Plans to require landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants have been thrown into confusion.
In this month's Queen's Speech the government indicated its intention that private landlords should be required to check whether or not prospective tenants are legally allowed to settle in the UK before offering a tenancy. The proposal was one of the centrepieces of a speech that focused heavily on immigration.
According to the government's plans, landlords who fail to conduct the checks would receive significant fines.
But the proposals have been widely criticised by both opposition MPs and landlord groups, and this weekend the government seemed to backtrack, suggesting that the checks would only be introduced in 'high risk' areas.
The Telegraph reports that Communities secretary Eric Pickles is working to ensure that "ordinary people" who rent out a single home will be exempted from the requirements. It has been suggested that the tests might not apply to tenants who hold a British passport, and that landlords would only be expected to carry them out when letting properties in specific, high-risk areas. The Telegraph cites the West London boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow as examples.
In the House of Commons Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart said the plans were simply unfeasible. "I am not sure how a landlord is supposed to be able to prove to their own satisfaction whether someone is qualified or not," she said. "In order to operate the proposal sensibly, it will probably require a register of landlords."
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper echoed the remarks, saying that "the government cannot tell us how their policy will be enforced, because they do not know who the landlords are and they will not have a statutory register."
Others, however, have suggested that the new regime would make little difference to landlords, many of whom already include basic checks of this sort in their referencing process. Richard Lambert, CEO of the National Landlords Association, welcomed the proposals, saying: "Every landlord should thoroughly reference a tenant prior to offering a tenancy; this is standard best practice which safeguards the landlord's business. Tenant checks should include not only an identity check, as suggested, but also whether the tenant has any County Court Judgments, possible aliases and include references from their employer and a previous landlord. Such checks should highlight any immigration irregularities.
"However, local authorities must undertake robust, intelligence-led, targeted enforcement, otherwise illegal immigrants who are refused housing by reputable landlords will face homelessness or be pushed straight back into the arms of the criminals who deliberately exploit vulnerable people."
What do I need to do?
At the moment, the government's proposals are just that - proposals. They may yet be changed, or simply not implemented at all.
That said, the proposals highlight several vital things that landlords should keep in the forefront of their minds. The first is the importance of proper tenant referencing. By ensuring that you check your tenants' credit history, previous landlords, and employment status, you can minimise the risk of non-payment and other problems.
Secondly, as Cooper and Mactaggart pointed out, the prospect of a nationwide register of landlords remains a real one. Registers have already been introduced in parts of the UK, and landlords should be prepared for a national list in the future.