As the stories from people affected by the Windrush scandal continue to emerge, the government’s ‘hostile environment’ strategy faces growing scrutiny. The hostile environment – the idea of making it increasingly uncomfortable for people who are living in the UK illegally – has framed the background for many government initiatives in recent years. One of these initiatives was the Right to Rent scheme, which we had deep concerns about since its inception.
The Right to Rent threatens private landlords with prison if they rent to tenants who are in the UK illegally. We have long argued that the Right to Rent would catch families and individuals who are not necessarily in the UK illegally, but who have not yet settled their immigration status. It could also risk making landlords warier about renting to a broader group of people who do have the right to live and rent in the UK.
As the Windrush coverage highlights, it is far easier to fall into this category (and more difficult to prove you are legally living in the UK) than you might think. And recent events show that for some who are entitled to British citizenship, administrative error has caused the evidence to be erased.
The JCWI’s review
A report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) recalled this experience by one parent in 2015, when the JCWI evaluated the Right to Rent pilot:
‘I am currently [going to] be evicted from the property I live in with my three-year-old. I have been told by numerous estate agents and landlords that until the Home Office makes a decision on my application, they legally cannot let a property to me. I cannot get help from anyone and I am at the end of my rope really. I feel like I am being forced to decide to leave the UK.’
The distress and anxiety recalled by this tenant is by no means unique. Further, the JCWI’s evaluations also showed that landlords wanting to be ‘safe’ were discriminating against those without British passports, or even those who ‘look or sound foreign’.
Because of the close public scrutiny of Windrush, the government has issued new guidance on its website regarding Commonwealth citizens and the Right to Rent. Landlords have argued that it is inadequate. One landlord website points out that the government does not ‘advise agents if they should check that someone has been in the UK since before 1973 – and if so, how – or whether they can safely take someone’s word for it’.
For many people without a British passport, the level of proof required to demonstrate you are living in the UK legally is an impenetrable barrier. Consequently, the fear is that many families and individuals will be penalised by the landlord checks under Right to Rent.
This is likely to push people away from legitimate private renting, and into an underground sector, or in the worst cases, into homelessness. Just last year, the BBC reported that the Right to Rent was forcing people into paying for forged documents to pass landlord checks.
As the government faces growing questions about its hostile environment strategy, it should use this opportunity to urgently re-evaluate the increasingly problematic Right to Rent scheme.