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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.’