Despite almost universal objections either to the principle or to the practicalities, the coalition is determined to go ahead with its plan to force private landlords to check new tenants’ immigration status. The measure is part of the Immigration Bill, due to enter its committee stage in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The Immigration Bill and its impact assessment seem accurate in what they say about the scale of the scheme: nearly two million private landlords, many of them sole operators and half of whom do not use agents, will need to learn how to make immigration checks on around three million adults who enter new lettings each year. Given the number of mistakes and the time it takes for the Home Office to make its own immigration checks, you’d think it would be rather less upbeat about how easy it will be for landlords to establish not only an applicant’s identity (which they already often do) but whether they are entitled to be in the UK as a long-term resident. The latter can be far more complicated and not obvious from the paperwork. The clearest warning of impending disaster came from the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association:
‘We do not consider that the Home Office is in a position to take on a challenge of this scale. We urge caution. This project sets the Home Office up to fail. Again.’
When immigration minister Mark Harper was grilled on these issues by the Bill’s scrutiny committee last week, Pat McFadden MP put him under pressure about the difficult of dealing with less simple cases, for example where someone is entitled to an extension of their leave to remain in the country but they can’t get a reply from the Home Office. A couple of days before, Katharine Sacks-Jones of Crisis gave a different example of someone escaping domestic violence who urgently needs somewhere to live with their kids, but whose paperwork is still in the ex-partner’s possession.
Harper either has remarkable faith in or is staggeringly complacent about the measures which the Home Office says will address these problems. There will be an advice service for landlords with a target turnaround time of up to 48 hours and a ‘code of practice’ which landlords are expected to follow. If he thinks these will protect migrants applying for a tenancy, in the dog-eat-dog parts of the private rented sector in London and some other places, he is showing how little he knows of the reality of life in the poorer parts of Brent or Newham. Perhaps there is a degree of irony in the Home Office assessment of ten minutes as the average time that landlords will take to check more complicated cases: it might take them rather less time than this to decide the prospective tenant is not worth the risk.
It’s unlikely that Mr Harper will take advice from Red Brick on this issue (though he could do far worse), but perhaps he should pay more attention to the views of landlord organisations. Several of them have expressed their fears that landlords won’t be interested in making checks in complicated cases, and in fact will have every incentive not to do so: first because it will take time and may delay a letting, and second because they face a fine of £3,000 if they mistakenly let a flat to someone not entitled to residence. The obvious consequence will be discrimination, not necessarily the result of racism but simply because landlords won’t want the hassle. The National Landlords’ Association said that if getting advice from the Home Office takes the promised 48 hours, ‘in many, many cases the property will have gone by then’. They are worried that more tenants will have to go to ‘rogue landlords’ and be subject to exploitation:
‘This will leave vulnerable tenants forced into the arms of an underclass of rogue operators, who will not care and certainly won’t inform the immigration authorities.’
The UK Association of Lettings Agents said:
‘UKALA is deeply concerned that the bill’s requirements will further restrict access to housing for people from outside of the UK, or with non-standard requirements. Many areas of the UK have very competitive lettings markets and it is entirely conceivable that landlords will instruct agents to favour those tenants they perceive as ‘low risk’.
Labour has sensibly put down a new clause for the Bill which would require the government to pilot the scheme properly before it can be rolled out nationally. It is vitally important that, if the scheme is to go ahead at all, there should not only be pilots but that the effects on vulnerable people are properly assessed. But it would be even better for Labour to argue that the scheme in practice won’t have much effect in deterring ‘illegal’ migrants at all, since they are unlikely to try to get accommodation from regular landlords. Instead, it is pretty obvious that the measure will make life even more difficult for legitimate migrants who are looking for decent housing; the suspicion is that this is exactly what the government intends.