‘No sympathy’ for squatters who end up homeless
A clause smuggled into the Legal Aid Bill at the last minute will create a new criminal class – the estimated twenty to fifty thousand people who squat in empty buildings. The change in the law is driven by an unholy alliance of property developers, big landlords, and the right-wing press. An attempt to limit the scope of criminalisation, led by the Liberal Democrat peer Susan Miller and backed by Labour, was defeated in the House of Lords last week.
Crisis, the housing charity, are clear: ‘Squatting is a homelessness issue‘. They report that 40% of homeless people have squatted in the past. During a major housing crisis, when statutory homelessness has increased by 14% over the past year, up to a million homes lie empty. Squatting as a response to homelessness has a long history: soldiers returning from the Second World War to a blitzed London squatted in empty buildings intended for rich tenants. Squatting has survived authoritarian governments before – the last attack came during the Major government – but this time, the law has changed almost without debate.
The front pages of the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard were predictable: ‘Community Besieged by Squatters’, ‘Squatting Outrage’, ‘Slam Doors on Squatters’. They picked up on a handful of cases where the police had failed to implement the existing law. What these stories missed out is that homeowners, the alleged beneficiaries of the new law, were already protected by the Criminal Law Act 1977: occupying someone’s home is already a criminal offence. Even the Metropolitan Police agreed that the existing law was sufficient.
Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove, claims to be the architect of the ban on squatting. His election campaign was funded by property developers. Developers and property speculators are the main beneficiaries of the new law, which shifts the cost – research suggests a potential £790m – of keeping properties empty, and responsibility for dealing with the resultant homelessness, onto the state. It will now be the job of the police to protect the profits of property owners who keep buildings empty in order to speculate on house prices.
The government’s impact assessment refused to consider the central question: what happens to squatters after criminalisation? ‘Squatting’, said Crispin Blunt, the minister responsible, ‘is not the answer to homelessness. I have no sympathy…for squatters who end up homeless.‘ He made much of the government’s £400m homelessness strategy, which is left to already squeezed local councils to implement. Conservative-controlled Westminster council is leading the way – last year they tried to ban soup kitchens. Their solution to housing problems is essentially that of the government: to criminalize homeless people.
In a macabre twist, during the debate in the Lords, the minister claimed the legislation was intended to protect the health and safety of people who squat. The truth is that the fear of arrest will force more to sleep on the streets this coming winter. Politicians are all too eager to pander to property developers flush with cash, but the result will be more rough sleeping, more despair, and – in the end - more deaths.
Pete Mills works as a researcher in the House of Lords.