‘It is true that some of those who are homeless have squatted but this does not make them squatters. A typical squatter is middle class, web-savvy, legally minded, university-educated and, most importantly, society-hating.’
Mike Weatherley, Tory MP for Hove
Not content with having made it illegal for homeless people to put a roof over their heads in empty residential properties, the same people who brought us last year’s ban on squatting are now trying to extend it to empty commercial properties too. Fired up with the same sort of prejudiced misinformation that formed the backdrop to the original campaign to criminalise squatters, Mike Weatherley has tabled an early day motion in parliament to this effect. It had gathered 24 signatures as Red Pepper went to press, including the Labour MPs Paul Flynn and Mary Glindon and the Liberal Democrats’ Mike Hancock.
While the sheer stupidity of some statements from supporters of the ban is almost comical (another from Weatherley on squatters: ‘these people are anti-capitalists and they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it’), the consequences of the new law are no laughing matter. Campaigners such as SQUASH, (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) are still fighting to highlight the real issues at stake since section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force last September.
The opening quote from Weatherley was made to the local paper The Argus, in response to claims that the law he had so keenly promoted had resulted in its first fatality. Daniel Gauntlett, a 35 year-old homeless man in Kent, froze to death in February after police warned him not to enter an empty bungalow, due for demolition, on the doorstep of which he later died.
So far, 33 people have been arrested under the new law, which makes it a crime to ‘trespass’ into a residential property with the intention of living there, punishable by up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine. Ten were convicted, with three receiving custodial sentences, while research by squatting support networks such as Advisory Service for Squatters, SQUASH and the Squatters’ Legal Network has identified at least 108 people who have been displaced after being threatened with prosecution by police. Given that accurate figures are not readily available – many police forces are treating the offence as non-recordable – this is just the tip of what many groups working with homeless people believe could be a very big iceberg.
What is clear is that in contrast to the images of ‘home stealing’ squatters conjured up in the imaginations of the media and politicians – caricatures resting on prejudiced portrayals of eastern European migrants and ‘feral’ middle-class youth – the law has disproportionately affected homeless and vulnerable people. This is exactly what opponents of the law, including homeless charities such as Crisis, Shelter and the Simon Community, had predicted.
Of the three people jailed for squatting, all were genuinely homeless, vulnerable, and in one case struggling with substance abuse problems. As the SQUASH report The Case Against S144, recently presented in the House of Commons, summarised: ‘As expected, a law that was introduced to “protect home owners” is, ultimately, putting homeless people in jail simply for trying to avoid rough sleeping.’
The report is backed by lawyers, homeless charities, academics and MPs. The broader campaign includes MPs such as John McDonnell, who has tabled an early day motion to repeal S144. A chorus of 40 legal experts, most recently in a letter published in the Guardian, has reiterated the fact that previous laws already protected home owners and intended occupiers. There was no need to introduce additional criminal sanctions, and no justification for extending them further.
‘There is no evidence that the law is being used to protect home owners, which it was claimed the law was for. No one has been arrested for squatting someone else’s home; it’s been for squatting empty properties,’ says SQUASH campaigner Gianni Barlassina. ‘What we’ve been saying all along is that squatting is a homelessness issue, not a criminal issue. It should be treated for what it is.’