The law making squatting in residential property a criminal offence came into effect on 1st September 2012, resulting from an EDM in March of the same year sponsored by Hove MP Mike Weatherly; it was supported by Grant Shapps, and rather disappointedly, Kenneth Clarke, amongst others.
Extract from comment in the Guardian…
“From Saturday, a massively unjust, unnecessary and unaffordable new law will come into force in England and Wales. In the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen, up to 50,000 squatters who are currently squatting in empty properties across the UK face becoming criminals, and this because they are occupying abandoned residential properties to put a roof over their heads.” (Guardian, 31st August 2012)
One of the drivers was a couple of high profile cases, sexed up by rags like the Daily Mail, where owner occupiers returned from a fortnight in the sun to find their homes occupied. These cases do not represent typical squatting which basically is making use of unoccupied property to find shelter from the elements; a sort of house sitting, custodianship, where the property is usually returned in a better state.
It is difficult to think of a more pernicious or unnecessary piece of legislation. It represents an attack on the vulnerable rather than a device for dealing with criminality. Under existing civil law it was a criminal offence to forcibly break into a property; the existing law worked well which might explain why none of the previous half dozen or so governments, mainly Conservative, saw fit to change matters.
The change in the law was opposed by the Metropolitan Police, The Law Society, The Criminal Bar Association, and numerous homeless charities, such as Crisis and Shelter. It was supported by the Daily Telegraph, The Landlords Association, and through Parliament by a rather shell-shocked (only excuse I can think of) Labour Party.
Timid, timid Labour
Currently I am unaware of any plans by the Labour Party to repeal the legislation. This together with interactions with a couple of Labour activists is an indictment of how supportive Labour is of the establishment and status quo, and also how scared they are of misrepresentation in the press. Imagine the Daily Mail headline, “Labour supports criminals”.
The negative consequences of criminalising, giving a criminal record, and all the disadvantages that brings with finding a job and home, to someone already on ‘their uppers’ and fighting to turn their life around should be obvious; but Labour don’t get it and nor do some of 2 out of 2 of the activists who gave a view on it.
Responses from activists (anonymity guaranteed, especially you Caroline, and Emma) included the following gems…
- “Squatting isn’t a long term solution. People need stable, affordable rents and the option to buy if they wish.” Well, obviously, in a perfect world. This is really just a platitude, might just as easily have said we need more motherhood and apple pie folks.
- (referring to link between the legislation and rough sleeping) “…virtually none I think though and that legislation was just dog whistle stuff. All fluff no substance”. Well Shelter and other homeless charities might disagree with you.
- “yes but it’s illegal to sleep rough so being illegal to enter and sleep in abandoned buildings really isn’t a deterrent”. Not true, the police don’t criminalize for sleeping rough, just move them on, ideally into ‘safe accommodation. Police have no option with residential squatting, squatters end up in court.
As a society we should think twice before giving more and more people a criminal record.
Mike Weatherly’s bill will of course come into its own if Labour win the next election and press ahead with an ill-conceived attempt at capping rents in the private sector. History shows that this will most likely result in landlords, who under the law, as it stands, have the right to deal with their property as they see fit, removing units from the market (leaving them empty).
My question to Labour is how they will deal with this? Will they do the ethical thing and place empty units into the social sector or will they look away (“Big boy did it and ran away”). Will they build more prisons to cope with mass criminalisation?
And for balance, one in agreement