Exclusive: Government Money to Tackle Rogue Landlords Is Being Used to Arrest Tenants
In trying to clamp down on "beds in sheds", the government just made things harder for the people living in them.
It's worth remembering what the housing crisis actually means in practice for some people. Housing officers tell stories like that of a trafficked migrant sleeping in a derelict garage with only half a roof, accessed by a hole in the wall. And when you consider that a staggering 39 percent of Conservative MPs are themselves landlords, it's a reminder of how far removed they are from those on the sharp end of this catastrophe.
Perhaps with this in mind, they have been keen to position themselves as tough on the "unscrupulous Scrooges" giving saintly landlords like themselves a bad name. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government made a huge deal about the millions of pounds given to local councils for just this purpose: to "crack down on criminals that make tenants' lives a misery".
Today, VICE can exclusively reveal that these government funds to crack down on bad landlords were used to pay for dawn raids by police and border officials on vulnerable tenants. Hundreds of them were then evicted, arrested or deported.
Evidence gathered by the Radical Housing Network, via numerous freedom of information (FOI) requests, has discovered what is at best serious misrepresentation about the use of government funds. The coalition project saw the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) awarding the £5.8 million to local councils via two standalone funds: £1.8 million awarded in 2012 to tackle "beds in sheds", and then a further £4 million in 2014 to crack down on "rogue landlords". The latter announcement boasted the money would be used to "root out the cowboys and rogue operators", in the words of Tory Housing Minister Kris Hopkins, to "ensure millions of hard-working tenants get a better deal".
The Radical Housing Network report, Wolf in sheep's clothing? How funding to tackle "rogue landlords" has harmed tenants, is based on FOI requests submitted to the 30 councils participating in the government scheme. They asked how much each council had received, what that money had been spent on, how properties had been located (usually via aerial photography), how many had been visited and what the outcomes were for landlords and tenants alike.
Tens of thousands of properties were visited, many of them carried out as "multi-agency visits", featuring not just housing officers but the police, UK Border Agency, tax officers or the fire brigade. The east London borough of Newham received the most funding of all boroughs, over £1 million in total, and carried out 4,504 visits to properties, 341 raids and "nearly 400 arrests whilst on joint property licensing operations". The council has been unable to clarify what proportion of those 400 arrested are landlords, and what proportion are tenants.
For a campaign sold as a piece of compassionate conservatism to rescue vulnerable tenants, it is revealing that it was launched with a macho publicity stunt for the press. In 2012, Tory ministers Grant Shapps and Damian Green launched the fund by joining dawn raids on six properties in Ealing with the police and UK Border Agency.
Then-Housing Minister Grant Shapps commented at the time, "I want to see all agencies from councils to the police and the UK Border Agency using the full range of powers at their disposal to work together on a national clampdown towards ridding our communities of this problem once and for all." It's not clear what "problem" he's talking about.
Action against landlords – the whole purported reason for the funds – appears to be limited. "One of the most common responses where landlords were found to be providing inadequate accommodation were 'improvement notices'," the report's authors write. These are "essentially polite letters to landlords asking them to make improvements" – no fine, no arrest, no censure.
Then there is the obvious distress caused by early morning police raids on already vulnerable tenants, especially where families with children are concerned. Why carry out a dawn raid at all? Landlords are unlikely to be living on the property – especially if it is squalid and overcrowded – and renting out an illegal property isn't the kind of thing you need to catch culprits at red-handed.
The FOIs also reveal that raids by police and border officers led to arrests and legal action against many tenants, including investigation for drugs offences or council tax irregularities (Peterborough), detention by UK Border Agency (Redbridge), or ASBOs (Barnsley and Herefordshire). Again, this is supposedly a crackdown on rogue landlords, making life safer for tenants.
There is also no evidence of support for those vulnerable tenants after the worst of the properties were shut down or demolished, or tenants were evicted because of overcrowding. Obviously no one wants rickety, cockroach-infested beds in sheds to be maintained, but what happened to their tenants when they were turfed out onto the street?
Don Flynn, Director of the Migrants' Rights Network, told VICE that the policy is explicitly targeting the wrong people: "This report shows that the people who are the victims of the appalling practices of rogue landlords are now being made to suffer, from what is little more than a ham-fisted publicity stunt, designed to make a few politicians look dynamic and proactive. The tenants lose whatever accommodation they have and the landlords are escaping with little more than a warning letter. By every standard 'beds in sheds' has proven to be a complete flop."
And yet they merrily continue. Satisfied with the press photos of government ministers in the kinds of houses they'd presumably never set foot in normally (unless it was to chase up rent owed to them), in January this year they announced a £5 million continuation of the scheme. And how is it being sold to the public? "£5 million cash for councils to stop rogue landlords" – no mention of immigration enforcement or police, just "measures that will ensure millions of hard-working tenants get a better deal when they rent a home".
In a final grim irony, there's a strong case that the government actively made "beds in sheds" worse as they waged their supposed war. For one thing, David Cameron's government built proportionally the lowest amount of new housing of any Prime Minister since 1923, giving greater opportunities to "unscrupulous Scrooges".
The 2013 Immigration Bill compounded this by making private landlords actively check the immigration status of their tenants. The updated 2016 Immigration Act has built on this with new criminal penalties for landlords for non-compliance. The bigger picture was Theresa May, then-Home Secretary, trying to make the UK a "hostile environment" for migrants. A parliamentary Home Affairs Committee commented on this: "One likely consequence of making it more difficult for irregular migrants to access the rented housing market will be an increase in homelessness within that group, and an increase of those living in what the Government describes as 'the very worst privately rented accommodation': illegally occupied outhouses and unlicensed houses in multiple occupation."
Great work, guys.
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