Blog: Should Scotland worry about the right to rent?

Callum Chomczuk

Following the announcement from Serco that it will pause plans to evict asylum seekers from their homes in Glasgow, CIH Scotland’s deputy director Callum Chomczuk revisits the issue of ‘right to rent’ and asks should Scotland be worried?

The announcement from Serco that it will pause plans to evict asylum seeks from their homes in Glasgow has brought the UK government’s asylum and immigration policies back into the headlines.

As charities, local government, housing organisations and the people of Glasgow attempt to stop these evictions, it is worth reminding ourselves of the one of the most contentious aspects of the UK Government’s immigration policies; the right to rent.

This hangs over tenants in Scotland and if the Home Office sticks to its plans, housing associations and private landlords will be required to check the varied types of document that prove someone’s legal status.

Landlords in England are now obliged to review documentation of anyone taking up a new tenancy, which means that they become de-facto immigration enforcement officers. Whether these rules are part of the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May or are now part of the “compliance environment” announced by Sajid Javid, the reality is the rules require checks on people’s immigration status when they go for a job, open a bank account, seek medical care or rent a home.

And if a landlord were to refuse to carry out such a check they could be forced to pay a penalty of up to £3,000 or face a prison sentence of up to five years.

Despite the Home Office announcing that a roll out was imminent over a year ago, it has not been extended to Scotland. Part of the delay is undoubtedly that separate tenancy laws in Scotland require a different approach.

But events since then have perhaps given the Home Office pause for thought. While the problems exposed by the Windrush scandal didn’t focus on the right to rent, several of those affected lost tenancies because of it. Already there have been steps back from how the policy applies in hospitals and banks.

There have also been two more direct attacks on the scheme. First, a report from the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in March called into question whether it was having any impact on illegal immigration, and criticised the lack of monitoring arrangements. David Bolt, the inspector, said it had ‘yet to demonstrate its worth’. As a result, a cross-party group called for the scheme to be reviewed.

Then, in June, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants won permission to take the Home Office to court for its failure to monitor the right to rent, in particular whether it is leading to discrimination. In an unusual alliance, the London-based Residential Landlords’ Association (RLA) has backed the case and acknowledged that landlords are likely to discriminate if faced with fines or imprisonment for not making proper checks.

Following the conflict with Holyrood over the return of powers from the EU, it’s quite possible that, even if the Home Office doesn’t drop the scheme in England, it will hesitate to extend it to Scotland.

Indeed one of the first acts of Sajid Javid as Home Secretary was to state he does not like the phrase ‘hostile environment’ and that it does not reflect our values as a country.

However, today, the right to rent remains the policy of the UK Government. The only way to have a clean break with the ‘hostile environment’ policies is for the Home Secretary to publically abandon this policy and commit to an immigration system that has dignity and fairness at its core.

Until such a statement is forthcoming, whether or not Scottish landlords will need to carry out immigration checks remains in the balance.

This article first appeared in The Herald.

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