Squatter hate Mail’s real agenda

The following post is by Liz Davies, chairwoman of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, writing here in a personal capacity. It was originally published in the Morning Star, and is reposted with kind permission of the author.

The Daily Mail and Tory MPs are obsessed with squatting.

Every two months the Mail bangs home the message that squatting is “legal” in Britain. What it actually means is that squatting is not criminal.

Trespassing on someone’s property has always been a tort or civil wrong. But the Mail is right. “Trespassers will be prosecuted” – ie will face a criminal charge – is not a correct statement of the law. Now Tory MPs, with one Liberal and shamefully one Labour MP in Paul Flynn, have jumped on the bandwagon. An early day motion signed by 23 MPs calls for the criminalisation of squatting, except for the London mansion owned by Saif Gadaffi. Quite how a criminal law could contain an exemption where sons of dictators are concerned is hard to know.

It seems Tory Housing Minister Grant Shapps is happy to join in. “We as a government are all too aware of the misery and distress that squatters can cause, we will look to take steps … to make squatting a criminal offence,” he has pledged.

So, what’s the panic? The Daily Mail tries to give the impression that squatters occupy lived-in homes, that a homeowner comes home one evening to find the house locked, a legal warning on the front door and squatters inside. But even the Mail can’t substantiate this. Most of its stories are of empty properties, often multimillion-pound properties situated close to a minor celebrity’s house. On the rare occasions when it manages to find aggrieved home-occupiers – as opposed to owners, a distinction that the Mail happily fudges – at worst the property was being renovated or used as a holiday home. The owner wasn’t living there and the squatters will have thought it empty. Sometimes the Mail’s “squatter” turns out to be a tenant with every right to live there.

The reality is that squatters don’t break into occupied homes while the owner is out. Squatters occupy empty homes – in part to make a political protest against houses standing empty while 1.8 million households wait for social housing and partly because they want somewhere to live. What’s more, if they do, it’s already a criminal offence. The law provides protection for “displaced residential occupiers.” If someone returns home to find it occupied by squatters, the squatters commit a criminal offence if they fail to leave once requested. The owner can then call the police and have the squatters arrested. But – except in Daily Mail world – this isn’t necessary because it simply doesn’t happen. Even in the usual situation of squatters occupying empty properties, the owner of the property has a relatively quick remedy. While it’s right that the squatters can’t immediately be removed, the courts will always grant possession orders to the property owners and the squatters can then be evicted. All that a property owner needs to do is prove his or her ownership and assert that the squatters were occupying without consent. Once those two conditions are proved the courts are bound to make a possession order even if, unusually, the court might sympathise with the personal circumstances of the squatters. An interim possession order can be obtained within a few days and the squatters are then in contempt of court if they remain.

The Supreme Court decided recently that, even where ordinary English law says that only the rights of the property owner are relevant, the courts should also take into account the personal circumstances of the occupiers. But this does not give a green light to squatters to occupy other people’s properties. The decision only applies to social landlords (public authorities) and not to private owners or landlords. And even where occupiers do raise their personal circumstances as a reason why the court should permit them to remain in occupation, the basic law remains that property rights prevail over personal circumstances. It would take extraordinary circumstances for a court to find that squatters should be entitled to remain in a property not owned or rented by them.

So why the worry if squatting occupied properties is already a criminal offence? Because the right-wing lobby is proposing that squatting any building – residential or commercial, occupied or unoccupied – should be a criminal offence. This would have all sorts of implications. Empty homes would stay empty rather than being occupied, however temporarily, by people who need a roof over their head. There are 300,000 empty homes in England and Wales, most of them privately owned. And if “trespass” became a criminal offence so would occupations, mass trespasses onto land and other forms of lawful protest. There is also a section of people who used to be tenants and whose legal position is uncertain. At least some of those people are considered in law to be trespassers or “tolerated trespassers.” Yet they occupied the properties lawfully under tenancies or licences which have since come to an end. They have the right to remain in their properties until the court has made a possession order against them. Why should they suddenly be criminalised? This proposal does nothing to unlock empty homes, or solve the long wait for a secure home or the scandal of homelessness.

STOP PRESS: Two months ago I reported on Westminster Council’s plans to make rough sleeping and the distribution of food – soup runs – criminal offences. In a sign that lobbying and protest can work, the council has retreated on the proposal to criminalise rough sleeping. It says a ban “would be very difficult to enforce.” It has not yet retreated on the plan to criminalise handing out food, but it has taken a step back. It is continuing “to hold discussion with relevant parties,” although threatens that it might pass the legislation anyway even before those discussions have finished. Congratulations to all those campaigners who lobbied Westminster Council. Let’s keep it up so that handing out food on the street doesn’t result in a criminal record.