The Home Office is pushing ahead with the roll-out of immigration checks by private landlords, but has still not published its evaluation of the first phase of the scheme. In the meantime, an independent assessment confirms many of the worries that the Chartered Institute of Housing and others had when the idea was first put forward.
Immigration checks became a requirement in five local authority areas in the West Midlands last December, and are now to be extended to other areas. Although we don’t yet know the details, they are promised soon and CIH Scotland has already been invited to a Home Office meeting about the implications if they are introduced north of the border. The government has said that the initial phase was a ‘success’, but an independent report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants points to a host of problems.
CIH had two main concerns before the scheme started. The first was about the extreme difficulty of getting landlords – most owning only one or two properties and few of whom are members of national organisations – to operate the scheme effectively. The scale of the task is huge – over 1.5 million new lettings are made each year, requiring perhaps twice as many checks, which are far from straightforward unless the prospective tenant has a British or EU passport. How would the scheme be publicised effectively, especially to get the attention of the sorts of landlord who pay scant regard to their current obligations, let alone any new ones?
JCWI’s work suggests that the concern was justified. Almost one-fifth of landlords were unaware of the scheme and over a third did not understand it. Landlords found it difficult to understand the published guidance. Over 40% of tenants from the pilot areas reported that their landlords hadn’t carried out the checks. While national bodies like the National Landlords Association report wider compliance with the checks, because they only cover a small proportion of landlords (who are likely to better informed about other legal obligations, too) this doesn’t provide any evidence that the scheme is reaching the poorer parts of the rented sector.
Unless it does, there is little point to the scheme, as it will simply end up checking people whose immigration status isn’t in doubt or where their paperwork (like getting a visa extension) can easily be put in order. As campaigners have often pointed out, migrants with no legal documentation are unlikely to go to normal landlords. Where, then, is the evidence that this expensive scheme is actually deterring them?
CIH’s second main concern was that the checks would lead to more discrimination against people who are in Britain legitimately but simply have a different passport or look or sound like a migrant. These fears are also borne out by the JCWI survey. Although their sample sizes are limited (in part because of the difficulty in finding people who’d been subject to the tests), only three out of 13 respondents who described themselves as ‘British’ had been asked by a landlord or agent if they had permission to be in the UK when applying for a tenancy. In comparison, 40% of non-UK citizens said they’d been asked if they had such permission. More than 40 per cent of landlords contacted in the survey said they are now less likely to consider renting to someone who does not have a British passport; a quarter extended this to anyone who ‘had a name which doesn’t sound British’ or ‘had a foreign accent’.
So, far from the scheme being a ‘success’, this limited independent survey flags up clear dangers that it won’t do what the government wants – deter ‘illegal’ immigrants – but it may well do something no one wants – make it harder for people with every right to be in the UK to find a decent home. Rather than rushing into a wider roll out of immigration checks, apparently in response to events in Calais which are only loosely connected to demand for private rented accommodation in Britain, the government should pause for thought and proceed with a good deal more caution.