Further criminalisation of squatting: unnecessary and unjust

Last year the UK coalition government brought in new powers further criminalising squatting in residential buildings. Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force on 1st September 2012 and carries a maximum 6 month sentence and/or £5000 fine. This, despite the fact that ‘adverse occupation’ is already covered in section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, as stated in an open letter by 160 housing law experts before the introduction of s.144. They write,

“It is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone’s home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977. A homeowner will be a displaced residential occupier, or if they are intending to move into the property, a protected intended occupier. In either case, it is a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in the property as soon as they have been told of the displaced occupier or a protected occupier.”

There is significant reason to believe that s.144 was enacted in direct response to claims made in certain national media outlets that incorrectly stated there was no criminal law opposing squatting, and which acted in a fear-mongering and intentionally misleading manner.

The housing law experts explain the pre-s.144 situation further:

“Squatting of vacant property that is not a home is not a criminal offence. The person with a right to the property who wants to recover possession should go to the civil courts for a possession order to protect their position. However, they can apply for an interim possession order, which typically takes a few days. Once the interim order is made and served, the squatters must leave within 24 hours or commit a criminal offence. The current law therefore provides a range of options for immediate or rapid possession for those with trespassers in their homes and those seeking to regain possession of vacant property. But newspaper articles have frequently misrepresented this, stating that homeowners face weeks of civil proceedings to regain their homes and that the trespassers have “squatter’s rights” in occupying a home.”

Media Influence

Looking back on the manner in which s.144 was enacted adds weight to the theory that the government was pandering to the UK media, and not acting in a way that permitted debate or reflected the views of experts. Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (Squash) report that before its inclusion in LASPO, only 25 of 2217 consultation respondents were members of the public concerned about the potential harm caused by squatting, and even the Met Police felt the 1977 provision was adequate. Despite this, s.144 was added as an amendment to LASPO days before its final reading in the House of Commons, with no Committee examination stages, and therefore no proper scrutiny or time for response. Squash also report that fundamentally incorrect statements were made about the nature of the legislation itself during this process, such as claims by politicians that s.144 would protect those whose homes are ‘taken over’ by squatters, despite the fact that the new power covers empty homes only. Eminent bodies such as The Law Society acknowledge these inaccuracies in a report in which they align themselves unequivocally against s.144, and in which they make clear their opinions on the role of the media in further criminalising squatting:

“We urge the government to conduct statistical research rather than reacting to media heightened public concern created by the media.”

The housing experts’ open letter also addresses these misleading claims by both ministers and the media:

“We believe that ministers should make clear the extent of the current law and the actual nature of the proposed reforms and correct any statements they have made which are likely to have confused the public. We further believe that newspapers and other media have a duty to inform their readers, rather than create fear and confusion through misrepresentation.”

Opposition to s.144

Opposition to this legislation continues to this day. Squash are one of many organisations voicing concerns: their report, from March 2013, details their opposition to, and the multiple problems of, s.144. Over 100 people have been displaced or made homeless due to s.144, there have been over 30 arrests and 10 convictions, and all 3 of those given custodial sentences were genuinely homeless and squatting as a last resort. A young homeless man with substance abuse problems sleeping in an empty house is a far cry from claims of ruthless squatters stealing people’s homes, and everyone will no doubt remember Daniel Gauntlett, a homeless man who died on the doorstep of an empty bungalow due for demolition after being warned by Police not to enter. In fact, none of these arrests involved anyone being displaced from their home as a result of the squatters’ residence, which implies that the Criminal Law Act 1977 was indeed an adequate provision.

Homelessness in the UK

The plight of the three young men given custodial sentences reflects wider concerns. Crisis have emphasised the link between homelessness and squatting, and as the waitlist for social housing grows to 1.8 million families (4.5 million people), and rough-sleeping increases (by 30% in the past 2-3 years), the lives of those on the edge of society are more precarious than ever. The government has promised to work with local authorities to ensure no increase in rough-sleeping as a result of s.144, but Squash found that 91% of local authorities have no records on whether those presenting as homeless have previously squatted, and with many police forces treating the new law as non-notifiable/not recordable’, there appears to be little way of judging the impact of s.144.

Despite rising homelessness and the focus on the criminalisation of squatting almost 1 million homes sit empty in the UK, and a third of these are ‘long-term empty’. Squash report that restrictions on Empty Dwelling Management Orders and the Land Registration Act 2002 are having a negative impact on housing market and that this, along with property speculation and foreign investment, mean more people in the UK are relying on housing benefits in part due to increasing rents and house prices. s.144 is further adding to this problem by encouraging homes to be kept empty. Focusing on these issues, rather than criminalising those already in need, would not only be beneficial to the people effected but would make financial sense, as Squash estimates that after medium and long-term costs are taken into account s.144 will cost £790 million to enforce over the first five years. As The Law Society said in their report prior to s.144,

“The proposals in this consultation would have a significant effect on vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals and far reaching consequences for society. Criminalising has far reaching implications on individuals stigmatising them and preventing them from accessing social housing in the future. This will exacerbate existing problems of homelessness, addiction, mental health and street crime.”

In line with this, Crisis report that 37% of squatters have mental health problems and 20% are alcohol dependant.

Criminalising Squatting in Commercial Buildings

Shortly after the enactment of s.144 Tory MPs began calling on Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, to extend its provisions to commercial properties. One year on from s.144 and politicians, such as Mike Weatherley MP (a lead figure in criminalising squatting of residential properties), who recently delivered a letter to Cameron on the issue, have once again been making public their views on squatting, amping up demands for an extension of these powers. Senior Labour politicians are amongst those to echo Wetherley’s concerns. The language used by MPs in September sought to sensationalise, and to depict squatters as callous criminals who ‘target’ commercial properties. This is not productive, it does make attempts to address the serious need for more, and cheaper housing, in the UK, our rising homelessness problem or what to do about the large number of homes sat empty. The government’s willingness to appease the media is matched by its unrelenting desire to pander to big business, and calls to extend the provisions in s.144 to commercial properties appear to support this.

These politicians question why s.144 did not cover both residential and commercial properties on its enactment, but the real question should not be whether to extend s.144 but why it was brought into existence in the first place, particularly considering the existence of s.7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. With the country in the midst of a housing crisis a million homes sit empty and there are an estimated 20,000 people squatting (at least). There is no doubt that the criminalisation of squatting disproportionately affects those in need on the fringes of society, and is yet another example of our government’s fixation with treating the symptoms of a problem rather than its cause, making a scapegoat of those who have no voice and no power. With the recent introduction of the ‘Bedroom Tax’, and Cameron’s Tory party conference speech promising to get tough on under 25s, it seems the most vulnerable members of our society will continue to pay the price for an economic recession they did not cause, and will continue to be rendered unimportant by those in power.

Additional Impact of Further Criminalisation

The effects of an extension to further criminalise the squatting of commercial buildings will no doubt have an impact on other aspects of our society and culture. This government has been cracking down on, and showing intolerance towards, protest since coming into power, and criminalising the occupation of commercial buildings will have a huge impact on what many consider ‘legitimate forms of direct action’. It can be argued that any move to extend s.144 would be carried out, at least in part, to further criminalise resistance, potentially in light of the (at least temporary) success of and widespread interest in Occupy and student occupations. Additionally, often squatted buildings are transformed into community centres and places of creativity and productivity (such as Grow Heathrow), as a recent exhibition by Made Possible By Squatting demonstrated. Criminalising this form of squatting will no doubt radically reduce the frequency of these centres as those involved have little chance of raising the high rents needed. The loss of these centres is a loss for us all, and public figures such as Antony Gormley have spoken up about the need for squats, not only for the vulnerable, but as hubs for creativity.  As the Advisory Service for Squatters have said,

“We hope that squatting will continue to provide shelter for people like Daniel Gauntlett, space for social protest and community activity like the Barnet library saved by occupation, and for other expressions of resistance and experimentation against the domination of private property and money.”

Final Thoughts

We see in s.144, and its potential extension, many of the hallmarks of this government’s priorities and attitudes, from the importance it places on business and media approval to the ease in which it disregards the needs of those with no power, and the way in which it seeks to increasingly suppress resistance. We must now wait for Chris Grayling’s decision on whether to consider extending s.144 provisions to commercial properties, and while we at least may hope for a more in-depth public debate on the issues, I fear the outcome is predictable.

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