For landlords and agents the Queen’s speech contained a new and scary problem. This was the statement that a new bill would require private landlords to check their tenant’s immigrations status and that they would be penalised if they did not. For landlords, this will be another procedural headache of doubtful value.
The new obligation is to be introduced as part of the immigration bill which will be put forward in this parliament. It is not at all clear how this will work, or even if it will work at all! First, is the obligation only to check on immigration status? Presumably there will have to be a linked offence of not letting to someone who does not have leave to remain in the UK otherwise the check will be meaningless. Secondly, if there is a limit on letting to those without leave to remain then how much leave is needed? If a tenant has a right to be here for 6 months then can I only let to them on a six month tenancy and am I allowed to let that tenancy continue on a periodic basis after the 6 months is over? Currently, almost any one (other than EEA or Swiss citizens) who wants to come to the UK for more than 6 months needs a visa. Thirdly, how will all this be enforced? Will it simply be a case that when illegal immigrants are caught by UK Border Agency that their landlord will be prosecuted or will there be some other means of checking up? Finally, how are landlords supposed to know? Most landlords are not experts in passport and visa systems and these are themselves fairly complex. How much skill is a reasonable landlord expected to display in identifying forgeries (hopefully none!) and where can they find out about what stamps they need to look for. UKBA has published guidance for employers on avoiding illegal workers and so they will hopefully do the same for landlords. There may also be some work done by tenant referencing agencies to try to make the process easier but they can only work on the basis of existing credit records which are not always available for non-UK nationals.
There is also the risk of rampant discrimination with landlords simply refusing to deal with anyone who does not fit their own personal criteria for residency. This will create its own problems and lead to further possible prosecutions for unlawful discrimination.
What To Do?
Landlords and Agents should look to amend their procedures to ask (on a form or in writing) whether each new tenant is a UK national, where they are currently resident, if not what their nationality is, and whether they have a current right to be in the UK and for how long. If they are a non-EEA or Swiss national and wish to take a tenancy for more than 6 months then they will need to have a visa and you should ask to see it. Other countries may also need visas for shorter stays and you will need to look at the list of visa countries on the UKBA website to work this out. Their is a Visa tool which will help work out if your prospective tenant needs a visa. A copy should be taken of any non-UK citizens passport and of any visa or entry stamp. You will need to take care that you do not use the information you gather here to make a decision on the tenant other than refusing to take someone who has no right to be here. Otherwise you may find yourself accused of racial discrimination. You may also wish to lobby your MP on this issue to point out to the Government that it is not the role of private sector landlords to do the job of the UKBA and they should not be criminalised for failing to do so.
Inevitably there will be a lot more said about this topic and it will be a while before full details emerge. Adopting the procedures outlined above will protect you now and should be useful for the future as well.