For several months the Home Office has been considering extending to the rest of the UK the document checks that are now compulsory when a new letting takes place in England. Since February last year, English landlords (with exceptions like lettings by councils and through nominations to housing associations) have had to make document checks on new tenants. The aim is to ensure they have the so-called ‘right to rent’ – permission to be in the UK that enables them to have a tenancy.
The Chartered Institute of Housing has opposed the document checks right from the start, and secured a few concessions about how they would be run when a pilot scheme began in the West Midlands in 2014. The Home Office committed to re-evaluate the checks once the pilot scheme was running. However, while their monitoring report identified problems – as did an evaluation by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) that CIH supported – the Home Office decided to roll out the scheme across England anyway.
In their latest questioning of the scheme, JCWI has the support of the Residential Landlords Association. The RLA have been against the scheme from the start and, like JCWI and CIH, were fully aware of the likelihood that it would lead to more discrimination by landlords. Not only would there be a strong temptation to discriminate against migrants, but the fear was that some landlords would turn away anyone who was ‘foreign looking’ or indeed didn’t have a straightforward British passport. The JCWI’s most recent survey showed that these fears were well-founded, and that nearly half of the landlords they surveyed were likely to discriminate in some form, especially as recent legislation has ramped up the penalties for letting to someone who doesn’t have the ‘right to rent’.
Not surprisingly, in Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland the scheme is not being welcomed by government bodies, housing organisations or landlords. In Scotland’s case, there are doubts about the Home Office’s ability to transpose a scheme onto the very different Scottish legislation for the private rented sector. It would also mean Scottish housing associations, who generally make their own lettings, checking all new tenants. In Wales, there is concern that the scheme will confuse landlords when other reforms like Rent Smart Wales (a landlord registration scheme) are being introduced. And in Northern Ireland, the migrant population is so small that it is even more questionable whether the scheme is worth the costs involved.
In a letter sent to the Home Office this week, JCWI argues that the government must carry out and publish a full evaluation of the ‘right to rent’ scheme to demonstrate its efficacy and cost-effectiveness, and non-discriminatory impact, before it can be legally extended to the rest of the UK. JCWI is threatening further legal action and is using the legal crowdfunding site CrowdJustice to meet the costs of preparing and pursuing this challenge. Anyone who opposes the ‘right to rent’ rollout can contribute to the challenge here.
CIH continues to believe that the gains from the scheme are extremely limited given that in England alone it means that three million document checks should be carried out each year, but in the absence of any further monitoring the Home Office simply doesn’t know what proportion are being carried out, much less what the effects are on landlords and potential tenants. If more racial discrimination is taking place, this must be taken seriously. The scheme should be urgently reviewed in England and certainly should not be extended further until there is proper understanding of its effects and whether it is working as intended. It is to be hoped that JCWI’s action will give the Home Office pause for thought.