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Housing legislation 'turns landlords & estate agents into immigration officers'

4 min read

Baroness Hamwee writes ahead of an attempt to halt the Government's ‘right to rent’ legislation today in the Lords. She calls on Labour peers to support it and not to 'sit on their hands'.

Today the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords can vote to halt the Government’s ‘right to rent’ legislation. The law turns landlords and estate agents into immigration officers. As a colleague in the Lords said: “I find it a bit rich that landlords should risk imprisonment for housing an illegal immigrant when it is the Government’s failure in their duty to protect the borders of this country that has resulted in the illegal immigrant being here in the first place.”

The roll-out to the whole of England was announced while the pilot in the West Midlands was still under way, and it could hardly be said that the pilot was of adequate size, or a representative sample, and that the scheme does not make discrimination all too easy. When the scheme was first proposed, the Liberal Democrats’ primary concern was that those who had a right to rent but found it difficult providing the right documentation would be discriminated against and be squeezed out of the private rented sector. This remains a real anxiety, but adding to the shopping list of what is wrong with this law is that it places an enormous strain on landlords and could unfairly and wrongly criminalise them. The great majority of landlords, owning one or two properties, are amateurs who let out a property to supplement pensions or top up salaries. It is these landlords who are likely to be caught out.

A survey carried out by the Residential Landlords Association in advance of the scheme being rolled out found that seven out of ten landlords did not understand their obligations under the new law and 90% of those they asked had not received any information from the Government about this new duty. This will not just affect landlords. The 12 million Brits who do not have a passport will find it difficult to prove their right to live in their own country, like all the non-British residents who have a legitimate right to be here but whose documentation is not easily identified.

The Government claims to have answered this problem by introducing a landlord’s helpline to answer queries and give landlords the reassurance they need. I called it on the weekend, a busy time for landlords and estate agents. It is open only weekdays, and closes before 5pm. Many tenants view properties outside working hours and in a fast moving market like London decisions are taken immediately. Many landlords with a choice of tenants are very likely to take those who are most obviously British. Discrimination is all too likely; the Government’s own evaluation of the West Midlands phase stated "comments from a small number of landlords...did indicate a potential for discrimination.”

It is likely that the extra administration costs (created by a Government keen on deregulation) will be passed on to tenants. The Government’s own estimates indicate that this will amount to an extra cost to tenants of £17.9m over 10 years. The Government has also committed to spending millions on the helpline and support for landlords. This is a huge waste of money which would be better spent on securing our borders.

In fact, the evaluation showed that the additional bureaucracy, potential for discrimination and extra pressure and fear placed on landlords only resulted in very little enforcement action.  The current Immigration Bill is set to make non-compliance a criminal offence. So disproportionality is added to unworkability.

My motion would force the Government to rethink, but it will fail unless Labour supports it. Will they sit on their hands? Or will they stand up for legitimate tenants and good landlords and back us in Parliament today?

The Baroness Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat peer

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