Empty Promises – A report from The Big Issue in The North

Ryan Gallagher, writing for The Big Issue In The North, examines how proposals to criminalise squatting in unoccupied homes are prompted by scare stories. The following article was published in issue #886

Government plans that could criminalise squatting have prompted an outcry from housing campaign groups.

Tabled last week by Conservative justice minister Crispin Blunt as part of a consultation titled Options for Dealing with Squatting, the proposal seeks to abolish the rights that are currently afforded to squatters under civil law and could result in persistent offenders being jailed. It could also have an impact on protesters occupying workplaces or universities, and would give police and property owners greater powers to arrest and remove squatters without applying for an eviction notice. But the government’s own impact assessment acknowledged the plans could boost homelessness, prompting the chief executive of housing charity Shelter, Campbell Robb, to express concern over how the vulnerable might be affected.

“This is the criminalisation of homeless people.”

“Squatting can be a precarious and sometimes dangerous way to live and is often a last resort for people who have nowhere else to go,” he said. “Criminalisation may dissuade some people from squatting. However we are concerned that it will be open to abuse and that unscrupulous operators will take advantage of the legislation to intimidate others, for example tenants without written contracts or ex-partners still in the former shared home.”

Under laws currently in place, it is a criminal offence to squat in someone else’s home and to refuse to leave when asked by the owner or “displaced residential occupier”. But it is not illegal to occupy non-residential properties, such as houses that are unoccupied. In 2010, according to the Empty Homes Agency, there were more than 700,000 vacant properties across England. In a statement, Blunt said squatting was a “misery, expense and incredible hassle”. He was backed by housing minister Grant Shapps, who called for a “crackdown on this menace”. Shapps added: “I want to see an end to the misery that squatters cause and slam the door on their so-called rights, tipping the scales of justice in favour of the law-abiding homeowner once and for all.”

Squatting made national headlines earlier this year when a group of activists unwittingly squatted the £6 million London property of film producer Guy Ritchie. Another group garnered widespread publicity after they occupied the £10 million Hampstead mansion owned by Libyan dictator Colonel Gadaffi’s son, Saif.

One London-based squatter and activist, Pete, 29, told The Big Issue in the North he felt ministers had been unduly influenced by negative coverage of squatters in newspapers such as the Sunday Telegraph, which has been actively campaigning to criminalise squatting. “These articles came completely out of the blue for us as squatters,” he said. “The wider process is a frightening prospect. It’s pretty offensive that a group of people that have such a narrow set of life experiences could feel like they can morally attack us and threaten us with imprisonment.”

Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH), a campaign group set up to oppose the government’s plans, criticised “scare stories” about squatting in the media and branded the government’s plans ill thought out and dangerous. “The move to criminalise squatting is in our opinion the criminalisation of homeless people in the middle of a housing crisis,” said Reuben Taylor, a spokesperson for SQUASH. “It’s an attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Taylor accused the government of using distorted language, and claimed the proposed legislation would cost millions to enforce, putting extra and unnecessary pressure on the police and the justice system.

“It’s about strengthening the position of property speculators, who are intentionally keeping their properties empty to increase their profit,” she added. “The law is supposed to protect vulnerable people from attacks by powerful people, and what ministers are trying to do is exactly the opposite.” A coalition of campaign groups that includes SQUASH and the homeless charity Crisis have pledged to fight the government’s push to criminalise squatting, and are engaged in the consultation with ministers set to conclude in October. The coalition has the support of Labour MP John McDonnell, who in May, The Big Issue in the North reported, was heavily critical of police raids on squatted properties prior to the royal wedding.

McDonnell said: “When the government is launching major cuts in public services, especially investment in housing and provision for the homeless, it is no time to also introduce measures that criminalise people for trying to keep a roof over their heads.”