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Guest blog: The racist ‘Right to Rent’ policy must be scrapped, once and for all

Caitlin Boswell, Policy & Advocacy Advisor at JCWI

Over the past three years, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has been involved in legal action against the UK Government’s discriminatory Right to Rent policy, which makes it harder for British ethnic minorities and migrants to rent a home in the UK. Leigh Day Solicitors (the same legal team who represented us in our legal case) are currently preparing an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The Right to Rent policy requires landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants. A landlord who is found to have rented to someone without the required immigration status will face a fine of up to £3,000 or a criminal sentence.

It is a cornerstone of the Government’s Hostile Environment, a set of policies introduced in 2012, designed to make life in the UK impossible for people without formal immigration status. Under the Hostile Environment, doctors, police officers and teachers are forced to become an informal and untrained Border Force tasked with checking immigration status.

We now know, especially in the wake of Windrush, that creating a Hostile Environment for undocumented people inevitably creates a Hostile Environment for anyone who ‘looks or sounds foreign.’ And this is exactly what the Right to Rent policy has produced within the private rental housing market.

Right to Rent checks did not introduce racism into the housing market, just as race equality legislation banning signs reading ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ did not eradicate it. The policy was borne out of a context in which black and brown people are already overrepresented in unsuitable and cramped housing, with less access to green space.

We should be able to rely on our political leaders to condemn this, but instead they are actively enabling discrimination by upholding the scheme. JCWI’s research, plus surveys by Shelter, the Residential Landlords Association and the Government itself, show that Right to Rent checks make landlords less likely to rent to people who do not have British passports. We found that 51% of landlords surveyed said the scheme would make them less likely to consider letting to foreign nationals.

We decided to challenge the Government to justify this dangerous policy. First, we took our case to the High Court, and won. In March 2019 the High Court agreed that the Right to Rent scheme causes racial discrimination and declared it unlawful, halting its roll out to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Government appealed, so in January 2020 we faced the Home Office in the Court of Appeal. The Court agreed the scheme causes racial discrimination but disappointingly stopped short of deeming it unlawful.

We believe no amount of discrimination is acceptable. That’s why we are assisting Leigh Day prepare an appeal to the ECHR. This process could take months or even years, but it is our best hope of forcing the Government to suspend this reckless policy.

The COVID pandemic has shone a light on the inequalities in our society. Clear evidence shows that black and brown people exist at the sharpest end of this crisis and disproportionately face the worst outcomes of the virus. Access to safe and secure housing has never been more important. At the same time, in the wake of the Windrush scandal, the Home Secretary has promised to revolutionise the culture of the Home Office and build a more ‘compassionate’ department.

Yet the Home Office continues to uphold the Right to Rent scheme which flies in the face of its promises and makes it even harder for black and brown people and migrants to weather this storm. If the Government is serious about protecting all our communities from COVID and returning to life as ‘normal’, it must immediately suspend the Hostile Environment from all areas of public life, starting with the Right to Rent policy.

Caitlin Boswell is Policy & Advocacy Advisor at JCWI, a national migrants’ rights charity. Caitlin joined JCWI in July 2019 to lead on the EU citizens project, campaigning for EU citizens’ rights through reform of the EU Settlement Scheme. She now works on policy and advocacy in all JCWI’s campaign areas, currently focusing on undocumented migrants’ experiences of COVID and migrant workers’ rights.