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How do you check a tenant’s immigration status?

11th June 2013 By Emma Lunn

question-marksProperty professionals have been up in arms over the past month after it was announced landlords would become responsible for checking the immigration status of their tenants.

The move was announced in the Queen’s Speech and the details are yet to be finalised. Opposition MPs have already criticised the plan, under which landlords would face fines if they failed to carry out the checks, as unfeasible.

Meanwhile, property professionals have raised concerns that any rule about immigration would increase the burden of red tape on landlords, and increase costs for tenants too.

“Ultimately if landlords and agents are going to be acting as a secondary border control, there is going to be greater administration which is inevitably going to cost more money,” said Douglas Haig, director for Wales of the Residential Landlords Association.

A key issue is that landlords might opt for the path of least resistance and be more discriminatory about who they let to – avoiding anyone who they’re not certain is born and bred in the UK.

passport

“This new law will be seen by many as an added burden and the concern is that some landlords may turn down any potential tenants who have a foreign sounding name, which would be discrimination and also against the law,” said Carole Charge, technical and compliance director at letting specialist Leaders.

“This could ultimately deter landlords from investing in the private rented sector at a time when more rental properties are desperately needed.”

“This could ultimately deter landlords from investing in the private rented sector at a time when more rental properties are desperately needed,” she added.

For those landlords happy to take a punt on a potential tenant’s immigration status, questions remain on how this could be verified.

Currently, any prudent landlord will ask to see some ID from a new tenant, usually their passport. But if the bill were to become law, the landlord would in future need to check whether the passport was issued by an EU country or whether it has a UK visa in it with an expiry date and be satisfied that the tenant is lawfully residing in the UK.

passport-visa-stamp

“In principle this is hardly an excessive additional burden – but what would happen if the prospective tenant has a valid visa when the tenancy starts but it expires during the tenancy?” Asked Nyree Applegarth, partner at Midlands law firm Higgs & Co.

“Will a landlord’s responsibility be to continually check a passport where the visa may expire during the tenancy period?” She added.

In short, the entire system would rely on tenants being co-operative and allowing a landlord to frequently check their passports. Landlords would also need to be briefed about what to look for in the case of forged passports and fake visas.

“Who will train landlords to see what well-paid immigration control officials miss?”

“Who will train landlords to see what well-paid immigration control officials miss?” Asked Ying Tan of The Buy To Let Business.

“Greater controls and focus need to be put in place at the borders before the problem arises. It should not be the responsibility of landlords to clear up the mistakes made by border control,” he added.

David Whittaker, managing director of Mortgages for Business, said the ultimate losers if the bill becomes law will be tenants who will face increased rents as landlords look to pass on costs.

“At a time when rents have rocketed already and housing benefit is capped, renters will really feel the pinch and that is not good,” he said.

judge-wig-gavel

Other questions remain about the legal situation if a landlord lets to a tenant in good faith but who then sublets the property to an illegal immigrant. Unless the landlord or agent makes frequent visits to a property – a practice not particularly popular with tenants – it’s notoriously difficult to be 100% certain who lives there.

The good news is the government has already performed a partial U-turn on the bill and now says the rules will only apply to “problem areas” – although it’s yet to clarify how a “problem area” will be defined.

Whichever areas would be covered by the new rule, there is no national register of landlords so it remains to be seen how a new scheme could be policed. Landlords can join voluntary organisations such as the National Landlords Association (NLA) but “rogue” landlords, who frequently break the rules, are unlikely to be members.

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