Immigration Bill Committee

Written evidence submitted by David Smith, Policy Director of the Residential Landlords Association (IB 01)

Immigration Bill

1.0 About the Residential Landlords Association

1.1 The Residential Landlords Association represents the interests of landlords in the private rented sector (PRS) across England and Wales. With over 20,000 members, and an additional 20,000 registered guests who engage regularly with the Association, the RLA is the leading voice of private landlords. Combined, they manage over a quarter of a million properties.

1.2 The RLA provides support and advice to members, and seeks to raise standards in the PRS through our code of conduct, training and accreditation and the provision of guidance and updates on legislation affecting the sector. Many of the RLA’s resources are available free to non-member landlords and tenants.

1.3 The Association campaigns to improve the PRS for both landlords and tenants, engaging with policymakers at all levels of Government, to support the aim of a private rented sector that is first choice, not second best.

2.0 Executive Summary

2.1 To protect the rights of UK born citizens without appropriate documentation, local authorities should be able to issue a single, readily identifiable document or certificate confirming their right to rent. Whilst the RLA notes that a benefit letter coupled with other documents is acceptable we are concerned that some landlords will worry that these are too easy to forge and will be put off by the extra complexity in checking more than one document especially where the document is not one with a very clear official provenance. A single, standardised certificate which could be provided by any local authority to a person in receipt of benefits would make it easier for landlords to check a significant proportion of tenants and enable easy transition into the private sector for them. This letter could be watermarked or use an embossed stamp, be single-use, and strictly time limited to prevent forgery.

2.2 We would urge that Parliament is given sufficient time to consider the findings of the Government’s assessment of the ‘Right to Rent’ pilot scheme in the West Midlands in detail. We would call on the Committee to respond positively to any further legislative changes that might be needed to address the inevitable concerns of landlords that they are being put in a difficult position and to avoid them being accused of being discriminatory.

2.3 The RLA is calling for there to be a clearly understood and properly resourced helpline for general use by landlords with questions or queries about the operation of the Bill’s provisions and to provide advice on understanding relevant documentation. This should be backed up with a major campaign to make landlords aware of their responsibilities and how to undertake them fairly and accurately.

2.4 We also call on the Home Office to establish a full searchable online database to make it easier for landlords to identify appropriate documents that prove someone’s nationality. Whilst this has been rejected by the Home Office during our discussions with them so far, we believe that without this we will continue to see the problems now emerging in the West Midlands. The resources and support mechanisms have to be put in place if the policy is to work properly.

3.0 Background

3.1 Clauses 12 to 15 of the Bill make it an offence for a landlord to fail to check the immigration status of tenants who are subsequently found to be in the country illegally. In such circumstances landlords face being fined or potentially being imprisoned for up to five years.

3.2 The Bill will make it easier for a landlord to regain possession of a property where a tenant’s right to remain in the UK expires midway through a tenancy.

3.3 This builds on the Immigration Act 2014 which requires landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. This was piloted in the West Midlands and is known as the ‘Right to Rent’ scheme, but this only contained the threat of civil penalties for landlords.

4.0 Migrants in Private Rented Housing

4.1 In September this year, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory published its annual briefing, ‘Migrants and Housing in the UK: Experiences and Impacts’. It found that:

- The foreign-born population is almost three times as likely to be in the private rental sector (39% were in this sector in the first quarter of 2015), compared to the UK-born (14%).

- Recent migrants, classed as those who have been in the UK for five years or less, are almost twice as likely to be renting property (74% were in the private rental sector in the first quarter of 2015), compared to all migrants.

4.2 The RLA is concerned that the Government is proceeding with its plans without any assessment of the scale of the problem of illegal immigrants residing in private rented housing.

5.0 Landlord-Tena nt Relations Are Being Strained

5.1 Following the announcement in the Queen’s Speech of 2013 of plans to make landlords legally

required to check the immigration status of their tenants, the RLA conducted a survey of its members. This found that 82 % were opposed to the idea.

5.2 This reflects growing concerns among landlords that they are being placed in a difficult position. Whilst the RLA condemns all cases of racism it is inevitable that when faced with the threat of a fine or prison many landlords will wish to avoid all risk and will refuse housing to those whose status is not easy to prove.

5.3 This is borne out by the findings of the only research so far published on the impact of the ‘Right to Rent’ pilot scheme in the West Midlands by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). This reported 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.

- 50% of respondents who had been refused a tenancy felt that discrimination was a factor in the landlord’s decision.

- 65% of landlords were much less likely to consider tenants who cannot provide documents immediately.

- 44% of tenants within the pilot area had not been asked for identity documents.

5.4 Concerns about potential discrimination were echoed also in December 2013 by United Nations High Commission for Refugees which noted in its briefing for MPs on the then Immigration Bill that its provisions appeared "likely to result in asylum-seekers, refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection being stigmatised in the public mind and in their being denied access to housing or bank accounts."

5.5 The UNHCR continued, "the UN high commissioner for refugees is concerned that if introduced, such measures could contribute towards a climate of misunderstanding and ethnic profiling that could undermine the longer-term prospects for integration of such persons and prove detrimental to social cohesion."

5.6 Given this, landlords will need to cover their backs and avoid accusations of discrimination by examining identity documents of all potential tenants. In such circumstances the RLA questions how the 12 million UK-born citizens who, according to the 2011 census, do not hold a British passport are expected to prove their identity? Those in such a situation are likely to be some of the most vulnerable in society, potentially in most need of somewhere to live.

5.7 To protect the rights of UK born citizens without appropriate documentation, local authorities should be able to issue a single, readily identifiable document or certificate confirming their right to rent. Whilst the RLA notes that a benefit letter coupled with other documents is acceptable we are concerned that some landlords will worry that these are too easy to forge and will be put off by the extra complexity in checking more than one document, especially where the document is not one with a very clear official provenance. A single, standardised certificate which could be provided by any local authority to a person in receipt of benefits would make it easier for landlords to check a significant proportion of tenants and enable easy transition into the private sector for them. This letter could be watermarked or use an embossed stamp, be single-use, and strictly time limited to prevent forgery.

5.8 We welcome the Government’s commitment to publish its assessment of the Right to Rent pilot scheme in the West Midlands by Committee Stage of this Bill.

5.9 We would urge that Parliament is given sufficient time to consider the findings of the Government’s assessment in detail. We would call on the Committee to respond positively to any further legislative changes that might be needed to address the inevitable concerns of landlords that they are being put in a difficult position and to avoid them being accused of being discriminatory.

6.0 Landlords do not feel well equipped to undertake the checks

6.1 A common trend that the RLA is seeing in its dealings with landlords in the Right to Rent pilot area has been that a substantial number do not feel properly equipped to understand what documents are proof of someone’s immigration status and which may be forgeries.

6.2 This was a concern raised in the 2013 briefing note from the UNHCR which noted that "the UN high commissioner for refugees is concerned that the types of documentation carried by asylum-seekers, refugees, beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and stateless people can be varied and complex, and landlords and other service providers are likely to misinterpret the legality of their status."

6.3 Likewise, the JCWI research has found that:

- 57% of landlords and agents nationwide and 40% in the pilot area feel they have not effectively understood the Right to Rent changes or remain unaware of them.

- 65% of landlords have not read or feel they have not fully understood the ‘Code of Practice on preventing illegal immigration’ or the ‘Code of Practice on Avoiding Discrimination’.

- 56% of tenants in the ‘pilot’ area remain unaware of the Right to Rent scheme. 81% have not received any advice on how to prepare for the checks when applying for a tenancy or their rights in relation to the Equality Act 2010.

6.4 These results are not surprising given that, for example, landlords would need to be able to

recognise the 404 different types of European identity documents that may be possessed by a tenant (as outlined by the Council of Europe’s ‘Public Register of Authentic Identity and Travel Documents Online’) which give holders the right to free movement. We question how landlords can be expected to know every legitimate document from every country that proves someone’s immigration status, let alone recognise high quality fraudulent documents without proper training and support?

6.5 Whilst the helpline set up to support landlords in the pilot area is a welcome resource,

anecdotal evidence suggests that it has been insufficiently resourced and no awareness raising campaign has been carried out by the Government of its existence.

6.6 In briefings with the Home Office the RLA has also been told that when the Right to Rent scheme

rolls out across the country, this helpline will revert to a landlord checking service only for prospective tenants with a Home Office registration number rather than a general helpline for landlords.

6.7 The RLA is therefore calling for there to be a clearly understood and properly resourced helpline for general use by landlords with questions or queries about the operation of the Bill’s provisions and to provide advice on understanding relevant documentation. This should be backed up with a major campaign to make landlords aware of their responsibilities and how to undertake them fairly and accurately.

6.8 We also call on the Home Office to establish a full searchable online database to make it easier for landlords to identify appropriate documents that prove someone’s nationality. Whilst this has been rejected by the Home Office during our discussions with them so far, we believe that without this we will continue to see the problems now emerging in the West Midlands. The resources and support mechanisms have to be put in place if the policy is to work properly.

6.9 The RLA is also seriously concerned that some landlords could inadvertently find themselves breaking the law despite having done everything possible to confirm the immigration status of a tenant subsequently found to be residing in the county illegally.

6.10 As drafted, the Bill would mean that a landlord can be served with a notice by the Secretary of State informing them that that their tenant(s) are residing in the country illegally. As soon as that notice is served the landlord would immediately be guilty of an offence. By adding a provision to the Bill which states that the landlord would not be guilty while they are proceeding with eviction there would at least be a chance for them to sort things out. We have drafted suggested wording for such an addition to the Bill which can be found in Appendix A.

Appendix A – Addition to the Immigration Bill

After clause 12, subsection (2), page 9, line 13 add:

(9) A person does not commit an offence under subsection 1 or 7 where they are proceeding diligently to evict any adult who is disqualified as a result of their immigration status from occupying the property of which they are a landlord.

October 2015

Prepared 21st October 2015