An investigation by the BBC’s Inside Out programme has discovered appalling discrimination against black tenants by 10 letting agent firms in London. A reporter posing as a landlord requested for his property not to be let to African-Caribbean people. A black researcher and a white researcher with similar credentials then went separately to enquire about the property, with the former being denied viewings or told the property was off the market while his white counterpart was granted a viewing. Not only is this morally objectionable practice, it is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. Clearly everything possible must be done to put an end to such conduct, which is widespread in certain areas. In the words of one letting agent: ‘99% of my landlords don’t want Afro-Caribbeans’. A survey of 750 people by Runnymede Trust, run in conjunction with the programme, also found that 29% of black people seeking private housing had experienced discrimination compared to 1% of white respondents.
The fundamental problem of course lies in the narrow-mindedness of the landlords who would discriminate against black tenants but this is a deep-rooted issue of education and cultural exposure. The focus for addressing this specific problem must be on the agents and their response to requests to discriminate.
The Labour Party has already demanded an inquiry into the problem. Hilary Benn, the shadow local government secretary, wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the ‘growing support for a code of conduct, with entry requirements for letting agents and compulsory business and consumer protection measures’. He also questioned the strength of the Commission’s powers to investigate such discrimination and enforce its prevention. It is an unfortunate fact that it can be very hard to prove discrimination; neither of the two racism investigations carried out by the property ombudsman in the last three years has been upheld. Members of the UK Association of Letting Agents (UKALA) are bound by a code of conduct to prohibit prejudice but this investigation has shown that much more may be needed to root out this rotten practice. More stringent accreditation regulations for agents in certain areas and tougher punishments for offenders may be the only way forward.