Right-to-rent and work checks promote racism and victimise the most vulnerable

Forcing landlords and employers to check the immigration status of tenants and employees has led to a surge in homelessness among non-white workers in Britain.

Bethany Morris

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The author is a content writer for Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers. | @IASimmigration

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Theresa May’s implementation of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy nine years ago, in her former role as home secretary, hasn’t failed to live up to its name. Subsequent policies such as the ‘right-to-rent’ scheme have further fostered a climate of exclusion and enmity for migrants into Britain, many of whom have found themselves threatened with eviction from their homes or been denied tenancies owing to their nationality.

Landlords and employers transformed into de facto immigration officials

Under the right-to-rent scheme, landlords are required to perform background checks on prospective tenants, the stated aim being to catch and reprimand illegal immigrants and those attempting to stay in the UK on expired visas (overstayers). Predictably, the scheme has done little to achieve the stated aim and has instead created a system where racial intolerance is rife and ethnic minorities are systematically disadvantaged.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has found that 51 percent of landlords are more likely to rent to British tenants than non-British ones, and 48 percent are less likely to rent to individuals who are unable to produce a passport. As foreign nationals are almost three times more likely to live in rented accommodation than their native British counterparts, these findings paint a bleak picture for migrants attempting to settle in Britain.

Although the 2015 pilot of the right-to-rent scheme raised concerns over racial discrimination in the housing industry, the high court only ruled that the legislation was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in March this year – three years after the law came into effect. The ruling stated that the requirement for individuals to provide evidence of their right to rent after being granted permission to live in the UK was incompatible with articles 14 and 8 of the convention.

In response to the judge’s ruling, legal policy director Chai Patel stated: “There is no place for racism in the UK housing market” – and quite rightly so. However, it would appear that the court’s ruling is only a small step towards generating meaningful change for renters nationwide.

A combination of racial prejudice, pressure on landlords to follow regulations, and tough penalties and unfair treatment for minorities has led many critics to argue that such policies have aggravated Britain’s homelessness epidemic even further. In the last five years, homelessness amongst Asian households has risen by a staggering 71 percent, whilst the rates for Chinese and other ethnicities has climbed by 35 percent.

With the creation of a new criminal offence of leasing a property to a “disqualified person” under the 2016 act, carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison, landlords have become understandably apprehensive about granting tenancies to foreign nationals – which in turn has led to a sharp rise in homelessness of black and ethnic and minority workers.

Employers are similarly being forced to follow legislation that promotes a certain level of racial prejudice, finding that they, too, have been turned into a branch of immigration enforcement. Post-Brexit (should that actually come to pass), the proposed ‘skills-based’ immigration plan for 2021 would require employers to perform thorough ‘right-to-work’ checks on all European Economic Area (EEA), European Union (EU) and Swiss staff members as well.

Existing legislation already requires them to keep data on all non-EU staff throughout the duration of their employment; failure to do so can result in a £20,000 fine or up to five years in prison. If Britain finally leaves the EU, such legislation will be extended to European workers, too. And since possessing a visa doesn’t necessarily give someone a permit to work, employers and workers alike could face even more confusion and financial stress.

Punishing the victims and the vulnerable

Some of the most vulnerable members of society have found themselves caught up in the right-to-rent immigration enforcement scheme, with the JCWI revealing that victims of domestic abuse, human trafficking survivors and asylum seekers are penalised under the policy. Essentially, those who have fled persecution and have moved to Britain in the hope of finding safety are being denied shelter if they fail to bring important documentation with them.

British children who have been raised in the care system, or whose parents could not afford to apply for British citizenship, have been victimised too, as their failure to produce a British passport has left landlords unable to grant them a tenancy. It is all too common for those fleeing violence and depravity to forget (or be unable to access) important documentation – to punish such people further is not only unscrupulous, but utterly inhumane, and, ultimately, detrimental to the lives of some of the most at-risk migrants to Britain’s shores.

When migrants have been subjected to rigorous checks by immigration enforcement, and have been given permission by the authorities to live in Britain, why should landlords be denying their right to shelter? The workings of the system are at present shamefully biased and cruel; without meaningful reform, prejudice in the housing industry will continue, jeopardising the lives and livelihoods of many foreign and British nationals entirely unjustly.

To conscript untrained landlords to play god with the lives of those who have often faced the most terrible adversity already is not only shameful but shambolic – highlighting the incompetence and lack of faith that government officials have in their own policies to prevent the influx of migration to Britain.

Editor’s postscript

Our view is that this situation has not been arrived at by accident or incompetence, but as a result of the need of our rulers to create scapegoats for the failings of the capitalist system.

The capitalists in fact have very little interest in curbing ‘illegal’ immigration, from which they benefit enormously via the desperately low wages, lack of unionisation and lack of access to social facilities suffered by non-documented workers. On the other hand, they have every interest in encouraging workers to believe that the destruction of vital services, lack of decent jobs, houses and healthcare, etc is being caused by the ‘strain’ of ‘too many immigrants’.

At a time of economic and political crisis such as the present, the need to divide workers against one another is more vital than ever, to prevent their coming together and organising against the parasitic rule of the billionaire exploiters.

For more on this topic, read Capitalism and Immigration by Harpal Brar, published as articles in the journal Lalkar and as a pamphlet by our party.