Landlords are struggling to see the connection between the government’s need to respond to the crisis in Calais and the sudden announcement that it’s going to be made easier to evict ‘illegal’ immigrants from tenancies, and that landlords will face jail sentences if they don’t properly check tenants’ immigration status. As Richard Lambert of the National Landlords’ Association said, the proposals have come ‘out of the blue’ and before a trial scheme in the West Midlands – which doesn’t go as far as what is now being proposed – has even been fully evaluated.
West Midlands landlords are already having to make immigration checks but there is a lot of evidence that, while responsible landlords are doing them, at the bottom end of the private rented sector they are being ignored. The first question to be asked about any extension of the scheme is – can it be made to work? There is little point in more red tape if in practice it barely affects the parts of the sector where undocumented migrants are most likely to live. If it is rolled out nationally it will need to cover 1.5 million new lettings a year – with the number of checks to be made likely to be at least twice that number – a huge administrative challenge to get right in a sector where most landlords are owners of only one or two properties and many don’t use agents.
The second question is – how can we make sure it doesn’t affect people who are entitled to live here but look or sound like migrants, and may arouse landlords’ concerns? Landlords are likely to be even more worried about letting to someone whose immigration papers may not be in order if they face a jail sentence for not complying. And unless someone has a British passport, assessing their eligibility to stay in the UK can be far from straightforward. In the West Midlands there is already some evidence of discrimination and this is likely to get worse, with those affected having in practice few legal defenses.
Third, while new measures to tackle rogue landlords are welcome, they have to be enforceable. The Home Office has had no additional resources to administer immigration checks, nor have local authorities, who currently spend on average only about £10 per year per tenancy on making sure landlords stay within the law. Extra duties will simply not get done unless more staff can be recruited for what is very time-consuming work. CIH has proposed that councils should at least be able to keep the money paid in fines when landlords break the rules – this may be partly helped by government proposals about payment of penalties but will need to see the details.
Fourth, we have to be very careful about measures that could lead to summary evictions. Already the loss of an assured tenancy is the biggest cause of homelessness and has been growing year-on-year. Having to take tenants to court gives them some protection – but this will be removed by the changes in law being proposed. How then will abuses be avoided? The new measures risk adding to homelessness and destitution, putting more pressures on housing services.
While it is understandable that the government has to be seen to respond to events in Calais, the measures affecting where undocumented people live have massive implications for landlords, local authorities and – of course – tenants and would-be tenants. There is a pilot scheme in the West Midlands and those involved are still waiting the official evaluation to be made public. The government should be patient, and properly consider the effects of the pilot scheme, not rush into what may well turn out to be ill-judged proposals that cause many more problems than they solve.
Original post and comments: Inside Housing