24 Oct 2016, 34 mins ago

Controversial new measures to compel private landlords to carry out “right to rent” checks and to take steps to evict tenants who lose the right to live in the UK have been announced by the Department of Communities and Local Government. The measures will be included in the forthcoming Immigration Bill and in some circumstances will allow landlords to end tenancies without a court order.

Under the proposed regime, once a person’s leave has expired, the Home Office will automatically issue a notice confirming that they no longer have the right to rent in the UK. The landlord will then be expected to ensure that their tenant leaves their property. In addition, the Communities Department announced that the requirement for landlords to check their tenants’ immigration status – known as “right to rent” checks – introduced in the Immigration Act 2014, but thus far only implemented in a pilot scheme in the West Midlands, will be rolled out across the country. The bill will also create a new criminal offence, making it punishable by a fine or up to 5 years’ imprisonment for landlords and agents to fail to conduct “right to rent” checks or to take steps to remove illegal immigrants from their property.

The announcement arguably goes well beyond the Conservative manifesto commitment to “implement the requirement for all landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants”. This appeared to be a reference to the measures contained in the Immigration Act 2014, which have currently only been implemented in a pilot scheme in the West Midlands – the implication in the manifesto was that the pilot scheme would be rolled out across the country. However, in his speech announcing the Immigration Bill on 21 May, the Prime Minister indicated his intention to go further, stating:

“There are other ways we can identify those who shouldn’t be here, for example through housing. For the first time we’ve had landlords checking whether their tenants are here legally. The Liberal Democrats only wanted us to run a pilot on that one. But now we’ve got a majority, we will roll it out nationwide, and we’ll change the rules so landlords can evict illegal immigrants more quickly.

We’ll also crack down on the unscrupulous landlords who cram houses full of illegal migrants, by introducing a new mandatory licensing regime. And, a bit like ending jobs when visas expire, we’ll consult on cancelling tenancies automatically at the same point.”

The government also says it plans to tackle the issue of unscrupulous landlords exploiting migrants by leasing them dirty, overcrowded, and generally unfit properties at extortionate prices. A “blacklist” of such landlords or agencies will be kept, allowing local councils to monitor any convicted of housing offences, and impose a ban on consistently problematic individuals on renting properties.

These proposals have been developed in order to make it increasingly difficult for illegal immigrants and migrants with expired visas or failed asylum claims to remain in the UK. The new measures come hand in glove with plans revealed in The Sunday Times to strip migrant families of their rights to benefits when they fail to win asylum, triggering the end of financial support for the approximately 10,000 failed asylum seekers with children, currently in receipt of a £36 per week ‘Azure’ allowance. This money is designated to the purchase of essentials whilst the families await deportation. Childless adults in the same situation do not receive such rights.

According to The Guardian, who have previously referred to the measures as “a dramatic illustration of the Government’s initiative to discourage migrants from leaving their countries of origin”, the Refugee Council has already “expressed grave concerns” over the plans.

Under the pilot scheme, these measures have already been tested in Dudley, Birmingham, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Walsall. As of August last year, any landlords in these five council areas who did not complete the compulsory “right to rent” checks on tenants risked incurring a £3,000 fine. This system has been hailed by the government as a success, justifying its extension across the UK. However, there have been reports that the pilot scheme has disclosed instances of landlords refusing to let their properties to British citizens who do not have passports.

There are obvious concerns about the effective transfer of elements of immigration control to the private sector by making it the responsibility of private landlords to monitor their tenants’ immigration status, under threat of criminal sanction. It remains to be seen whether the bill will include any safeguards to protect vulnerable individuals. If it does not, some landlords may be placed in extremely difficult ethical situations where they are required by law to evict families with children, knowing that it will result in them becoming homeless. Many would argue that the real responsibility for such matters should lie with the Home Office, whose duty it is to ensure that illegal immigrants and overstayers are not in the UK in the first place.

The Chief Executive of the National Landlords Association, Richard Lambert reportedly stated on Radio 4’s Today program that these were welcome changes but expressed some concern for the safety of those attempting to evict failed asylum seekers. He said that although the Home Office may assume that tenants will accept their eviction notice and quietly remove themselves from the property, it is likely that a number of desperate tenants may take drastic steps to prevent removal, and, without a bailiff present as happens under a court process, this may put landlords in danger.

Some have argued that, in order to avoid trouble, many landlords may simply refuse to rent properties to anyone they suspect may not have full, legal immigrant status in the UK.

According to BBC reports, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants stated on Radio 4’s World at One that “We have heard that British people with foreign accents are finding it difficult to get tenancies… This kind of legislation will have a wider discriminatory effect on people.”