‘People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse. This new evidence demonstrates so clearly the need to repeal this misguided law.’ John McDonnell MP.
In August 2011, the British Ministry of Justice launched a consultation, optimistically entitled Options for Dealing with Squatting. After ignoring the 96 per cent of respondents who were against criminalization – including the Law Society, homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter, and even the Metropolitan Police Service – the government pressed ahead. In September 2012, the act of seeking shelter in abandoned residential properties in England or Wales – squatting – was ‘dealt with’. Under Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), anyone found putting a roof over their head in this way would be punished by up to six months in prison or a £5,000 ($7,427) fine.
Six months later, Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) has released a report into the effects of that law. Our findings suggest that homeless and vulnerable people have been disproportionately affected. In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time when homelessness is rising, the law has further narrowed options for many, and is indeed sending otherwise innocent people to prison.
The right-wing press – papers made by property owners for property owners – laid the ground for this legislative attack by carpet-bombing public opinion with endless articles about unwashed Eastern Europeans displacing honourable Hampstead homeowners. Members of Parliament made proud speeches about protecting homeowners, deliberately conflating homes and empty houses (and never mentioning the donations they receive from property developers). ‘We want to send a clear message to would-be squatters that it is simply not acceptable to occupy someone else’s home’, proclaimed Justice Minister Crispin Blunt.
At the time, property lawyers and housing experts pointed out that ministers and the media alike were deliberately misleading the public to push through their property protection law. And now SQUASH’s research has further exposed that dishonesty: not a single, solitary squatter arrested under the new law was found to be displacing a homeowner.
During the rush to criminalization, John McDonnell MP asked a pertinent question in a parliamentary debate: ‘Will it cause more problems than it seeks to cure?’ Section 144 couldn’t help but cause more harm than it prevented because, in reality, squatting caused almost no harm in the first place. Within weeks, the first ‘scumbag squatter’ was banged up: 21-year-old brick-layer Alex Haigh, who had no prior criminal convictions, was struggling to find work in the capital and had sought shelter in an empty Pimlico property. It had been abandoned for more than a year by its owners.
Ironically those, like Haigh, who are now behind bars, may have escaped an even worse fate: in February 2013, Daniel Gauntlett, who was homeless, died outside an empty bungalow in Kent, which media reports suggest he had previously been prevented from entering by the police. Section 144 was pushed through as farce: it is being manifested as tragedy.
But rather than rolling back the legislation, recently promoted Conservative MP Mike Weatherley has proposed an early day motion that calls for the law to be extended to commercial properties. Ominously, it already has 24 signatories.
At the very least, SQUASH calls on the government to carry out a full, independent impact assessment before further criminalization is considered. If parliament wants to protect all of the people it represents – not just those that own empty property – it should repeal this law; it has already caused too much harm.
Find out more and take action at the SQUASH campaign website.
Look out for the April 2013 issue of New Internationalist on the housing crisis around the world.