The hostile environment in housing
Last week, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the British Government’s right to rent scheme, which turns landlords into border guards, causes racial discrimination against migrants and ethnic minorities, but stopped short of declaring the scheme unlawful.
Private landlords are currently required to check the immigration status of tenants and, if they don’t, they can face fines or potentially a prison sentence.
Whilst this latest judgment feels disappointing to campaigners, it does back up what organizations like the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants have always known – that Britain’s Hostile Environment for migrants not only causes racial discrimination, it stops people in desperate need from accessing the services that would keep them safe.
As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, racism can be a determinant of health and this is magnified in a crisis such as Covid-19. There is no place in our social contract for the Hostile Environment, which is why we have been fighting it in court. Now, more than ever, it is vital that it is scrapped.
The ‘Hostile Environment’ refers to a cohort of policies which bring members of the public into the Home Office’s game of cat and mouse in a bid to make an even more inhospitable environment for migrants in Britain. They were introduced by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, and the government argued that they wouldn’t cause any racial discrimination, despite internal documents showing that ministers were concerned about the impact on minority communities.
The ‘right to rent’ is the keenest example of these measures and it directly asks landlords to deny housing to migrants or risk criminal punishment. The scheme also inserts racial discrimination into the housing market, leaving people of colour and migrants with less access to safe housing, and more at risk from exploitative rogue landlords.
Independent evidence from JCWI’s research found that landlords are less inclined to rent to anybody, documented or not, if they've got a foreign-sounding name or if they aren't a British citizen. In effect, the government created a strong incentive to discriminate through the Hostile Environment.
Parliament was told during the passage of legislation that the ‘right to rent’ scheme would have ‘safeguards’ and the government agreed to a pilot before its extension to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The results of that pilot, however, were inevitably ignored once the Conservative government was no longer shackled by the restraints of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s cabinet continued to pursue the Hostile Environment with no regard for the risks they’d promised to guard against.
This is why the High Court in 2019 was first convinced that members of parliament who had voted in favour of introducing the scheme ‘would be aghast to learn of its discriminatory effects’. But this is where the Court of Appeal disagreed, arguing instead that parliamentarians were aware of the discrimination, and with the Home Office going even further to argue that even if the scheme does produce racial discrimination, this is justifiable in its pursuit of to creating a ‘really hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants.
Instead of ruling the scheme unlawful, the Court of Appeal judgment firmly places the power for decision-making on to politicians, arguing that it is for Parliament to decide what level of racial discrimination is acceptable. This conclusion is stark when read alongside the findings in the recently published Windrush Lessons Learned Review, which also criticizes the Home Office for failing to heed warnings about the likely discriminatory impact of the Right to Rent scheme.
The impact of racism in our housing market is coming to the fore more than ever in the context of a pandemic, as the black and minority ethnic population is disproportionately represented in deaths from Covid-19. Questions are being raised about how structural inequalities that permeate our society, including in housing, are having an impact on health outcomes.
Lack of access to safe, high quality housing and its impact on health outcomes may be playing a role in this current worrying trend for ethnic minorities, who are more likely to be renting undesirable housing – in part as a result of this government policy.
When Rajesh Jayaseelan, a married father of two who came to London from India, died alone on 11 April, his friends cited that his fear of being evicted stopped him from accessing healthcare. As a migrant, Rajesh’s experiences in the UK would have included extortionate visa fees, no entitlement to welfare benefits, and strict enforcement from the Home Office.
The Home Office’s ominous presence in daily life, via the Hostile Environment, creates a culture of fear and hostility which was identified again as a particular risk to BME communities in the Windrush Lessons Learned Review. As the pandemic progresses, more and more community groups are raising fears that the dysfunctional relationship between the Home Office and the subjects of its enforcement has reached a dangerous crux.
The pandemic has crystallized this further as the Hostile Environment is fundamentally designed to not only directly bar people from accessing safe housing and healthcare, but also that even asking for help can put you at risk.
This is not just a policy, it’s the difference between life and death. That migrants are trapped in dangerous working conditions, being asked to choose between their immigration status or their health, forfeiting safe housing, are unable to access welfare support and anxious that any interaction with services will lead to enforcement from the Home Office, is emblematic of structural problems which cannot continue.
What’s needed now more than ever, and as recommended by the courts, is for parliamentarians to intervene, and make the correct assessment that no amount of racial discrimination is justified, and that systemic reform is needed, starting with ending the Hostile Environment.
There can be no recovery from coronavirus which does not encompass new rights for migrants or tackle the root causes of racial discrimination in our society. As the government does not apparently agree, we will be pursuing a further appeal to the Supreme Court, all the while hoping that the judgment of MPs will prevail and that we can, at least, get this scheme scrapped once and for all.
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