‘Surprised Brits’ and asylum-seekers alike will be at risk under Conservatives’ ‘right to rent’ scheme
The government announced plans to roll out its ‘right to rent’ scheme nationally in typically bullish language. As well as forcing landlords to check the immigration status of new tenants, prime minister David Cameron says it plans to ensure illegal immigrants can be evicted more quickly.
As LAG’s 2014 report Chasing Status made clear, there can be a world of difference between being in the UK illegally and just not being unable to prove your status to an understandably wary landlord. (Under the Immigration Act 2014, there will be fines for landlords who don’t make the prescribed checks.) Chasing Status highlighted the plight of those we termed ‘surprised Brits’, people who have lived, worked and paid taxes in the UK for decades before discovering their status is in doubt because of lost documents.
When right to rent goes nationwide, surprised Brits like Anne-Marie (56, arrived from Jamaica in 1974), Lasith (60, arrived from Sri Lanka in 1964) and Sam (53, arrived from Sierra Leone, in 1972), could find themselves not just jobless and benefit-less, but also homeless.
Right to rent is aimed at making life impossible for that modern day bogeyman: the wily illegal immigrant, mocking the system and generally up to no good. Caught in its wake, however, will be not just the likes of Anne-Marie et al, but intensely vulnerable groups, such as asylum-seekers, who are entirely without state support while they are trying to bring an appeal against refusal.
The Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group is a tiny charity that befriends and supports such people. As well as offering asylum-seekers friendship and help with essentials, it pays for accommodation for those who would otherwise be out on the street, placing them with vetted and sympathetic landlords, prepared to offer rooms for affordable rents.
It is run by a band of highly efficient, highly articulate volunteers (mostly of a certain age), whose secure lives are a world away from the straits of those they support. Colin Firth’s mum, Shirley, was a founder member. In 2012, an independent report concluded that 80 per cent of its income went to helping clients and described it as a model for other charities to follow. The impact of the group’s work on the modest number of people it has the resources to help is life-changing. With current annual income of only around £70,000 (raised variously from grants and things like sponsored walks), it usually has around 15–20 people on its books at any one time.
SWVG fears, however, that this aspect of its work may grind to a halt once right to rent is introduced, as landlords will no longer be able to assist for fear of a hefty fine.
What will then happen to the likes of David, asks SWVG chair Anne Leeming.
David, originally from Eritrea, was referred by a local MP. He was destitute after having his asylum claim refused and severely depressed because of his traumatic experiences in his home country. SWVG found him a safe place to stay, which meant he was able to gather the evidence he needed for a fresh claim for asylum. This time, he was granted leave to remain.
David is now in his third year at university studying civil engineering. He also, according to Leeming, ‘works all the hours he can in the docks handling baggage from cruise liners’.
Without the breathing space that accommodation paid for by SWVG gave him, David and many others like him will have no hope of making a successful appeal, she adds.
Ever resourceful, the group has taken the issue up with the Home Office (which thanked them for ‘their anecdotes’), and is investigating lawful ways around the restrictions, but Leeming is not hopeful.
‘It is our biggest worry at the moment,’ she says. ■