24 Oct 2016, 25 mins ago

Illegal immigrants living in Britain may face abrupt eviction without a court order under government plans to toughen up immigration control.

The plans were announced as part of the home secretary’s warning that Britain’s “streets are not paved with gold”, along with proposals to require landlords to check each tenant’s immigration status before allowing them to move in, under what has become known as the “right to rent” scheme.

Landlords who fail to check the immigration status of tenants could find themselves fined or even imprisoned for up to five years under a new criminal offence to be included in the new immigration bill.

Private landlords in five councils across the West Midlands have been required to conduct such checks against new tenants since August of last year, under a pilot scheme of the program. Having been described by Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, as a “success”, the government now intends to expand the scheme nationwide.

The move is part of the government’s initiative to discourage migrants from leaving their countries of origin in the first place, by creating “a hostile environment” for not only illegal migrants but also those whose asylum applications are rejected. Other measure to make clear that migrants travelling to the UK will not face a warm welcome include confirmed plans to strip families with children of the automatic right to benefits if their asylum applications are rejected.

However, figures recently obtained from the government under the Freedom of Information Act by The Economist suggest that the “right to rent” scheme was ineffective and potentially discriminatory during the pilot.

According to the figures, just seven property owners have been issued with notices under the scheme since August 2014 and half of those looking for accommodation in the trial area were not even asked by a landlord or agent if they had permission to be in Britain.

Evidence has also emerged that the scheme has led to British citizens without passports being turned away as tenants, if they could not afford the costs of a passport or did not have a copy of their birth certificate, for example. More than 25% of calls received the official checking service in the West Midlands pilot were about the list of acceptable ID documents, from landlords who are unfamiliar with the requirements and ill-equipped to verify whether documentation is official or a forgery.

Of more concern, there have been suggestions that the pilot may have encouraged discrimination by landlords against non-British prospective tenants. John Stewart of the Residential Landlords Association notes that, requiring checks means that, on business grounds, “it makes more sense to rent to people who will have quick access to documents.” This was backed up by a separate investigation that found that non-Britons were blocked from renting properties on 11 out of 27 occasions.

The government responded last week, stating that it does not recognize figures suggesting that only half the landlords in the West Midland boroughs had actually being complying with their duty to check tenants’ right to rent and that there are “there are no indications so far to suggest landlord checks are being carried out unfairly”.

The plans come as the government struggles to respond to a refugee crisis in Calais, where as many as 5,000 people are camping out in the hope of smuggling themselves into Britain; and cabinet ministers are under increasing pressure to come up with an appropriate response.

Stephen Hale of Refugee Action, however, called the government’s plans “seriously flawed” and raised concerns over their ability to achieve any meaningful positive impact.

“Families in the asylum system are already forced to survive on around 50% of the equivalent level of income support, and we know this is pushing vulnerable families into poverty,” Hale said.

“It seems ludicrous to assume that any family would choose to live under such constraints unless they were in fear of their lives. “These plans might be designed to make the government look tough on asylum, but they will not dissuade anyone from seeking the safety from persecution they so desperately need – and they will leave refugee families in poverty.”

The UK has consistently refused to bow to pressure from EU member states and institutions to accept and process more asylum claims in the context of the growing European migrant crisis. The announcements relating to the ‘right to rent’ show that the Tory government, however, has no intention of doing so or of deviating from its plans to make the UK a less attractive place.