Immigration and the hostile environment - how nasty can it get for non-migrants?

The hostile environment has been an explicit feature of the UK government’s immigration strategy since measures were first introduced under the Immigration Act 2014, during Prime Minister Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary.  The basic premise is that, through a number of measures affecting different aspects of daily life, circumstances can be made so difficult for illegal immigrants that they will not wish to (or simply will not be able to) continue in the UK.  The measures are varied, ranging from the inability to hold a valid driving licence, to the right to rent property, to a bar on access to healthcare.  The latest addition, coming into force from January 2018 under the Immigration Act 2016, will affect an individual’s ability to hold a UK bank account and may lead to the closure of thousands of accounts currently open in the UK.    

You may be thinking that the hostile environment has no relevance to you; it is aimed at illegal immigrants after all, and not those living law-abiding lives.  However, while the government’s measures have the purpose of tackling a specific group of law breakers, they are often achieved by putting increasingly onerous duties on third parties.  This article looks more closely at how the hostile environment affects non-migrants, and some of the penalties faced by those who find themselves on the wrong side of Theresa May’s measures.    

Employing an illegal worker

Employing an individual with no right to work has been a criminal offence for many years, although prosecutions have historically been uncommon.  Civil sanctions are more commonplace, and penalties of several thousand pounds are imposed where an employer is found to have given work to someone without the proper documentation.  As the hostile environment has intensified, measures against employers have changed.  Prosecution is now easier, with actual knowledge of illegal working not required if it was ‘reasonably apparent’ that the individual did not have the correct permission.  If successfully prosecuted, the employer faces significant sanctions including up to 5 years’ imprisonment.  Civil penalties have also steadily increased, and now stand at up to £20,000 per illegal worker.  It is worth noting that employers have very limited opportunities to avoid a penalty if illegal working is established; unless all available preventative measures were taken, the penalty is imposed. 

Renting out your property

Measures restricting access to housing were introduced under the 2014 Act, but then were expanded by additional provisions in 2016.  The scheme is similar to that applied to working, with the migrant needing to show the correct paperwork proving a right to reside in the UK in order to have permission to rent.  As with the worker scheme, if those checks are not carried out correctly and the property is rented to someone without the proper status, a penalty can be imposed.  This means that it is the landlord – not the migrant or the government – who is responsible for ensuring only lawful residents can rent property.  Financial penalties here are smaller, up to £3,000 for the landlord, but there are criminal sanctions too.  Unlike illegal working, definite knowledge on the part of the landlord of the tenant’s illegal status must be proven, but the punishment is severe (again imprisonment of up to 5 years).

Bank accounts

The latest government measures relate to banking; January 2018 will see the introduction of what promises to be an extremely onerous requirement for building societies and banks to run quarterly checks on personal account holders.  Individuals without a right to live in the UK, who have exhausted all avenues for appeal and are liable for removal, are identified in the legislation as ‘disqualified persons’.  Institutions will have to conduct checks against data provided by the anti-fraud agency Cifas (which in turn would be provided such data by the Home Office) to establish that account holders are not ‘disqualified persons’.  There is also a requirement to report regular payments exceeding £200 into accounts held by such individuals, presumably to try to identify illegal working.

Where an individual is found to have no status, their accounts may be frozen or closed.  Existing account holders who may have opened their bank account during a period of legal residence but who later lose their right to remain in the UK could potentially be caught by these new measures.

Financial institutions therefore have what is likely to be an enormous task on their hands; not only do they need to ensure that they comply with the new measures, they also need to manage customer care and expectations while carrying out checks, and ensure potentially costly errors are not made due to inaccurate Home Office data.

If you would like to talk to one of our experts about your status, or how someone else's status affects you, please call our Manchester office on 0161 234 6800 or Liverpool on 0151 305 9600.