Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

‘The government may have trampled over democracy but people will still be squatting’

Lorna Stephenson and Emma Hughes meet SQUASH, the squatters’ action group who have been ignored in the anti-squatting media furore

December 13, 2011
4 min read


Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


  share     tweet  

A last-minute change to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in November criminalised squatting in residential buildings. The government announced the additional clause just six days before the vote, making serious campaigning against criminalisation impossible. But the government’s haste may yet prove its downfall. Parliament has produced an unclear piece of law that may not stand up to legal scrutiny.

Paul Reynolds, a SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) activist, describes the legislation as ‘the criminalisation of the homeless in a housing crisis’. There are currently 700,000 empty properties in the UK, and 600,000 people facing homelessness, which increased by 17 per cent last year. According to Crisis, 40 per cent of homeless people have slept in disused buildings to avoid sleeping rough. The new legislation will criminalise people who are already vulnerable.

SQUASH was resurrected in May this year, having started when previous attempts to criminalise squatting were tabled in the 1990s. The campaign involves a broad coalition of groups, including Crisis, the Empty Homes Agency, lawyers, activists and squatters themselves. It focused its efforts on getting people to take part in the government’s consultation. Their success was phenomenal: 96 per cent of respondents expressed concern about criminalisation, including the police, magistrates and even one landlords’ association. Just 25 members of the public responded to say they were concerned about squatting, compared with 2,126 who expressed concern about the harm caused by criminalisation.

The Ministry of Justice declared that although ‘the statistical weight of responses was against taking action on squatting’, it had taken a ‘qualitative rather than a quantitative’ approach as so many responses (90 per cent) were received in support of SQUASH’s campaign. Yet even if these are discounted, five out of six individual respondents were still against criminalisation. ‘It’s ridiculous,’ commented SQUASH campaigner Joseph Blake. ‘They’re completely ignoring the results of their own consultation.’

Headlines in some newspapers have suggested that squatters pose a significant threat to home owners. Yet it is almost unheard of for an occupied house to be squatted, and existing legislation already enables ‘displaced residential occupiers’ or ‘intended occupiers’ to immediately evict squatters with police help.

What the new law does is call legitimate protest tactics into question. The ambiguous definition of the term ‘occupier’ could criminalise many forms of dissent. If the tweets of housing minister Grant Shapps are anything to go by, this is exactly what the new legislation will be used for. On the day of the vote he tweeted this threat: ‘St Paul’s: Right to protest NOT a right to squat. Looking at law to see if change needed to deal w/ camps like St Paul’s & Dale Farm faster.’

There are plenty of reasons why the government might have thought it useful to rush through this legislation, and criminalising the current wave of civil and student occupations seems a likely one.

SQUASH activists have already seen their right to protest denied. On the night before the vote an organised ‘mass sleep out’ in Parliament Square, to highlight the number of people who may be forced onto the streets, resulted in 17 arrests. The police claimed the protest was unauthorised because SQUASH hadn’t given seven days’ notice: an impossibility as there were only six days between the clause being announced and voted through.

An emergency amendment was written by Crisis and tabled by John McDonnell MP. This proposed that criminalisation should not apply to residential buildings left empty for over six months, and that the particularly vulnerable – such as care leavers and those registered as homeless or at risk – should be exempt. The amendment failed and with Labour abstaining, the bill was easily passed.

The rush to legislate leaves various issues unanswered and potential loopholes for the future. It criminalises squatting only in residential rather than commercial properties and it is unclear what this distinction actually means. Does it, for example, include any building with residential planning permission? It will be up to the Lords to make sense of this confusion before it passes into law, and SQUASH will be lobbying peers to rip up the legislation and start again.

SQUASH’s Paul Reynolds is convinced that the legislation will prove legally unsound when scrutinised in detail. And whatever the outcome, he says, it won’t end squatting. ‘The government may have trampled over democracy but people will still be squatting,’ he comments. ‘They’ll just be more organised now.’

www.squashcampaign.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


28