London housing. Photo: WikicommonsMary and Tony are a British couple of Chinese descent. One of their sister’s and her baby son, also British, were staying with them. The landlord told the couple that he could face a big fine if they didn’t provide the passport and immigration status of the baby. After contacting the housing and homelessness charity Shelter for help, the couple decided to move out before their tenancy came to an end because they felt they had been harassed out of the property.
Sara is an Australian citizen. She is married to a French citizen, who is working in the UK. Sara has submitted an application to the Home Office for a document showing her right to stay in the UK. Sara already has the right to remain in the UK by being married to a French citizen, but wants a document proving this to help her find work. Unfortunately, Sara’s relationship has become abusive, and Sara has finally got the courage to leave the marital home and find her own place. She has been looking for a new accommodation for over one month. The last estate agent she went to initially agreed to give her a tenancy, but, after taking from her the agency fee of £250, told her that they couldn’t go ahead because they are not satisfied that she has the right to rent. As the wife of a French citizen, Sara does have the right to rent.
Sara and Mary and Tony are not the intended targets of the “Right to Rent Scheme” that was rolled out by the UK government on 1 February, yet they are victims of it. It is just one of the provisions of the Immigration Act 2014. The Secretary of State Theresa May has made no secret of her intention with passing the act; to create a hostile environment for those who are in the UK without immigration status. However, as the above examples demonstrate, the provisions have caused discrimination against individuals who have every right to be in the UK, including British citizens.
The Right to Rent Scheme imposes on landlords a duty to check the immigration status of their prospective tenants, relocating the border into their prospective home. Landlords will not be able to rent their houses to anyone who is “disqualified”, that is anyone who does not have the right to stay in the UK. Should they violate these provisions, they could be made liable to a civil penalty of up to £3,000 per “disqualified adult”.
The aim of the scheme, according to the government, is to encourage those who are in the UK without a regular status to leave the country by creating a “hostile environment”. Another of the stated aims of the scheme is geared towards landlords themselves: it aims to discourage exploitative landlords who offer overcrowded accommodation to those same “disqualified adults”.
But can the scheme effectively target these “disqualified adults” and exploitative landlords?
“Disqualified adults” are, as we said, all those adults who do not have a valid immigration status. Importantly, data shows that many undocumented migrants do not actually rent their accommodation, but rather rely on the help of their friends or family. The organisation JCWI runs an “irregular migrant helpline”. They found that the majority of irregular migrants (66%) who contacted their line stayed with friends; others were homeless and others supported by the Home Office or local authorities. Only 26% of callers were renting privately. According to these figures then, the scheme will, at best, target little more than a quarter of those “disqualified adults”.
These figures also make sense when considering the type of employment that undocumented migrants tend to be in when they work. The “No Right to Dream” report found that those who work often do this in cash-in hand types of work, types of employment that would make it difficult to obtain a regular tenancy agreement.
“No passport equals no home”
According to JCWI’s evaluation “No passport equals no home”. But it is unclear whether the minority that the scheme will affect will in fact leave the country. It appears more likely that they will resort to unscrupulous landlords, therefore alimenting the underground business of exploitative landlords that the government purports to want to deter. Another category of people who risk resorting to these landlords are those in limbo; those who do not have the right to rent, for example because they overstayed their visa, but who are not removable, for instance because they have a pending application to stay in the UK based on human rights grounds.
If they are not allowed to rent, yet also non-removable, this group risks either resorting to unscrupulous landlords or applying for local authority accommodation. This will be especially true of parents of British children, which the local authorities have an obligation to accommodate. The scheme will, therefore, not only struggle to meet its aims, but also risks increasing the workload of local authorities, and therefore constitutes an additional burden on their limited resources.
It seems more likely that the real victims of the scheme will be people like Sara and Mary and Tony, rather than those it intends to target. A pilot of the scheme was implemented in parts of the West Midlands in December 2014, and evaluations of this scheme corroborate this prediction.
Direct and indirect discirmination
The investigation carried on by JCWI revealed that “42% of landlords said that the Right to Rent requirements have made them less likely to consider someone who does not have a British passport; 27% are reluctant to engage with those with foreign accents or names; and checks are not being undertaken uniformly for all tenants, but are instead directed at individuals who appear ‘foreign’”. Another organisation reported to JCWI the results of their own mystery shopper tests conducted in London; they found instances of direct discrimination in 40% of the cases examined, where properties were available to British persons but not to non-British individuals. Considering both direct and indirect discrimination, the figure went up to 62% of their cases. The Home Office carried on its own investigation, and found instances of discrimination towards BME groups, who were less likely to receive a prompt response from a landlord, and were asked to provide more information than their counterpart white group.
Groups affected by the Right to Rent Scheme will, therefore, be those who do not have a passport (according to a 2011 ONS census, 17% of the British population does not have a passport); those coming from BME communities, like Mary and Tony; and those who have the right to stay but find it difficult to document it, like the case of Sara above.
These groups will necessarily be affected because landlords do not want to, and do not know how to, implement the scheme. One landlord said in the JCWI’s evaluation that “I do not accept most of the documents in the list as I could produce most of them on my laser printer. Therefore no passport equals no home! As I don’t know how to tell if a non-UK passport is valid, I would try to choose someone with a UK passport”. Another admitted that “I am not a trained immigration officer. That is what the Home Office are trying. I have sadly become over cautious and turned down people who may be eligible”.
In summary, the evidence suggests that those who are the intended target of the scheme will either not be affected by the Scheme, because they do not in fact enter into tenancy agreements; or resort to unscrupulous landlords. Instead, other groups, including British people, in particular from BME communities, and others with the right to be in the UK, will be the real victims. Why is it, therefore, that the Home Office is rolling out the scheme?
The timing of the publication of the Home Office evaluation says a great deal about their motivations. As JCWI summarised on their website, the Home Office had given assurances that they would evaluate the scheme before rolling it out nationally. The evaluation was carried out in the West Midlands between December and May 2015.
On 7 May 2015, Prime Minister Cameron was elected for a second time, and no longer needed the Liberal Democrats to secure a majority. On 21 May 2015, Cameron stated: “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”.
The evaluation wasn’t published until five months later, on 20 October 2015. On the same day, the date of the roll out was announced; it would be 1 February 2016.
Read migrant testimony and research-based articles in our dialogue on migration: People on the move.