK is enabling illegal working. That’s because faced with the new October 1st rules, the best route for an illegal worker to take is to obtain a fake birth certificate (unfortunately readily obtainable online, with a good quality only about £25). Along with a fake National Insurance document, the illegal worker simply posts the fake certificate to a new employer. It’s actually very hard for an employer to know it's fake. The illegal worker will go for this route rather than go through the Online Checking Service (the Home Office online service confirming visas) and similarly, they know they will not beat the new ID technology. So, in a sense, the fresh rules for our shiny new digital RTW system force illegal workers into the third (above), postal option, and with little ability to weed out the fakes it’s a route which is vulnerable.

To my mind and in wake of the barriers springing up around Brits due to the passport requirement, the upshot is that in post-Brexit Britain, it might actually be harder for many legitimate British work seekers to get jobs, but easier for illegal workers.

Holding our horses, even though the derby is well underway

Having a permanent, digital system for right to work checking is clearly a huge step forward from in-person checks.

In a post-lockdown labour market, face-to-face as the only option would simply never do. The country faces record vacancies across multiple sectors and there is a concern this will continue to worsen.

But the new October 1st scheme is not yet fully fit for purpose. And solutions are overdue. So at the request of ministers and MPs, I was happy to recently attend a meeting with Home Office officials. The meeting was positive; the issues were understood, the options were presented. But solutions, I was advised, need more time. Always disappointing to in effect be told, ‘hold your horses.’

My hope is that this isn't a holding strategy. To not allow it time to become one, we will be hosting a parliamentary briefing shortly, chaired by peers, to hear evidence directly from employers about examples where the passport requirement has prevented hiring. We’ll hear how the new rules have excluded certain individuals, particularly those in most need of work who live in deprived, rural areas. We hope to hear too, from any contractors who have missed out on paid opportunities because a not fully fit-for-purpose system has been unleashed. The briefing is a key opportunity to take the next step, to turn digital RTW from what-we-have-now, into a near perfect framework. 

I’m not alone in wanting action. MPs in recent weeks have taken this issue as far and as high as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, sending him a strong message of how an unfinished digital RTW system is harming growth, disadvantaging UK citizens, facilitating illegal workers, and even ‘levels down’ the regions. I hope it's a message that Mr Rees-Mogg will listen to.

Made sense of it all? Here’s a link if not

Finally, the new scheme can be complex, yet clear, accessible, information about it is in short supply. The best source of information which is free is on the BHI here. As its chair I would say that -- of course, but four in 10 employers have said that they want all the relevant information and links on the October 1st system in one place and that’s what’s we’ve tried to do. A toolkit, informed from events with over 1,000 employers with questions and feedback, is available there too. But while this helps employers, it doesn't help citizens.

In fact, it is increasingly clear to me that help and advice for citizens, as opposed to employers, is secondary in the new world of virtual hiring. So after fixing digital right to work’s issues, the next aim of government must be to improve advice for individuals. Citizens of the UK deserve to know what is happening to their digital identities, how they enable work; who has their identities and credentials, what those parties are doing with them, and how they can avoid fraud and scams.

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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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