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Comment: Ministers must stop confusing landlords with border police

Efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration could backfire and leave vulnerable groups struggling to find suitable accommodation

Changes to renting laws across the UK have forced landlords to act as a type of immigration officer on behalf of the government, arguably helping to fuel housing discrimination. The Right to Rent scheme, implemented in 2016, means landlords face stiff penalties if they are caught housing illegal immigrants. This means that landlords must carry out stringent checks on each potential tenant before granting them residency. To avoid the workload and potential penalties of housing illegal immigrants, many landlords are not renting their properties to migrants or descendants of migrants, making it harder to find accommodation for these groups.

The Right to Rent scheme came into effect across the country in February 2016, after being tried out in the West Midlands in December 2014. It was part of the larger Immigration Act 2014. In theory, it is designed to catch ‘over-stayers’ and other illegal immigrants, with landlords facing a penalty of £3,000 per tenant if they are caught housing them in their properties.

However, it has made many landlords concerned about letting to those who were not born in the UK. There is data to back this up, with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants finding that 51 per cent of landlords are less likely to rent to non-British tenants, while 48 per cent are less likely to rent to those who cannot produce a British passport. The Residential Landlords Association similarly discovered that 20 per cent of 50,000 surveyed landlords would not rent to European Economic Area nationals, while more than half expressed reluctance to rent to those on time-restricted visas.

These attitudes, in part created by the new laws, have had extremely negative effects on many groups. The Joint Council also found that many people who were human trafficking survivors, stateless, asylum seekers, survivors of domestic violence or part of other vulnerable groups are being denied residency. These types of people often do not have proper identification documents as many flee suddenly from their circumstances. Landlords have also been reported to refuse housing to those with foreign-sounding names, resulting in blatant racist discrimination against the children of migrants.

A less-noted side-effect is the discrimination against UK-born British children who grew up in care or whose parents did not apply for British citizenship before they turned 18, meaning they simply cannot prove to landlords that they were born here.

Many warned about the effects of these policies in 2015, but only in March this year did the High Court rule that the legislation breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

The RLA branded this a “farce” on the government’s part because it meant that if landlords acted in step with the Right to Rent checks, they would be breaching the convention. But this does not seem to have affected the current government’s attitude to the law.

The Right to Rent policy has already made landlords more hesitant to take on foreign tenants, but this may be exacerbated further by the changes to immigration after Brexit. Currently, two thirds of European Union nationals living in the UK are in private rented housing. The RLA is concerned that the government has not provided any guidance regarding their status after Brexit, aside from sweeping statements from various ministers.

Currently, EU nationals can move and work in the UK as part of free movement, but this will change when Britain leaves the EU. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the government may introduce the European temporary leave to remain status to EU nationals to allow them to get their affairs in order. However, this expires after 36 months, after which workers will need to apply and meet the requirements for a visa or else face deportation. In this confusing interim, it is possible some EU citizens will fall through the cracks, and landlords may be found housing newly illegal migrants through no fault of their own.

RLA policy director David Smith said in April that “landlords are not border police and cannot be expected to know who does and does not have the right to live here”. He went on to say the government needs to do more to “publish clear and practical guidelines for landlords about the implications of Brexit on who they can and cannot rent to”. Smith wants the government to outline clear rules, as he fears that landlords will further increase their housing discrimination, which would make life “difficult for EU nationals”.

It is obvious that the government needs to establish clear guidelines for landlords that will both deal with the rise in housing discrimination and lessen the workload required before accepting a tenant. Otherwise, the changes in immigration laws, and lack of accessible housing for legal migrants, will make Britain a far less desirable place for skilled migrants to pursue careers.

Conor Kavanagh is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service

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