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This month (September 2014) saw the pilot of new immigration status checks which landlords and letting agents are required to conduct on prospective tenants. This controversial new policy has caused concern amongst housing professionals, but what really is the impact on letting agents?
What do letting agents have to do?
The legislation, which will come into force across the UK in 2015, will require letting agents to check identity documents to make sure that prospective tenants have the right to live in the UK, as well as taking responsibility for ensuring that documents provided by prospective tenants are legitimate.
The checks apply not just to the leaseholder but to anyone living in the property aged 18 or above. However they will only be required for new tenancies, the checks do not need to be carried out on existing tenants.
What is the purpose of tenant immigration status checks?
Research conducted by the Office of National Statistics suggests that around 85% of migrants who have come to the UK within the last year are living in private rented accommodation. A number of these people will be living in the UK illegally, and by requiring tenant immigration status checks, the Home Office hopes to reduce the number of illegal immigrants residing here.
The Government is also implementing immigration checks as one plan of attack against illegal landlords who are renting out unsafe and overcrowded properties, as often these landlords rent to people living in the UK without the right to do so.
Are letting agents really qualified to do these checks?
Much of the controversy around these tenant immigration status checks is around the perception that landlords and letting agents are being asked to act like border control staff. Of particular concern has been the fact that letting agents are responsible for assessing whether a passport is real or fake.
However, the Government’s guidance is keen to promote that what is being asked is relatively ‘light touch’. It compares the checks to those that employers have to do before hiring a new member of staff, and has promised guidance and support when the legislation is widely rolled out.
What happens if the tenant does not pass the checks?
Information recently provided by the Home Office explains how letting agencies should conduct immigration checks, and provides lists of acceptable documentation. The process outlined for the pilot involves landlords or letting agents checking and copying identity documents, but if there is uncertainty around validity, or if the tenant is unable to supply the correct documentation, a ‘Right to Rent’ check can be conducted via the Home Office website. At this point, advice will be provided to the letting agent on how to proceed.
What does my agency need to do next? There is no requirement for letting agents to conduct these checks until the pilot (which began in early September in Birmingham, Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and Wolverhampton) has been completed. Therefore, letting agencies should look out for further guidance being published by the Home Office in order to ensure that you stay compliant and avoid a potential fine of up to £3000 when the new rules are implemented.