Occupations like the one at UCL last year could become criminal offences under the government's proposals.
The Ministry of Justice is consulting on proposals to criminalise squatting with the intention of introducing amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in October.
In launching the consultation however, ministers were anything but open-minded as to the outcome. Justice minister Crispin Blunt said: ‘I am clear that the days of so-called squatters’ rights must end and squatters who break the law receive a proper punishment.’ Meanwhile housing minister Grant Shapps said he would tip ‘the scales of justice in favour of the law-abiding homeowner once and for all.’
The idea that squatters break into people’s homes while they are out at the shops is a right-wing media myth. It simply doesn’t happen - and one of the reasons why is because squatting someone’s home is already a criminal offence. Other reasons are that squatting someone’s home is anti-social and ineffective.
Shapps’s ‘law-abiding home-owner’ is already well protected. What the government is trying to do is to make it a criminal offence to squat an empty, non-residential building. Even without the support of the criminal law, owners of empty non-residential buildings are not exactly at a disadvantage. They can obtain possession orders from the courts very quickly and instruct bailiffs to remove squatters. When squats keep going for weeks, months or even years, it’s not because the law is somehow ‘pro-squatter’. It’s because the owner hasn’t bothered to get a court order to remove them.
Criminalising squatting raises all sorts of problems. First, some people squat who would otherwise be homeless and housed by local authorities. Second, the police are notoriously reluctant to intervene in what they see as housing disputes. Housing law is notoriously complex and the standard police response is to say to all concerned: ‘Let the civil courts sort it out.’ Third, it’s impossible to criminalise squatting - where people want a home - without also criminalising other forms of trespass, such as occupations.
Should workers who non-violently occupy their workplace or students who occupy academic buildings be criminalised? They are already subject to civil law - the employer or academic institution can obtain a possession order. Should the employer be entitled to send the police in to remove a non-violent occupation? No doubt the Tories think so, but do the rest of us?
What criminalising squatting will certainly do is act as a deterrent. At the moment, all that squatters risk is that they may be evicted in a few days’ time. However, if the landowner can call the police and have squatters immediately arrested and removed, far fewer people will take that risk.
And that would be a shame because squatting empty buildings helps to house people and maintain the building at the same time. Criminalising trespass will also deter legitimate political protest, such as occupations, peace camps or climate camp-type events.
The Ministry of Justice’s consultation closes on 5 October. Responses can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s an extensive lobby group in favour of criminalising squatting, so the opposite view needs to be voiced loud and clear.
Liz Davies is chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She writes here in a personal capacity