The letting of over four million private properties will be subject to immigration checks if the Home Secretary has her way. But will landlords accept this blatant attempt to saddle them with responsibility for controlling immigration, with stiff penalties if they slip up?
Government plans for tackling illegal immigration in private rented accommodation would impose, as early as April next year, new requirements on landlords to check that every adult they let a house to is entitled to be in the UK. In May, when the plans were trailed in the Queen’s Speech, the government suggested they would apply only to high risk parts of the private sector, such as houses in multiple occupation. But the plans now cover any property let for rent, including short-term licenses and even long stays in hotels, and possibly people who take in lodgers. No one knows how many private landlords there are in Britain, but a good guess is that at least two million property owners or agents will have to start checking immigration documents if the scheme goes ahead.
There seem to be two motives here. In the Queen’s Speech, and in the linking of this consultation to a second one on the NHS, the emphasis is on restricting migrants’ access to services. My guess is that ministers deliberately aim to mix the messages, giving the impression that the new checks on private tenants are also somehow part of their drive to stop people who (in Cameron’s words) ‘come here and expect something for nothing’.
But the main motive is to cut immigration. This is clear in a letter sent out by housing minister Mark Prisk, who says they ‘are an important part of the Government’s plans to tackle illegal migration and to reduce the level of net inward migration’. Note that this is not just about illegal immigration, but all inward migration. Private landlords are to be expected to do UKBA’s job of checking on immigration status, and – reading between the lines – this is likely to be such a difficult and risky process that many will simply say ‘no’ to anyone who doesn’t have a UK passport. This will add to the government’s range of new deterrents to migrants.
Of course, the consultation paper says that landlords should make ‘non-discriminatory’ checks. But given that the checks will take place at the same time as a prospective tenant is showing references or bank details, landlords who are unsure about someone’s immigration status or can’t be bothered to phone the Home Office will simply be able to refuse a tenancy on other grounds. They won’t need to resort to signs saying No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, but the effects could be the same. This could put legal migrants at a huge disadvantage compared with those who appear to be obvious British citizens or who have UK passports. Yet the government’s impact assessment makes no mention of this obvious risk.
There are many other issues about the scheme. The paper is 62 pages long, suggesting that the government’s promise to ‘avoid burdening the private rented sector with excessive red tape’ is unlikely to be met. The paper gives about 20 examples of different types of immigration status document that landlords might have to check, quite apart from their need to know (for example) which countries are in the European Economic Area. If in doubt, they’ll have to contact the Home Office, whose current service to employers takes six days to respond to emails. In any case, the Home Office and local authorities are themselves prone to making mistakes about immigration status – so how much bigger a risk is this in the hands of private landlords?
As the government admits, migrants make particularly high use of the private rented sector, so they could be driven even further into the hands of disreputable landlords – a risk flagged up by the Housing and Migration Network in one of the source documents the consultation paper uses. The landlords least likely to put up barriers to their being offered tenancies will often be ones who aren’t complying with other laws (such as licensing schemes, planning permission or fire safety). Although bodies like the National Landlords Association will try to promote good practice, they have 1.4 million members and – of course – bad landlords aren’t like to be among them.
The measures will also push undocumented migrants further into destitution. Hostels are exempt, and can expect even more customers. More calls are likely to be made on hard-pressed social services by vulnerable people or those with children.
Finally though, we have to ask if such a cumbersome scheme can be made to work. Well over one million new private tenancies are created each year. Already local authorities with vastly reduced budgets struggle to enforce existing regulations in the sector. This will simply add one more unenforced regulation to the list. Except in the rare cases of a property being raided by the UKBA, how will landlords who ignore the new rules ever be found out?
Original post and comments: Migration Pulse