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Private landlords as immigration informants


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A few weeks ago David Cameron suggested that private landlords should be required to check the immigration status of tenants. Now, lo and behold, the measure is to be included in a new Immigration Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech. This such a Bad Idea it is difficult to know where to start to explain why. Perhaps the clearest way to put it is to say that it is Good News for we immigration lawyers, and therefore Very Bad News for everyone else.

…this is an example of the Government attempting to introduce continental style internal immigration controls but without continental style universal identity cards

Employers who employ immigrants who do not possess permission to work are already given criminal or civil penalties if they fail to check their employee’s immigration status and keep copies of the relevant documents. The UK Border Agency (or whatever it is called this week) issues lists of defaulting employers, presumably in order to name and shame them. Fines remain uncollected, though, as the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency revealed in a report last year. It is almost as if the fines aren’t the point…

The effects of this pernicious policy are difficult to ascertain and I am unaware of good quality research on the issue. Certainly none seems to have been commissioned by the Government. Evidence-based policy-making remains a New Labour pipe dream. There are reports of jobseekers from ethnic minorities finding that they have to change their name to get an interview and the policy must surely have made employers nervous of employing anyone who looks or sounds like they might be an immigrant. One black British man bravely made a stand against this snooping and was sacked for his troubles.

Like other immigration lawyers I have drafted several legal opinions on whether a particular person does or does not have permission to work. The UK Border Agency often misunderstand the effect of their own laws and the problem of ‘magically’* extending leave to enter or remain under section 3C of the Immigration Act 1971 is renowned. Immigration status really is not easy to ascertain, even for immigration lawyers, and there is even an odd mechanism whereby the UK Border Agency can retrospectively declare that you were here illegally even though you thought you were – and certainly looked like you were – legally present.

sheriff-156649_1280And now, with David Cameron seemingly playing the role of Gary Cooper in High Noon, private landlords will also be deputised as agents of border control. Will there also be civil penalties of up to £10,000? Most of the employers targeted by the UK Border Agency seem to have been very small ethnic minority businesses anyway, not the giants who can afford such fines. Will there be an equivalent provision allowing criminal charges to be brought against a landlord who knowingly rents to a person without lawful immigration status? Will defaulting landlords be subject to similar ‘naming and shaming’? Will landlords be subjected to UK Border Agency inspections and raids to ensure they are complying with their state imposed immigration status snooping, as already are small businesses? There is no detail yet to the proposed Bill so these questions cannot yet be answered.

There has been speculation about whether the change would require a register of private landlords. My own view is that it would not. There is no equivalent register of employers, for example, and the Baroness Scotland case showed that any level of employer-employee relationship can attract a fine. To be sure, if this were a rational and well thought out policy then a register would be a prerequisite. The policy is instead about intimidation, about pressuring migrants and ethnic minorities (“but you look foreign!”) by indirect means and providing justification for nasty UK Border Agency raids.

Essentially, this is an example of the Government attempting to introduce continental style internal immigration controls but without continental style universal identity cards. Instead, even the UK Border Agency has no idea about a person’s immigration status, as the pre-Christmas Capita fiasco revealed, when British citizens and other long term lawful residents suddenly received text messages telling them to leave the UK immediately, based of course on appalling UK Border Agency record keeping.

I’m sorry to say that for we immigration lawyers, the proposed change will be good for business. These days, everyone needs an immigration lawyer: not just immigrants with complex cases but almost any immigrant or their sponsor plus employers and universities. Soon landlords will be added to the list. It is as if the UK Border Agency secretly loves us. So, I end with an offer. If you are one of the 25% of Tory MPs (hat tip to Sue Lukes) who is a private landlord, you know where to find me if you need an immigration advice. Assuming you won’t just be turfing out any tenant who might be foreign.

*i.e. invisible except to immigration lawyers, and even then we might be wrong if an application is later declared invalid.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.