Theresa May’s failing hostile environment: immigration checks by landlords breach human rights

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The evidence is against her. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.

Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The “right-to-rent” scheme was a cornerstone of Theresa May’s hostile environment, which she put in place during her time as home secretary to curb illegal migration to the UK. Since 2016, the scheme has required landlords to check the status of their tenants by reviewing identification documents – a passport, for example. If landlords fail to comply, they can face fines of up to £3,000 or up to five years in prison.

This controversial policy has been criticised by campaigners, who are concerned that it could cause discrimination and prevent migrants, ethnic minorities and vulnerable people from finding a home in the private rental sector. Now, the UK’s high court has found that the scheme leads to discrimination against some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens breaches human rights.

In his verdict, handed down on March 1, 2019, Justice Spencer also blocked the roll-out of the policy across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, the government has the chance to appeal and this is probably not the end of court cases on this policy. But a growing body of research indicates that the policy is not only ineffective, but also could be harming UK citizens.

Mounting evidence

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association in 2017 found that landlords’ concerns over prosecution due to this policy caused them to discriminate even against legal migrants, with 42% of landlords saying that they were less likely to let to someone who did not have a British passport.

One year on, in further research for the RLA, my colleagues and I found that this had increased to 44% of landlords. This shows that there is still pressure on landlords to discriminate, for fear of prosecution if they get something wrong.

These findings are consistent with those of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). In mystery shopper exercises, the council found that British Black Minority Ethnic (BME) citizens without a passport were more likely to receive negative responses from landlords than those who could provide a passport.

But, the council also found that there was no racial discrimination between non-BME citizens and British BME citizens who could provide a passport, when they applied for tenancies. The JCWI argued that this proved the discrimination was due to the right to rent policy, rather than any underlying racism.

The UK government itself had found that 25% of landlords were unwilling to let to those without a British passport. All of this evidence underpinned the arguments which helped to decide the high court case, where Justice Spencer ruled that the right to rent scheme breaches the Human Rights Act because it causes landlords to discriminate when they otherwise would not have.

An ineffective policy

The case not only found that the policy was causing discrimination, the judge also said that the government had failed to demonstrate that the policy was effective at encouraging undocumented migrants to leave.

In 2018, the policy came under criticism from the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. In his report, he criticised the Home Office for failing to evaluate and assess the impact of the scheme and concluded that the right to rent policy was failing “to demonstrate its worth”.

Major failures.
Willy Barton/Shutterstock.

In the government’s own impact assessment, it estimated that 830 civil penalty notices would be issued to landlords as a result of the right to rent policy each year.

But in our research for the RLA we found that, since 2016, there had been fewer than 700 reports to the Home Office by a landlord that their tenant did not have the right to rent, while the Home Office itself had only issued just over 400 civil penalty notices to landlords across England. So far, there have been no criminal prosecutions under the policy.

Read more:
‘Hostile environment’ in Britain hasn’t put off irregular immigrants – but it’s increased their suffering

Given that the scheme is estimated to cost £106m the low levels of enforcement by the Home Office raise serious questions about the scheme’s effectiveness.

Unintended consequences

The purpose of the policy was to create a “hostile environment” for those living in the UK without leave to remain, by preventing them from accessing the basic necessities for a normal life, such as a home. But government data shows that both voluntary and forced returns have fallen each year since 2015.

The evidence shows that this policy is causing discrimination and deep divisions in society, while actual enforcement by the government has been lacklustre. What’s more, the scheme is also likely to lead to further unintended consequences, which affect some of the most vulnerable people in society.

At the last census, 17% of the population were found not to have a passport. This means that some of the most vulnerable (such as those who are homeless) or those without documentation (such as the Windrush generation) who do actually have the right to rent, have been unfairly locked out of a home because of this policy.

The case has confirmed previous research findings that the hostile environment is causing deep divisions and discrimination across communities. If the UK is to reunite after Brexit and create a more inclusive society, the government must abandon this ineffective, discriminatory approach.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shock reaction to election proves May and her team know what they are doing

Paula Keaveney, Edge Hill University

Britain had barely returned from its Easter break when the press reported that Theresa May, the prime minister, was to make a statement in Downing Street. After an hour’s frenzied speculation about what she might say, May stepped up to a podium in front of Number 10 and announced that she and her cabinet had decided there should be a general election on June 8. The Conversation

And that, it seems, is that. Under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, at least two-thirds of the House of Commons must vote in favour of an election for one to be called – ahead of the due date which in this parliament was scheduled for 2020, the last election having taken place in 2015. But with Labour saying it will back May’s decision, the country will head to the polls in a matter of weeks.

This was a bombshell announcement delivered at remarkably short notice. Even though political commentators have been debating the advisability of calling a snap election since the Brexit referendum, the announcement caught most of them by surprise.

So what does the announcement tell us about May, her team, and the challenges they now face?

First of all, May is taking a gamble on her personal brand. Until now, she presented herself as a steady, no nonsense, get-the-job-done leader. To reinforce that image, she several times reiterated that she would not call an early election. Her sudden U-turn might seem like an opportunity for the opposition parties, but she’s probably not too vulnerable on this front.

For all that politicians and political reporters obsess over process issues and consistency, most voters don’t. May will also be protected by the vote in the Commons to come: Labour, for one, will vote in favour of an early election, so Jeremy Corbyn and his party can hardly attack her for calling it.

Game on

The U-turn factor notwithstanding, May’s argument for holding the election is reasonably logical. As she acknowledged in her announcement, the Brexit process has caused confusion, and many people will want a simple and clear way through the minefield. By painting the opposition parties as obstructionists and troublemakers that endanger the future of a post-Brexit Britain, May puts herself on the side of the people.

It all added up to a fantastic example of a leader wrongfooting both the media and the opposition, who scrambled to issue their responses.

The Conservatives are also surely keen to fight a Labour party run by the dramatically unpopular Corbyn.

May has also reportedly ruled out any TV debates along the lines of those held in 2015. That’s a blow to the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron, both of whom stood to gain from sharing a stage with May. (Anyone who watched the 2015 debates will remember that Sturgeon’s debating skills are especially formidable.)

The May team won’t have the element of surprise again, and a lot now depends on whether they’re actually ready for the campaign. But the timing, tone and surprise factor of the election announcement was the work of a team that really knows what it’s doing. The fallout over the next few days will tell us a lot about the Conservatives, but even more about the other parties.

As Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and UKIP respond in full, we’ll start to see just how strong, prepared and determined they are – or aren’t.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why the case against the Human Rights Act is so weak

Don’t turn off the lights. Sam72/
Don’t turn off the lights. Sam72/

The Human Rights Act was enacted in 1998 and made the rights set down in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) part of UK law for the first time. The ECHR was drafted after World War II and places obligations on its signatories to protect certain rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the right not to be tortured and the right to freedom of expression. The UK was instrumental in its drafting and was the first country to ratify it in 1951.

Now Liz Truss, Britain’s justice secretary and Lord Chancellor, has confirmed that the UK government intends to fulfil the Conservative manifesto promise to replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. But the case for doing this is unconvincing and unnecessary.

Although Theresa May mooted the idea of withdrawing the UK from the ECHR during the EU referendum campaign, since becoming British prime minister she has stated that after Brexit she does not intend to do so. Given this, it seems pointless to consider replacing the Human Rights Act with a new UK Bill of Rights.

No threat to sovereignty

Before the Human Rights Act was introduced, the UK’s obligations under the ECHR existed only in international law, so that only the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg could hear cases concerning breaches of the Convention brought against the UK. The Conservatives argue that “Britain shouldn’t be told what to do by judges in Strasbourg”. Yet the Act enables UK judges to decide ECHR cases rather than judges in Strasbourg having to hear them.

The Act also incorporates the ECHR into UK law while protecting parliamentary sovereignty – the principle that parliament can enact any law whatsoever and that the courts cannot rule an Act of Parliament to be invalid.

Under the Act, parliament remains free to legislate in breach of the ECHR and, as demonstrated by the refusal to alter a ban on the rights of prisoners to vote, may refuse to comply with judgements of the Strasbourg court. So, the suggestion by May that the ECHR and the Human Rights Act “bind(s) the hands of parliament” is incorrect. If an Act of Parliament is incompatible with the ECHR, UK courts may issue a declaration to that effect but this does not affect the legislation’s validity or the outcome of any case. Neither the UK courts, nor Strasbourg, have the power to strike down legislation because it conflicts with the ECHR.

Where the judges sit in Strasbourg. Oleg Mikhaylov/

The government has not yet published a draft of its proposed UK Bill of Rights, though there are reports that it is ready. But, like the Human Rights Act, it would apply only within the UK and would not alter the way in which the Strasbourg court works.

Respecting UK courts

Some Conservatives claim that the Human Rights Act “undermines the role of UK courts in deciding on human rights issues in this country” because it requires them to “take into account” decisions of the Strasbourg court. Yet it is difficult to see why this undermines UK courts. It simply obliges them to consider applying the ECHR in a way which is consistent with the Strasbourg court. It does not require them to slavishly follow Strasbourg but it does mean they can apply the ECHR in a way which respects the UK’s laws and principles and which is unlikely to be ruled a breach of the ECHR by the Strasbourg court. This empowers, rather than undermines, UK courts because they are able to conclusively determine ECHR matters rather than UK citizens having to rely on the Strasbourg court to enforce their rights.

The deportation of the extremist Abu Qatada, and other suspected terrorists, is often cited as a reason for replacing the Human Rights Act. Qatada’s deportation to Jordan was blocked by the UK Court of Appeal, and later by Strasbourg, because he may have been subject to trial using evidence obtained by torture in Jordan. Yet, once the government had obtained sufficient assurances from the Jordanians, he was finally lawfully deported in 2013.

The government’s reaction to the Qatada case suggests that they believe ministers should have the power to deport people at their whim, without judicial oversight and with no regard to what may happen to them in the receiving country – but that would not be the hallmark of a democracy committed to the rule of law.

The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, once said: “There are countries in the world where all judicial decisions find favour with the government, but they are not places where one would wish to live.” In any healthy democracy, there will, and should, be decisions which do not go the government’s way. This is not a sufficient reason for altering the protection of human rights.

The Human Rights Act incorporates the ECHR into UK law in a simple, elegant and sensible way while protecting long-standing principles of the UK constitution. It also allows disputes about those rights to be heard by UK courts rather than Strasbourg.

Talk of replacing it seems to be little more than playing to the gallery, a pandering to the Conservative party’s supporters. The result of the Brexit referendum should warn against such posturing and such an unnecessary, regressive step which may weaken the protection afforded to the rights of citizens in the UK.

The Conversation

John McGarry, Reader in Law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.