A legal threat against right-to-rent

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), a pressure group, has threatened to take the Home Office to court if it doesn’t re-evaluate its controversial right-to-rent scheme before expanding it across the UK. The regulations, which require landlords to confirm the immigration status of prospective tenants, have been criticised for encouraging discrimination within the industry.

Under Section 22 of the Immigration Act 2014, landlords in England must not let properties to people who don’t have permission to live in the UK. These rules came into effect in parts of the West Midlands on 1 December 2014 and were extended across the rest of England on 1 February 2016. Although the law is currently restricted to England, the 2016 Immigration Act gave the government the power to extend the scheme to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The right-to-rent scheme puts the burden of responsibility on anyone letting private rented accommodation, taking in a lodger, or sub-letting a part or whole of a property they rent from a landlord themselves. To fulfil the scheme’s requirements, landlords must check the identification documents of all prospective adult occupiers and determine if they have the legal right to reside in the country. They should then make a dated or electronic copy of documents and retain these for the duration of the tenancy, and for 12 months afterwards.

Since 1 December 2016, landlords can be charged with a criminal offence if they know, or have reasonable cause to believe, that they are letting to an illegal migrant. Those who let to tenants without the legal right to rent could be fined up to £3,000, or be sent to prison for up to five years.

The JCWI, a charity which campaigns for justice in immigration, nationality and refugee law and policy, is one of several organisations claiming there is mounting evidence the right-to-rent scheme causes discrimination against British ethnic minorities and foreign nationals with legal status in the UK. Research carried out by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) in November last year found that 43% of landlords were less likely to rent to those who do not have a British passport, because of the fear of criminal sanctions for getting it wrong.

The RLA found that the potential punishment landlords face, combined with the complexity of the immigration checks, resulted in many landlords opting for tenants who appear a safer bet because they hold a British passport. Other organisations simply claim that the work of clamping down on illegal immigrants should be completed by immigration officers at the country’s borders, and should not be the responsibility of private landlords.

The Home Office says there is no evidence the right-to-rent scheme has caused discrimination, and claims the rules successfully deter people from staying in the UK when they have no right to do so. The government has also set up a helpline and online landlords’ service, which it says will be able to help if potential tenants are unable to produce sufficient evidence of their right to be in the UK.

Conversely, the JCWI’s Passport Please report, which was published in February, says it found no evidence to back up claims that right-to-rent encourages illegal immigrants to leave the country. The group has now launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a legal challenge against further rollout of the programme. It plans to pursue this if the Home Office doesn’t put on hold plans to increase the penalties and scope of the policy before the pilot has been fully evaluated.