Today (27 March), the House of Lords is debating for the final time a proposed new law to criminalise squatting in unoccupied residential buildings in England and Wales.
It’s a curious move during the worst housing crisis in modern memory, to turn homeless people who shelter in empty homes into criminals looking at a year in prison or a £5000 fine. This from the government whose leader promised that austerity would not hurt “the vulnerable, the poorest in our society”.
The Conservatives who dominate this Coalition of millionaires present their war on squatting as a moral crusade to “protect the rights of regular hard-working homeowners” against a transient underclass hooked on drugs and alcohol bent on destroying their homes.
But this is all smoke and mirrors. While people who return from holiday to find a group of strangers occupying their home deserve our sympathy, it rarely happens if ever. When it does, the Law Society makes clear “the current law is sufficient to protect homeowners”, a point endorsed by the Metropolitan Police and 160 leading legal experts in an open letter to the Government.
Squatting is not a social crime – it tends to be a last resort response of homeless people to a systemic failure of housing provision made worse by more than 30 years of neoliberal policies intent on removing the hard won welfare gains of the post-war era. Probably no more than 2% of England’s scandalous 720,000 empty properties are affected.
The real purpose of criminalisation is the same motive that underpins the vicious class war policies that define this government: to defend and enhance private property rights over the human right to shelter.
Since coming to power in May 2010, the Coalition has set about rapidly dismantling what remains of the post-war housing safety net while boosting the property sector. Alongside the massive cuts to housing benefit, public funding for social housing has been slashed amid a new push to privatise what’s left of our precious public housing stock under a revived Right to Buy. Local authorities’ powers to bring empty homes back into use have also been watered down, protecting the companies who own most of them.
When combined with the wider austerity and welfare reform programme, these policies will inevitably create a new generation of mass homelessness and rough sleeping. It is no accident that official homeless numbers have jumped up 14% in the last year.
The costs of denying people the option of using homes abandoned by their owners will fall on housing authorities and homelessness services – and ultimately the taxpayer. A recent study by the squatters’ group, SQUASH, endorsed by legal practitioners and academics including myself found these costs could be as much as £790m in the first five years, over 30 times greater than the government’s estimate which failed to adequately quantify the squatting population or include the enormous housing and welfare costs of making squatters homeless.
No wonder the proposed legislation has moved through Parliament at lightning speed, slipped it in at a late stage in the Commons with concerned Lords struggling to have it heard properly as they drown in the historic legislative onslaught of recent weeks.
“It is quite wrong that something that has been introduced so recently, and where a substantial number of people in a consultation—90% of them—were opposed to it, is being put through in this way,” noted MP Kate Hoey. “We are abrogating our duty and our responsibilities as Members of Parliament if we allow this measure to go through…”
Yet this is how our laws are made today by a government that promised to get out of people’s lives but in reality is extending punitive state control over the most vulnerable in unprecedented ways.
To their credit, a number of Lords are attempting to have the issue considered diligently. Several reasonable amendments are on the table, including one to exclude buildings left empty for 12 months or more. This amendment has received support from Labour’s Shadow Justice Lord Bach, who in debate called the legal instrument being used to criminalise squatting a “ridiculous, silly clause”.
Criminalising squatting is not about moral duty – if anything it’s a pre-emptive strike against the legions of dispossessed and repossessed heading our way. If this law, founded on almost total misinformation, is passed, it will mean more people on the streets and in prison while encouraging 100,000s of empty properties to remain empty. Now that’s criminal.
Stuart can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace