It was only in June that then Home Secretary Sajid Javid apologised for the impact that his department’s “hostile environment” policies had on the Windrush generation, many of whom lost their homes and jobs or were even deported from the UK. His promised review of the policy is incomplete, however, and is one of the tasks facing new minister Priti Patel. She supported the tough immigration measures that were brought in originally by Theresa May, but can she now learn the lessons from the Windrush scandal and make the department’s policies less hostile?
In many ways housing is the most urgent issue. Obliging private landlords to check the passport of anyone applying for a letting (the “right to rent”) is a key element of the hostile environment, but it was dealt a major blow in a court judgment sought by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, who argued that the scheme discriminates against people according to their nationality. Mr Justice Martin Spencer’s judgment on 1st March was excoriating, saying the scheme “not merely risks causing illegal discrimination, but is certain to do so”. If the judgment is upheld on appeal, the Home Office will have to find a way to make the scheme compatible with human rights law. In the meantime, it can’t be extended to the rest of the UK as the Home Office planned.
It took over five years to win an argument that was championed from the start by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Back in July 2013 the housing minister wrote to CIH’s chief executive setting out plans to deter “illegal” immigrants by obliging landlords to make document checks. CIH immediately said that such a change would affect people living legally in the UK, because landlords would very likely play safe by rejecting 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, and were assured in October 2014 that discrimination was “the most fundamental question” to be addressed.
Despite this, the scheme was rolled out across England in February 2016. CIH again warned that, with something like 2.6 million people 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”. CIH pointed out that a scheme costing £4.7 million a year had led to only 31 “illegal” migrants being removed from the country. Then last year the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reported that right to rent “had yet to demonstrate its worth,” confirming CIH’s point that its discriminatory effects weren’t being monitored.
The latest JCWI research found 51% of landlords are less likely to rent to non-British tenants and 48% are less likely rent to those without a British passport. A Residential Landlords Association survey also found that half of landlords are reluctant to let to working migrants and some will not even rent to European nationals. Given the complexity of rules relating to EU nationals after Brexit, such discrimination looks certain to get worse. Last month, the RLA, together with the JCWI and “the3million”, which represents EU citizens in the UK, called on Boris Johnson to scrap the right to rent if he became Prime Minister.
The Home Office is being allowed to appeal against the High Court judgment, and this time will face evidence from landlords of the problems that their own sector is experiencing and which are leading many of them to discriminate, as well as further evidence on behalf of migrants and black and ethnic minority groups. But instead of pursuing the appeal, why doesn’t the Home Office abandon a costly measure which has had little impact on illegal immigration and whose bad effects were highlighted in the Windrush scandal? Priti Patel’s predecessor, Sajid Javid, could only issue an apology for its effects. Will Mrs Patel, also from a second-generation immigrant family, now say enough is enough?