It’s taken over five years but the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has now won an argument that was championed from the start by CIH. Back in July 2013 the housing minister wrote to CIH’s chief executive setting out plans to deter ‘illegal’ immigrants by obliging private landlords to check the passport of anyone applying for a letting. CIH immediately said that it feared the checks would affect people living legally in the UK, because landlords would very likely play safe by discriminating against anyone who couldn’t produce a UK passport. Along with JCWI, we repeated our arguments in the run up to the pilot scheme that took place in the West Midlands. We were assured in October 2014 that discrimination was ‘the most fundamental question’ to be addressed in the official evaluation of the pilot.
Our misgivings were backed by detailed evidence from a JCWI survey. It showed that, because of the scheme, some 42 per cent of landlords were unlikely to rent to those without British passports. And over 25 per cent would be less likely to rent to someone with a foreign name or foreign accent. CIH warned that, with something like 2.6 million people likely to be checked each year, ‘landlords may simply discriminate against anyone they believe isn’t British, even if they have a legal right to live in the UK’.
Yet these arguments were given short shrift when the evaluation of the pilot was eventually published and the government rolled ‘right to rent’ out across England in February 2016. A year later, it began talks to extend it to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. CIH pointed out it was doing this despite the fact that a scheme costing £4.7 million a year to enforce had led to only 31 ‘illegal’ migrants being removed from the country.
But concern about the ‘hostile environment’ towards immigrants was growing. The Home Office had had to abandon its ‘go home’ vans. The first stirrings of the Windrush scandal had started, with several victims caught by passport checks when they tried to rent a home. The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said last March that right to rent ‘had yet to demonstrate its worth’ and pointed out that its effects weren’t being monitored.
Early last year JCWI mounted a crowd-funded court action, arguing that the scheme was discriminating against people according to their nationality and was incompatible with human rights law. More evidence of discrimination had accumulated, including a devastating survey by the Residential Landlords Association of its own members.
When Mr Justice Martin Spencer’s judgment arrived on 1st March it was an excoriating verdict on the scheme, saying it not merely risks causing illegal discrimination, but is certain to do so. Although it is able to appeal, the Home Office will soon have to find a way to make the scheme compatible with human rights law, which will very likely lead to its being closed down. In the meantime, it can’t be extended to the rest of the UK.
While it is immensely satisfying for the JCWI and those who have worked with them to eventually be proved right, it is also frustrating that the government was so obdurate in refusing to listen to criticisms of the scheme at earlier stages. Any evidence against the scheme seemed to make the Home Office more determined to continue – with the plans to extend it (despite very real difficulties about doing so and few apparent benefits in parts of the UK with low immigration) and the toughening of the penalties against landlords in the Immigration Act 2016. Worst of all, unknown numbers of people – only a few of them revealed by the Windrush scandal – have found it more difficult than they should have done to find somewhere to live. In the process they may have suffered real discrimination with very little chance of proving that this was the case. And this was precisely what the Home Office was warned about back in 2013.
Original post: Inside Housing