When even the immigration minister struggles to enforce the rules, what chance do private landlords have?
Mark Harper’s difficulty in getting to grips with his own immigration rules should give all parties pause for thought. Is it really sensible to extend the checks imposed on employers so that even trickier ones have to be carried out by more than two million landlords? Landlords who, unlike Harper, know little about immigration law.
As the immigration bill reaches the House of Lords, the coalition has another opportunity to ask whether these tests are really worth the trouble. Here are six reasons why they should reconsider.
It is too complex for private landlords and letting agents
Checking whether someone has the right to live in Britain is simple if they have a UK passport but can be mind-bogglingly difficult if their proof is any of a couple of dozen other kinds of document. In theory checks could be done by agents, but this is probably illegal, according to the Immigration Law Practioners’ Association (even though the government cited the extra fees it expects agents to charge as one of the positive financial effects of the bill).
It will discourage taking in lodgers
Against advice, the government has decided to apply the checks to those taking in lodgers as well. Having lodgers has been encouraged to help tenants pay the bedroom tax, or for owners having trouble paying their mortgage. Those who are already at financial risk will now face the prospect of hefty fines if they accidentally take in someone they shouldn’t. This potentially criminalises people who (unlike landlords) are most unlikely to have access to professional advice.
It will discriminate against legitimate migrants
Making landlords responsible for checking immigration status could lead to discrimination against renters of ethnic minorities, foreign nationals and those who do not speak English. The Scottish Association of Landlords has already said the bill could lead to discrimination against legitimate tenants whose residency status may be unclear. The likelihood of this has been confirmed by Runnymede Trust research showing how much discrimination by landlords already exists. People could be affected who have left their previous home in a hurry, perhaps because of abuse, and don’t have their documents. And it could lead to even more immigrants being forced into the hands of rogue landlords.
Councils will be left to deal with the consequences
Who will help those that fall victim to discrimination or the bad housing conditions that result? Many will turn to local authorities, already under severe pressure to deal with the rise in rough sleeping, demand for temporary accommodation and the need to accommodate homeless families outside their own housing stock. The chances are that the majority of those who ask for help will be entitled to live in the UK anyway, as the illegal migrants targeted by the government probably already live in clandestine accommodation.
It will increase rents and the housing benefit bill
Agents, if allowed to do the checks, will charge landlords, and probably tenants too, for the service. Landlords will want recompense for the extra work and any professional advice they need so rents will go up even faster.
It’s an embarrassment waiting to happen
There is the enormous potential for the Home Office to come a cropper. In the home secretary’s own words, the immigration branch is a “troubled organisation” that has never coped with its workload. Yet it expects to help landlords across the UK with as many as 10,000 status checks daily, using only 10 staff. As the ILPA said: “This project sets the Home Office up to fail. Again.”
Landlord immigration checks should be taken out of the bill, but failing this, they should be piloted and properly assessed before they are rolled out more widely. The Home Office has offered to produce a code of practice, but this will need to have real teeth. Between now and early March, peers in the House of Lords have time to give the bill the scrutiny it failed to get in the Commons. Can they help save the government from further embarrassment?
John Perry, with Sue Lukes and Ruth Grove-White, is co-author of the Migrants’ Rights Network new briefing on the Immigration Bill.
Original post and comments: Guardian Housing Network