Squash’s guidelines for responding to the consultation

Alongside the consultation paper the Government supplies a questionnaire through which people who want to contribute to the consultation process can respond. It’s clear from the tone of this document – and the way in which the questions are framed – that the Government are only interested in “consulting” those who agree with them that squatting is a “problem”. If you don’t think that squatting necessarily is the real problem, you may want to make the Government aware of your opinions. Here we provide a set of guidelines for answering the questionnaire.

The questionnaire is 22 questions long. For those who do not have time to respond to everything, we have highlighted questions 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8, which we think are worth prioritising.

We are actively encouraging a wide range of people to respond to this consultation and register their opposition to the idea of criminalising squatting.

We know that over the years, many, many people have used squatting to house themselves. We know that some property owners have had positive experiences of squatters occupying, and taking care of, their empty buildings. We know that sometimes tenants have been treated as if they were squatters, even though they have been paying rent.

There is a widespread misconception, largely due to inaccurate reporting, that tenants in arrears are squatters. We’d like to make sure that the Ministry of Justice officials get to hear all those peoples’ stories. It is empty building, rising rents and overcrowding that cause ‘distress and misery’, not homeless people taking action for themselves.

You can look at the Government’s own website here: http://www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/dealing-with-squatters.htm

Here is a downloadable PDF of the Consultation document: ttp://www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/dealing-with-squatters.htm

Have a read through the document and the Annexes before you tackle the questionnaire itself. You’ll see that we have been presented with five distinct “options” and then asked 22 specific questions. For your opinions to be counted, you’ll need to answer those questions. In this document, we have outlined short guidance for each question. If you have less time, we have also recommended a few questions which we think are the most important ones to answer.

If you don’t have a permanent address, you can use a c/o address, or write “homeless” or “no fixed abode”.

Please send a copy of your response to SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) so we can use it as part of the campaign at: consultation@squashcampaign.org. If you have any queries about either the questionnaire itself, or the whole consultation process, please contact us at the same email address.

Squatting is still legal. If you are currently squatting, don’t panic! Any change to the law will take some time. This ‘consultation exercise’ is scheduled to end on October 5th, but there is a long process after that before any law comes into effect.

Responding to this probably won’t be enough. By November, we’ll know if the government intends to push through this kind of legislation or not. In the meantime, there is lots of campaigning going on right now. Spread the word.

 

Consultation Question Guidelines

Q1. Is squatting a particular problem in your area and where does it occur the most, e.g. in residential or non-residential property? Were these properties empty/abandoned/derelict before they were occupied, or were they in use?

It is important to emphasise here that squatting is not a problem, and explain why (e.g. ‘the problem is not squatting, the problem is empty buildings’).

This question is an opportunity to provide case studies of how properties have been squatted after being left empty, often for many years, in your area, and to provide case studies of how squatters have improved an empty property or been a positive contribution to an area or community. It is an opportunity to dispel myths about people squatting homes that are already lived in.

We would advise that you keep your ‘area’ general. So, for example, if you live in London, just stating ‘London’ rather than specifying the borough.

 

Q2. Please provide any evidence you have gathered on the number of squats and the nature of squatting in your area or nationwide?

We advise that respondents focus on the ‘nature’ of squatted properties, rather than on the number of squats. If the government want to gather data on squatting, and thus not legislate on an issue they know nothing about, they should do it properly – rather than through a leading questionnaire. It is again an opportunity to provide positive stories about squatters and squats, from your own or others’ experience, in your area or nationwide.

 

Q3. Do you have any data or other information on the demographic profile of people who squat – e.g. do they share any of the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010 (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation)? Do they live alone or with others?

We suggest that you leave this question blank, as we are sceptical of the government’s attempt to gather demographic information on squatters within a leading questionnaire. There is an opportunity to answer to the Equalities Act 2010 with question 22.

However, it may also be appropriate to answer with reference to the importance of squatting to the homeless, and its role as provision for the hidden homeless. The only good statistics available on the demography of squatters were produced by Crisis, in their report The Hidden Truth About Homelessness, published in May 2011 and downloadable here (http://www.squashcampaign.org/resources/). These stats also support our case as to the disadvantage to certain demographics posed by criminalisation.

 

Q4. Do you think the current law adequately deals with squatting? Please explain your reasons.

We suggest that you answer this question in one of three ways:

a) Argue that the law is more than ‘adequate’, and argue for greater rights for squatters – for example, ‘legalise squatting to prevent the dereliction of buildings’. b) State that there is no need to make any changes as the current law is adequate and explain why – for example, ‘owners who use their property as their own place of residence – i.e. displaced residential occupiers (DROs) – are already adequately protected by section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 (DROs and PIOs)’.

c) Argue that the current law is adequate, and enforcement currently works OK, but it could improve if there was better knowledge by the police of the relevant law (e.g. prosecuting false PIO claims) and/or if there was better public information about the protections granted to DROs. The government’s guidance is useful, but should have been introduced earlier to counter misinformation in much of the mainstream media about the nature of squatting.

 

Q.5 If you have taken steps to evict squatters from your properties, what difficulties have you encountered (if any) in removing squatters from your property using existing procedures? Have you had any positive experiences of using existing procedures?

This question is a prime example of how this consultation is largely targeted towards gathering the views of property owners, and not of squatters and others affected adversely by any criminalisation of squatting.

The consultation options 1 – 3 propose removing all, or more, possession cases from the scrutiny of the courts instead granting adjudication powers to the police, or rights to property owners to use force to gain entry and evict squatters. We aim to show how this will both impact adversely on tenants’ rights and threaten a host of ills with the extension of rights of ‘self-help’ violence. We hope highlight the dangers of granting adjudication powers to the police.

We therefore advise that you do not answer this question unless:

  • you are a property owner and have positive experience of using the existing procedures;

  • the police did/not follow the procedures well, or did/not explain the procedures to follow correctly.

  • you can point to a case(s) which should have gone to court but didn’t, and resulted, for example, in a lawful tenant being evicted after being framed by an unscrupulous landlord as a ‘squatter’ – where scrutiny by a court may have prevented such an injustice.

 

Q.6. Do you think there is a need for a new criminal offence of squatting?

No. There is no evidence to suggest that such a change is necessary.

 

Q.7. If so, do you agree with the basic definition of squatting set out in paragraph 21 (i.e. the unauthorised entry and occupation of a building)?

State that you do not agree with the creation of a new criminal offence of squatting.

This is partly because there is no way to define squatting without encountering the problems of eroding tenants’ rights and political rights, which the consultation itself acknowledges in paragraph. 23:

“The basic definition set out above could conceivably cover squatters who thought they had permission to occupy the property – for example, where a bogus letting agent invites them to enter a property without the knowledge of the owner.* It could also cover student protests in academic buildings, workers who stage sit-down protests in commercial buildings and squatters who occupy the home of political figures as a form of protest.”

[*The government has mis-applied the term 'squatter' in this instance. Victims of fraud are tenants and not squatters.]

The issues raised in this paragraph are incredibly serious, with ramifications far beyond the specific issue of ‘squatting’.

 

Q.8. How should the term ‘occupation’ be defined? Should it cover those who occupy a building for a short period (e.g. a couple of hours)?

Do not attempt to define the term ‘occupation’ – this is a trick question. It is very difficult to define ‘occupation’ without encountering the problems set out in paragraph no.23 quoted above. These issues are serious and pose a serious risk to civil liberties and political rights outside the realms of housing and property.

 

Q.9. What buildings should be covered by the offence? Should it cover all buildings or only some (e.g. should it cover public and private buildings, outbuildings, abandoned or dilapidated buildings, or buildings that have been empty for a long time)?

Again, this is a trick question. There should be no new criminal offence of ‘squatting’, and any attempt to distinguish between different ‘types’ of property/buildings to be included or not is pointless. It will not be possible to protect ‘protesters’ or ‘tenants’ from the harmful effects of criminalisation by exempting certain types of property/buildings. There is already adequate protection in law for buildings that are already being lived in – Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. Introducing exemptions will make passing the law politically easier, and exemptions can be removed simply later on.

 

Q.10. Do you think there should be any exemptions to any new offence of squatting? If so, who should be exempt and why?

There should not be any new offence, and therefore no ‘exemptions’. Again, this is a trick question.

 

Q.11. Do you agree that the existing law provides adequate protection against false allegations?

The existing law is very weak in its protection against false allegations, whilst existing protections are not adequately enforced.

There are many examples of both unscrupulous landlords falsely labelling tenants as ‘squatters’ to secure an unlawful eviction; and of false statements (e.g. to obtain Interim Possession Order (IPOs)) being used to procure speedier evictions (which is illegal under section 75 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994). If you have any such examples or case studies, we advise that you detail them here.

We suggest that you detail how attempts to create a “counter-balancing offence of knowingly or recklessly accusing a legitimate tenant of being a squatter” (p.10 paragraph 25) will not be adequate to make up for the increased risk posed to tenants of criminalising squatters, and removing the scrutiny of the civil courts over possession claims. The present, almost total, failure to prosecute false IPO and PIO claims testifies to this.

 

Q.12. If not, what other steps could we take to protect legitimate occupiers from malicious allegations?

We suggest that you argue here for either:

  • keeping the law the same;
  • or for the repeal/amendment of IPOs and PIOs which are regularly used by unscrupulous landlords to evict tenants because, for example, they bypass the proper scrutiny of the courts;
  • or for the better enforcement of the misuse of PIOs and IPOs by property owners;
  • or a combination of these options.

We suggest that you do not attempt to present plans for how any new criminalisation of squatters could be ‘counter-balanced’ by a supposed increase in protection of ‘legitimate occupiers’ against malicious allegations. We do not think this is possible. ‘Counter-balancing’ offences are do not adequately act as a deterrent and would be difficult to investigate and prosecute, particularly considering the police’s present lack of awareness of the law surrounding possession issues.

You could present as an example the fact that section 75 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 created the criminal offence of making false statements within an IPO application. However, this replaced the previous offence of ‘perjury’, which had carried a much higher sentence. The prosecution of false IPO claims has not at all been effective.

 

Q.13. What do you think would be the most appropriate maximum penalty for a new squatting offence?

Leave this one blank. Or state that no new offence should equal no new penalty.

 

Q.14. In your experience (e.g. as a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier or as a law enforcer), how effective is the existing offence in section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977?

It is important to show here that the legislation concerning DROs is effective, but also that cases of people squatting homes which are already lived in is largely a fiction propagated by the mainstream media and false government statements. There is basically no evidence of it happening, and if it were to happen, homeowners have adequate protection.

If you are a squatter, or are responding with reference to stories of other squatters, you could back this up by answering the following questions:

  • Have you ever squatted a home that was already lived in? Or has a lived in home in your area ever been squatted by someone else? (Answer even if it’s obvious that this never happens)

  • Do you have any case studies of squatters happily moving out upon discovery that a property was in fact already being lived in by others?

 

Q.15. How does the definition of ‘displaced residential occupier’ and ‘protected intending occupier’ work in practice?

Definitions of DRO and PIO are in sections 12(3) and 12A of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which are printed in Annex B (pages 24 and 25) of the consultation document.

We would suggest that you detail any case studies or experiences you may have of the misuse of PIOs or DROs by property owners – for example where squatters have been evicted under PIO but the property has remained empty and unused after the eviction.

 

Q.16. If we were to expand section 7 so that it covered squatters who refused to leave other types of building when required to do so by the rightful occupier, what type of buildings and what type of occupier should be specified?

This question is about ‘option two’ in the consultation: proposing to grant the same rights held by those rightly protected as ‘displaced residential occupiers’ to other property owners who leave properties empty. It is in effect the same as ‘option one’ – making it a criminal offence to refuse to leave a property after the owner requests that you leave, even if the property is not in use. It proposes that the existing protection for people in case of their lived-in, main home being squatted is extended to cover all buildings, occupied or unoccupied. We argue that whilst the current DRO and PIO makes moral and legal sense, an extension to those who do not require a building for their own housing needs, to those who leave buildings empty, makes neither moral or legal sense.

We advise that you argue against such an expansion of section 7, which would require on the spot adjudication by the police, and that instead courts should continue to decide who is entitled to possession (i.e. determine who the ‘rightful occupier’ in fact is) . You may want to answer with reference to the real problem of lack of police training and understanding about possession issues, and the realities of false statements given by property owners, to argue that any such expansion will affect adversely those with entitlement to possession and erode civil liberties.

 

Q.17. If section 6 were amended to exempt additional categories of people from the offence, which categories should be exempted? Are there any categories of people that should not be exempted?

Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it a criminal offence to use force to gain entry to a property when anyone inside that property opposes your entry.

Again, we advise that you argue against adding categories of person to exemption from Section 6. This is in effect the expansion of rights to use ‘self-help’ violence (using force to break back into a property if someone inside is opposed to entry). You could argue that:

  • Such an expansion poses serious risks to the safety of individuals inside, whilst also placing property owners, and their agents, into positions where they are at risk of committing serious criminal charges such as assault.

  • Such an expansion will inevitably put individuals, whether occupiers, or owners and their agents, at risk of assault.

  • It will be incredibly difficult to police, and to determine on the spot whether or not a person does in fact fall into a ‘correct category’.

  • Any expansion will remove protection of the vulnerable from the powerful.

  • It particularly grants the rights to use ‘self-help’ violence to the corporate sector, which has the resources to deploy private agents against the rights of the individual.

 

Q.18. Do you know of circumstances where the section 6 offence has been used – was it used to protect a tenant from forcible entry by a landlord or was it used for other reasons, e.g. to stop a violent partner from breaking back into his home? Please describe the circumstances.

If you have any appropriate experiences or case studies of the important protection granted by section 6 to tenants against malicious accusations by landlords, or to those facing abusive partners, and so on, please include them here.

 

Q.19. What barriers (if any) are there to enforcement of the existing offences and how could they be overcome? Please give details.

This is clearly a loaded question if its terms of references are accepted. The fact that the consultation paper only includes existing criminal offences “that could apply to squatters” (Annex B, p.24) and not to property owners further bears this out.

It is, therefore, important to highlight the, largely unprosecuted, criminality of property owners – e.g. false PIO and IPO claims, the intentional neglect of listed buildings to gain planning permission, etc.

Many enforcement issues also arise because the police are misinformed, without adequate training or knowledge of the law, or prejudiced. You could argue that this is a major barrier to enforcement – and that the police need to know the government’s guidance to stop facilitating illegal evictions and to better inform DROs of their rights.

You may want to point out that many of the offences supposedly routinely committed by squatters are in fact of a very trivial nature – for example many property owners find the repairs squatters carry out on their empty properties very useful and not, in fact, ‘criminal damage’.

 

Q.20. Are you aware of the Government’s new guidance on evicting squatters under existing laws? If so, is it helpful? Do you think the guidance could be improved in any way?

Why has the government not put this guidance out properly? And why have ministers and government spokes people seemingly intentionally muddied the water by contradicting and undone this guidance with inflammatory statements (for example the ubiquitous ‘went out to the shop to buy some milk and my house got squatted’ story)?

 

Q.21. If any of the proposals in this document were to be adopted, what impact would this have on you, your organisation or those whose welfare you promote?

This is an important question for detailing the specific concerns and analysis of you, your group, organisation, or those you otherwise represent. Please detail them here.

If you share concerns and have information about the impacts of these proposals on the welfare of the hidden homeless and other vulnerable people in society, who rely upon squatting as a means of housing themselves, or on student/workplace occupations and other political rights, please detail them here.

 

Q. 22. Do respondents who identify themselves as having a protected characteristic (listed in paragraph 39) or who represent those with protected characteristics think any of the proposals would have a particular impact on people who fall within one of the protected characteristics? If so why?

Paragraph 39 reads:

“The Government has considered the potential effects of the proposed reforms in line with the public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010 relating to the protected characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Its initial view is that the proposals in this paper should benefit owners or occupiers of property regardless of protected characteristics, but comments from respondents are invited in relation to the likely effects and impacts of these proposals. The data the Government has at present does not enable it to assess whether those who squat or those who suffer from the actions of squatters typically fall within any of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010.”

If you, or someone you represent, fall into one of these categories, please detail your concerns here.