Seven in 10 landlords do not understand their obligations under controversial new “right to rent” rules that oblige them to check new tenants’ immigration statuses. Written by Hilary Osborne for The Guardian
The laws that come into force on Monday could cause problems for young tenants and the less well-off, experts say. They could also put landlords at risk of being accused of discrimination.
From 1 February, landlords who let property in England will have to carry out checks to make sure potential tenants have the right to rent property in the UK. The scheme, which was piloted in the West Midlands, is being introduced as part of the government’s drive to “create a hostile environment for illegal migrants”.
Anyone who breaks the rules and is found to be letting a home to a tenant who is not allowed to stay can be fined up to £1,000 the first time, and £3,000 subsequently.
The Residential Landlords Association (RLA) said its members faced a difficult choice: they could “take a restrictive view with prospective tenants, potentially causing difficulties for the 12 million UK citizens without a passport” or “target certain individuals to conduct the checks, opening themselves up to accusations of racism”.
Although the national rollout of the scheme was announced in October, the RLA said more than 90% of 1,500 landlords it surveyed had not received any information from the government about this new legal duty, and 72% did not understand their obligations.
Landlords are allowed to accept a number of documents as proof, including passports, but the RLA said 44% had indicated they would only accept documents that were familiar to them. This could cause problems to people without passports.
Dr David Smith, policy director at the RLA, said: “The government argues that its ‘right to rent’ plans form part of a package to make the UK a more hostile environment for illegal immigrants. The evidence shows that it is creating a more hostile environment for good landlords and legitimate tenants.” He added: “Landlords are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
Under the rules, landlords are expected to check documents with their tenants and ensure that the documents are originals and belong to the tenant and that the dates for the tenant’s right to stay in the UK have not passed.
If a tenant’s permission to stay is time-limited, landlords can be fined if they do not make further checks before the expiry date or 12 months after the first check.
Nicola Thivessen, head of compliance at Chestertons estate agency in London, said for landlords and lettings agents who kept good records the checks “shouldn’t add a huge burden to the process of securing a tenancy”.
However, she said there could be problems for landlords who did not fully understand the rules.
“As some landlords are likely to feel that the new legislation is a bureaucratic minefield, they may think they can play safe by only renting to British people. This is absolutely not the case, as this is tantamount to discrimination,” she said.
“As a professional agency we are legally obliged to ‘dis-instruct’ landlords for discriminatory or racist behaviour, but in reality those who are rejected or overlooked for tenancies by landlords using less scrupulous agents or advertising directly through classified ads for instance may have a hard time proving they have been discriminated against.”
Tenants could also suffer if they were not able to provide the right paperwork. “Some of the most vulnerable people in the private rented sector may be forced to turn to the black economy to find a place to live. Someone who is homeless, for instance, may not hold a passport or visa; and obtaining one may be difficult, not to say costly, for someone living on the streets or in temporary accommodation, so this policy could well bar many such people from ever getting back into secure, rented accommodation.”
It emerged in August that just seven landlords involved in the pilot scheme had been issued notices, and they faced average fines of £800.