The proposed Immigration Bill looks to make a number of changes to the existing system. According to the Minister for Immigration, Mark Harper MP, the reform aims to create a “system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate immigrants and tough on those who abuse the system and flout the law”. Their approach, however, has a number of ramifications for the rights of all members of society, regardless of their immigration status.
The Bill seeks to place responsibility on private landlords to ensure their tenants’ legal status in the UK. It would ‘ensure that migrants who are not lawfully present in the UK cannot rent private sector housing and establish a settled life here, by creating a duty on landlords in the private rented housing sector to check the immigration status of prospective tenants before letting the property.’ This move to turn landlords into border officials is a flagrant shifting of responsibility away from government officials.
The Bill is advocated as a solution to illegal immigration and the exploitation of migrants by rogue landlords. It proposes that the affected group would be ‘persons disqualified by immigration status or with limited right to rent’. It is hoped that such legislative changes would undermine the leasing abilities solely of this group, while upholding the rights of their law-abiding counterparts. This proposition ‘contains a raft of important measures to make it more difficult for illegal migrants to live in the UK, encouraging them to depart’ – the desired outcome for any immigration service.
In reality, however, such a policy is guaranteed to “cause division and disharmony in our communities” according to Rachel Robinson, Acting Policy Director at Liberty. This is a further act of a government which encourages diversity with one hand while routinely pushing discriminatory policy with the other. This comes from the same coalition which, in 2010, promised to ‘promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities’, not long before the highly controversial ‘Go Home’ immigration vans roamed the streets of London’s most diverse communities causing a host of social tensions.
Historically, the onus for removal of illegal individuals has remained fully in the remit of the Government. These proposals seek to shift responsibility for Government duties into the private domain. This would undoubtedly place undue pressure on landlords, who will find themselves legally culpable for the status of their tenants. Unsurprisingly, the Residential Landlords Association found that 80% of landlords are against these regulations. Somewhat understandably then, many landlords would feel cornered into covering their own backs legally to avoid repercussions. Private landlords would no doubt prove a genuine social liability, without any real experience or expertise in immigration policy.
Due to this cornering of private landlords, preventive measures taken would be entirely understandable. This would lead to widespread discrimination for those in the housing market, which would not be limited to illegal immigrants, as landlords would be inclined to opt for those with British-sounding names over more exotic ones, regardless of their legal status. The existing problems with racial discrimination evident in the housing market would be further exacerbated by such amendments.
Such proposals are inevitably highly divisive within communities, with the Church of England warning that this has the potential to create “a border in every street”. This border would be both social and psychological in nature, and would be policed by the private landlord, whose often limited knowledge would render them an active detriment to social cohesion. The far-reaching effects of this terrifying assortment of draconian proposals could be hugely detrimental for all, and especially many vulnerable groups in our society.
Increased homelessness would be an unavoidable consequence of these reforms. Along with increased fees for those wishing to rent and landlord discrimination, Shelter predicts that this would substantially increase homelessness, especially for struggling BME families. It notes that women fleeing domestic violence would also be among the hardest hit groups. For those already homeless, it would create even greater problems in breaking the cycle of homelessness, with many displaced individuals not having the relevant documentation required to obtain a tenancy.
Whilst the Bill may not have accounted for routine breaches to human rights, a brief impact assessment of the propositions renders it both morally and legally questionable. According to Dr Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, “creating a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants carries risks that the measures will have unintended consequences and lead to breaches of human rights and unjustified discrimination in practice”. Furthermore, the inevitable discrimination as a result of the Bill was found by the Joint Committee on Human Rights to be in direct contravention of the Equality Act.
Politically – both on a domestic and global level – the Bill could have consequential ramifications. The implications of such politics for Britain’s diplomatic relations further afield could prove substantial at best or at worst disastrous. In shamelessly abusing the rights of foreign nationals, Britain could lose the respect or even allegiance of its international counterparts.
Ultimately, the Bill’s attempts to transfer responsibility to the private landlord is a small but disturbing facet of the ‘Big Society’ concept, which depicts managerialism at its finest. The Government seeks ever-improving statistics on immigration, and an ever-lessening responsibility to obtain these figures for themselves. This shift of blame would be highly problematic in a society which is already susceptible to Government and media attempts at veiled (and less veiled) xenophobia. The Bill – and other like it – are attempts to retain the rhetoric on encouraging diversity whilst shifting the blame for fostering xenophobia and creating unnecessary rifts in communities.
Frances Cresswell is a recent MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice graduate. She is fascinated by issues around human rights, and social and criminal justice. She is looking to work within these areas in the charity sector. In her free time, she makes lingerie and blogs about rights and justice.
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