Immigration Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:54 pm on 10th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 3:54 pm, 10th February 2014

My Lords, my contribution to this debate covers simply the issue of a requirement, set out in Chapter 1 of Part 3, on landlords to make immigration checks of their tenants. As has already been noted, there is widespread anxiety that the outcome will be entirely unsatisfactory from the perspective of tenants, landlords and the Government themselves. I feel on very safe ground in pursuing this matter, since I note that the criticism of landlord-led immigration checks comes with equal emphasis from organisations representing landlords and representing tenants, and from those taking an overview from both perspectives. I am grateful to the Residential Landlords Association, the National Housing Federation, Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for their briefings.

There is a series of dangers and hazards in giving landlords these new responsibilities. Many private sector landlords will turn away legal migrants because they do not want the hassle and delay of having to make these extra checks. As I understand it, it will not be an offence simply to fail to check someone’s status, but only to fail to check the status of someone subsequently discovered to be an illegal immigrant. So if the potential tenant is very obviously not a migrant, no extra checking will be carried out. Many landlords will play safe and avoid all applicants who just might be migrants, including the legitimate ones. Indeed, UK citizens without a passport—not an uncommon position for those on low incomes—may be rejected by landlords not wishing to take any chances.

Already we know that nearly three-quarters of all landlords will not let to anyone in receipt of benefits. So this measure means even greater pressure on vulnerable tenants, many of whom are likely to end up with the exploitative landlords who all of us want to see driven out of business but who will ignore the law on this, as on many other counts. Last November, I joined police and local authority staff in Newham on a number of “raids” on properties where it was suspected that landlords were in breach of the law. I witnessed shocking conditions of overcrowding, breaches of health and safety regulations, and exorbitant rents for appalling conditions. Most of the landlords in this borough own just one property and, unsurprisingly, many are woefully ignorant of landlord-tenant law. One has to question whether this is a reliable group on whom the Government can depend for implementation of their immigration policies.

Good landlords, who have a reputation to maintain, will do their best to do what is right, but is it reasonable to add this regulatory burden to their workload? The Minister makes comparisons with the task given to employers, but this argument has some flaws. The UK Border Agency’s guidance to employers is 89 pages long; little wonder it is not always followed by small firms. The private rented sector is very much like the smallest of SME businesses, with nearly 2 million landlords agreeing 3 million new tenancies each year. Checking entitlement to work is easier than checking entitlement to residence. The sheer logistics are daunting. The Government’s consultation document lists 20 typical documents that landlords might expect to be familiar with. Perhaps as significantly, employers are not required to check on the status of other members of the employee’s household, but landlords will be expected to check out the immigration position of other family members and anyone else in the household, even though the landlord has no direct legal relationship with these people—hence the criticism that this is simply getting landlords to become UKBA agents.

Problems are particularly acute in shared accommodation let to several tenants with joint liability. In such cases, there is likely to be a fairly rapid turnover of tenants, and given that those moving in will usually be chosen by those already there, landlords will find it extraordinarily difficult to check the status of new tenants. Such are the greater obligations and pressures on landlords compared with employers: and we all know the hazards for employers, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, has already drawn attention.

The measures will also place extra burdens on local authorities, which will have responsibility for carrying out checks where they nominate the tenants to housing associations or send homeless families to private landlords. Demands on them to act as the point of referral and accept the immigration checking role seem certain to grow. The National Housing Federation raises another concern: tenants are to be given the job of checking on lodgers and may find that role at least as difficult as would a landlord.

All in all, I would echo the call for a proper pilot scheme to establish the viability of this policy idea. It needs to be established that this really is likely to be an effective measure before it is applied to nearly 2 million landlords.