Squatters in Britain: vulnerable, demonised, and soon to be criminalised?

Lili and Melissa and Pete of the campaign group Housing Solidarity respond to the government’s proposals to criminalise squatting. The following article was originally posted over on open democracy, feel free to go over and join in the debate in the comments section.

Last month, the Ministry of Justice released a consultation aimed at gathering information on the extent of problems caused by squatters as well as views on a proposal to introduce legislation making squatting itself a crime. The views of squatters themselves rarely feature in mainstream debate, allowing myths and misunderstandings to persist, which feed a process of demonization and exclusion. Here, as squatters, we present our own perspective on what the government is doing.

The MoJ consultation, published on July 13 and entitled ‘Options for Dealing with Squatters’, seeks input from those who have experience of trying to evict squatters under the current legislation, based on the idea that the current legal framework is outdated and inadequate. Justice Minister Crispin Blunt presented the government’s reasoning: “Far too many people have to endure the misery, expense and incredible hassle of removing squatters from their property.” Presumably, under the new legislation, all this trouble would be averted because those who are not deterred by the danger of committing an imprisonable offence could be removed by the police at no expense to the property owner.

So far, so logical? But in the accompanying impact assessment, the MoJ makes a startling admission which demonstrates the lack of any understanding on which the proposals are based:

“At this stage we do not have a precise idea of how many squatters there are in England and Wales or the reasons why people squat. Local authorities are not required to keep records on the number of buildings occupied by squatters…”

The government must have some sources though…

“… Ministers have received a number of representations from MPs and members of the public about the problems squatters can cause. They are also aware of the high-profile squatting cases in London that have been reported in the media, but these may not be representative of the picture nationwide.”

Thankfully, not everyone is completely ignorant on the matter. Crisis, the homeless charity for single people, has conducted research in which 39% of homeless people said they had squatted at some point. In a Crisis press release published on July 13, the charity stated:

“Criminalising squatting does nothing to tackle the underlying issues faced by homeless people and that is their homelessness. If the Government really wants to end the misery of squatting – for those who have no other option – it must provide better housing and support, not criminalise some very vulnerable people.”

While the consultation expresses a desire to hear the views of organisations such as Crisis, the tone of the accompanying press statements suggest the government has completely ignored their perspective so far.

The anti-squatting campaign A wave of articles began to appear in late 2010 in which wealthy unemployed squatters occupied the most luxurious homes they could find and were happy to discuss the ease with which they were able to do so under the British legal system. It was at the same time that a group of back-bench Conservative MPs began to ask questions in Parliament along a similar theme, calling for a legislative solution to the problem. The media and politicians, particularly members of the Conservative Party, have together helped to create a general view of squatters as feckless, over-privileged criminals.

Perhaps most conspicuous in the public eye has been the series of articles documenting the exploits of Jason Ruddick, a Latvian from a wealthy background who leads a lifestyle of squatting in expensive houses and selling stories to the press. The story was a perfect recipe for the right wing press and was accompanied in the Daily Star by a poll claiming that 98% of their readers thought that Ruddick and his ‘dosser pals’ should be ‘thrown in jail’.

It’s hard not to be suspicious about the timing of these articles alongside the emergence of a Parliamentary campaign. Could the close nexus of interests between politicians, police and media – exposed by Hackgate – again be at work? Certainly, the Prime Minister benefited from the outrage over the Ruddick story, which was followed by an Evening Standard front page praising the ban on squatters’ use of legal aid as evidence of Cameron “cracking down on crime”.

The proposals for criminalisation are not just about a small procedural change in the legislation. It is a broader social process of changing how a group of people are perceived in the public and how they are treated in the courts and by police. In this sense, the criminalisation of squatting has very clearly already begun.

At the same time as this Parliamentary campaign has been running there are signs that certain elements within the police may be changing the way they relate to squats. The Territorial Support Group – the Met’s specialist riot police responsible for the death of Ian Tomlinson – staged punitive raids on squats ahead of the royal wedding based on a narrative that squatters were planning on disrupting the special day. At the Ratstar squat in Camberwell, South London, 15 or so people were arrested and in total 5 squats across London were visited by police.

The legal reality The MoJ document says:

“There is a growing public perception that the misery and financial hardship squatters can cause when they deliberately occupy another person’s home or business property without authority should be punishable in the criminal courts.”

The insinuation throughout is that squatting is a “lifestyle choice” or a fringe activity.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt states:

“The Government does not accept the claim that is sometimes made that squatting is a reasonable recourse of the homeless resulting from social deprivation.”

In fact, the law already treats as criminal the behaviour this government and certain elements of the corporate media portray as typical squatting. If someone’s home is occupied against their will by trespassers, they are a ‘Displaced Residential Occupier’ and failing to leave when they ask you to do so is a criminal offence. The police can carry out an eviction without the need for any court process. It seems clear that the government and certain parts of the press have sought to deliberately confuse people to give the impression that this is what squatting normally consists of.

At the same time the civil procedure provides a far from expensive mechanism for landlords to evict squatters from their buildings, regardless of whether they have a plan to do anything other than leave them empty again.

Currently, owners have to go to court and prove: a) that the building is theirs and b) that they have immediate right to access it (basically that there isn’t a tenant or licensee). If the owner can prove this, they can apply for an eviction warrant and then get officers of the court to remove people. These officers can get the help of the police. The owner can also seek damages from the occupiers.

The general conception of ‘squatters’ rights’ mainly refers to the right not to have someone violently enter a building you are in occupation of, if you oppose them doing so. This was enshrined in Section 6 of the Criminal Law act 1977, which was an Act itself designed to criminalise squatting. This is the basis of the ‘Section 6’ legal notices that squatters use.

A brief history of squatting The history of squatting in this country is intimately tied to movements of the poor and dispossessed for housing and common land.

After the Second World War, tens of thousands of people squatted in recently-vacated military camps, organizing their own communal services. In the 1960s and 1970s, a similar movement erupted across vacant local-authority properties, evolving into long-term housing co-operatives.

Whilst “squatting” is a recent term, the practice of occupying disused land or buildings certainly isn’t. There has always been a mixture of motivations behind these practices. Alongside those battling for collective ownership of the “commons” are those simply looking for a roof over their head or some land to live off. As anarchist philosopher and historian of squatting Colin Ward, put it:

“In the post-war decades the word ’squatting’ has been used to describe the unauthorised occupation of empty property (almost invariably publicly-owned) by homeless people. It seems to me that squatting can be seen as ideological or pragmatic. What I mean by this is that when Winstanley and the Diggers settled on land at Walton-on-Thames in Surrey in 1649, they were ideologists, dramatising a century of unauthorised encroachments by landlords. But there have also always been pragmatic squatters, relying on distant and absentee property-owners, to allow them the occupation of premises by default. The last thing they desired was publicity and the thing they most desired was a rent-book and security of tenure.”

Political squatting is not just about the need for housing though. It is about challenging a fundamentally inequitable system of capitalist property relations, which concentrates wealth – and the ability to produce more of it – in the hands of a few. Today, there is an epidemic of empty houses: the product of a culture in which people were encouraged to see houses not as homes, but as easy investments on which to make big returns. Property speculation fuelled a housing bubble, which helped bring down the global economy, yet the current government wants to strengthen the very perspective on property which led to this crisis. If squatting is not a “reasonable recourse” then the discussion should be around what the government’s responsibilities are for creating a more equitable system.

An International Fight There is an important international dimension to the struggle between squatters on one hand and governments and property owners on the other. In January 2006, the New Internationalist ran an issue focussing on the huge expansion of squatting in the ‘global South’, with the attention-grabbing heading that soon the majority of the world’s population will be living as squatters in slums. The figure is already one in six!

European governments, meanwhile, are cracking down. In the Netherlands, a law has recently passed with the aim of criminalising squatting. The city of Amsterdam in particular is trying to disrupt the squatting community with waves of evictions every couple of months. The last ‘eviction day’ happened a couple of weeks ago where the cultural centre Schijnheilig was evicted, involving the arrest of 140+ people. Six of these remain in custody having refused to give their ID, despite not being guilty of an imprisonable offence. Two squatters face jail after squatting a house part owned by the Prince of the Netherlands. Crucially, they are charged with the new crime of squatting, alongside ‘breaking house peace’ and not leaving when instructed to do so. As far as they are aware they are amongst the very first to face these charges and certainly wouldn’t be facing jail under the old system:

“We weren’t given the regular treatment. We were given no warning…They evicted us within 75 hours of us squatting…They called it a speed eviction…We spent 3 days in jail. We were completely fucked around. They refused people lawyers”

As squatters, we are just one of many communities under attack by a government forcing society to pay for an economic crisis caused by a small minority in the name of “austerity”. One possible motivation for the government’s actions may be to do with huge waves of evictions likely to take place in the near future from bank repossessions and rent arrears as we face rising unemployment, a decline in real wages and massive cuts to housing benefits. The law could of course be used to target Gypsies and travellers and student occupations as well.

How we can win The criminalisation of squatting can be resisted. Although the consultation doesn’t enthusiastically seek the views of squatters of their supporters, we should nevertheless provide them. The Squash campaign has been established in opposition to criminalisation and is seeking support and solidarity. The campaign has already organised two meetings in Parliament and released the following report, ‘Criminalising the Vulnerable’.

At the same time, the most effective way of resisting the ban may be by the very act of squatting. This doesn’t need to mean moving your whole life into a squat; it could mean joining in your local squat community or supporting occupations. There are a number of open squatting projects you can find out more about by visiting social centres, some of which are squats themselves, such as Well FurnishedGrow Heathrow and Autonomous London.

Track down your local squat community, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Build an occupation movement. Support occupations, of librariesuniversities, hospitals. The Anti Cuts Protests website includes information about related local actions around the UK. Get a copy of the Squatters’ Handbook from the Advisory Service for Squatters and if you’re having problems with squatting, get in contact with them.

As squatters, we don’t want sympathy, we want solidarity – and we believe much of the squatting movement feel the same.