Government fails to consider vulnerable groups: Squash calls for extension of consultation on squatting

In a letter to the Ministry of Justice, leading members of housing, homeless, Gypsy and Traveller groups request that the deadline of the consultation is extended and the necessary steps taken to account for the views of ‘hard to reach groups’ who will be affected by the proposals. So far the Government has failed to engage such groups in the consultation process; in the following letter we give an indication of who these groups include, and call on the Government to take a more effective and honest approach to the consultation.

Robin Edwards & Yvonne Murray

Ministry of Justice 7th Floor (7.42)

102 Petty France

London SW1H 9AJ

27 September 2011

Dear Mr. Edwards & Ms. Murray,

Re: Consultation on ‘Options for dealing with squatting’

We are writing to you as we have concerns about the methods being used for the consultation regarding ‘Options for dealing with squatting’ (herein referred to as the consultation). On page 31 of the document it lays out the seven criteria for consultations taken from the code of practice on consultations. Criterion four of the code is concerned with the accessibility of consultation exercises. It states that “Consultation exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach” In addition to this, the guidance produced by the better regulation executive states the following;.

“Some interested parties may need particular attention to ensure their views are heard. The limitations of reaching some groups through written consultation exercises and the capacity of such groups to participate need to be taken seriously into consideration in the planning stages. You should think about whether your proposal might impact on any specific groups (an indicative list of such groups is set out below). If the answer is ‘yes’, you should try to involve them in consultation, seeking ways to engage them beyond pure written consultation”.

On page 6 of the consultation document it states that ‘there is no data held by central Government about the number of people who squat or their reasons for doing so’. Evidence from other research that we have outlined below suggests that ‘hard to reach groups’ are amongst those who squat (or have an interest in the consultation), and as such the proposals will have an impact on these groups. The indicative list of such groups includes the following;

Children and young people

Young people (under 25s) are experiencing homelessness and difficulty finding housing, particularly within the private rental sector, in increasing numbers. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) reports that privately rented accommodation was the biggest housing issue young people sought advice on in 2010/11 (26,000), up 10% from 2009/10. CAB dealt with 10,000 problems of threatened homelessness, up 16% from the previous year; 6,000 problems with actual homelessness, up 25% on the previous year. One in four problems with actual homelessness came from the under 25’s. In the second quarter (Q2) of 2010/11, there was a big increase in rent arrears to private landlords (rising 19% to 7,020), with actual or threatened homelessness rising 22% (to 24,720), and problems with access to accommodation rising 20% (to 9,952)[1]. Social, charitable and voluntary organisations are becoming increasingly overstretched with cases of young people turning to them for support. For example, Crisis’ survey of housing professionals in local authorities and the voluntary sector found: 87% of those surveyed were having difficulty finding properties for people on the Shared Accommodation Rate (under 25’s), following housing benefit cuts[2].

This situation means that increasing numbers of young people are turning to squatting as a temporary solution to their dire housing needs. Young people make up a large proportion of squatters: research by Crisis has found that 39 per cent of homeless survey respondents, 30 per cent of whom were 30 years or under had squatted[3]. Research from 1994 found that 32.2 per cent of squatters had children under 16; women under 30 years of age made up 17.7 per cent of squatters; and men under 30 years of age made up 21.8 per cent of squatters[4].

Gypsies and travellers

Although on page six of the consultation there is reference to the proposals being targeted to those squatting premises as opposed to land Gypsies and Travellers are highly likely to be impacted by these proposals. 25% of the Gypsy and Traveller population who live in caravans are on either unauthorised encampments or unauthorised developments (according to the Communities and Local Government Caravan Count). In urban areas, Gypsies and Travellers who can find no official stopping place, whether permanent or transit, often have to resort to the land around disused or derelict buildings e.g. former factories. Therefore, any change in the current law will have a significant impact on Gypsies and Travellers.

People on low incomes

Squatters are homeless people, and the majority of them fall into the category of people on low incomes. A 2011 survey of squatters found that 86% of respondents cited financial reasons for squatting [5]. Therefore, low-income groups need to be fully consulted on the new legislation as they make up a large proportion of those squatting and facing criminalisation. The local authority housing waiting list has doubled since 1997, to around 5 million. Rents have increased by 7.3% and will soon hit £1,000 per month on average[6], while at the same time overcrowding has exploded since 2002/3 with 1 in 20 people (3 million) living in overcrowded conditions7. More than 42,000 households are officially homeless, 50,000 living in “temporary accommodation” in England alone8, while the “hidden homeless” figures, according to Crisis, are closer to half-a – million (Reeve and Barry, 2011). With increasing house prices, and decreased availability of social housing, across the UK low-income groups are those who will turn to squatting to fulfil their housing needs.

Asylum seekers

A significant proportion of asylum seekers are excluded from entitlement to welfare benefits, assistance with housing from local authorities, and are prohibited from taking on paid employment. Asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their application from the Home Office are housed by the UK Boarder Agency/NASS if they meet certain conditions. The weekly allowance received by asylum seekers is not enough to save for future accommodation costs. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act excluded all asylum seekers from the security of tenure provisions of current housing legislation, meaning that people can be legally evicted from their accommodation with a minimal seven days’ notice being given. If an asylum application is unsuccessful they have to vacate NASS accommodation in 28 days. Even if an asylum application is successful, a person has to leave this accommodation in 21 days and whilst they are then entitled to housing benefit they first have to find private accommodation, which usually takes longer than 21 days and requires a large deposit, and housing benefit now rarely covers the full cost of rent. The UK Border Agency is cutting its housing budget by nearly £30 million and its number of housing contracts by 21 per cent, in 2012, which will result in less housing provision for asylum seekers. All this means that it is very easy for an asylum seeker to become homeless.

Research by Oxfam9 shows that many asylum seekers experience entrenched homelessness after becoming destitute: where a person cannot obtain both (a) adequate accommodation and (b) food and other essential items (Section 19 of the National, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002). Existing evidence suggests that many asylum seekers have been destitute for more than six months and a significant proportion for more than two years (recent survey undertaken by the Asylum Support Partnership). It is estimated that 283,500 refused asylum seekers were living in the UK in 2005, and this number seems likely to have increased. It has been estimated that there could be more than 100,000 children caught up in the backlogged system, a significant proportion of whom may be living in conditions of destitution (Reacroft 2008). Faced with no other option, many become reliant upon squatting as a means to house themselves, in order to alleviate rough sleeping and/or reliance upon temporary accommodation with friends and family.

Migrant communities

Migrants are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, both ‘hidden’ (relying on friends and relatives for accommodation, or squatting) and rough sleeping. In London, for example, migrants from accession countries account for half of the bed spaces in night shelters. Most migrants live in the private rental sector, which is currently experiencing an extreme lack of affordable properties on the market and large rent increases. This is combined with restrictions on claiming benefits, and reliance upon lower-paid and less secure employment, making their economic situation more precarious and the risk of homelessness greater than for other demographics. Many migrants rely upon squatting as a means of finding temporary shelter and alleviating their experience of homelessness.

Third sector organizations

Third sector organisations focused on homelessness and housing issues are over stretched: facing budget cuts and restricted funding at a time of dramatically increased homelessness. A survey of 400 charities by Homeless Link found that, homeless charities expected to loose on average 30 per cent of their funding from councils, and one in five hostel beds in England are set to be cut[10].

The Citizens Advice Bureau dealt with 10,000 problems of threatened homelessness, up 16% from the previous year; and 6,000 problems with actual homelessness, up 25% on the previous year[11]. Criminalising squatting threatens to increase the burden taken up by these organisations. There are an estimated 20,000 squatters in the UK. Criminalisation risks the removal of a vital safety net for homeless people, threatens an increase in rough sleeping, and consequently a greater reliance upon homelessness charities and other third sector organisations focused on housing and homelessness issues. Research by homelessness charity Crisis found that 39 per cent of surveyed homeless people had squatted as a means of finding temporary shelter[12].

The points outlined above would suggest that the consultation is not in compliance with the code of practise on consultations. A similar suggestion was made regarding the recent Department for Communities and Local Government consultation on planning for Traveller sites. As a result of those representations, the DCLG has now organised two rounds of oral consultations. In line with criterion 7 of the code of practise on consultation, we would suggest that the Ministry of Justice seek guidance from the DCLG on how best to undertake effective consultations with the ‘hard to reach’ groups outlined above. In the light of all the above we would like to see the MoJ extend the deadline for the consultation and undertake nationwide oral consultations enabling an effective gathering of evidence. This is especially important as the MoJ has already acknowledged the lack of an evidence base regarding squatting. We look forward to hearing your response on this issue.

Signed:

David Knight – Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes

Alison Gelder – Housing Justice

Alastair Murray – Housing Justice

Simon Ruston – New Traveller Association

Bob Baker – Simon Community

Maggie Smith Bendall – UK Association of Gypsy Women

Rachel Francis – UK Association of Gypsy Women

 

Cc: Ministry of Justice consultation coordinator

 

[1] Citizens Advice Bureau: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/pressoffice/press_index/press_20110606.htm

[2] Crisis, http://www.crisis.org.uk/news.php/239/drastic-benefit-cut-risks-rise-in-rough-sleeping%29

[3] Crisis, The Hidden Truth About Homelessness, 2011

[4] SQUASH, Ordered Out, 1994.

[5] Clare Smith, A Cost Analysis of the Proposed Introduction of an Intentional Trespass Law in Regards to Squatting, July 2011.

[6] Residential Landlord: http://www.residentiallandlord.co.uk/news2585.html

[7] Office National Statistics – General Lifestyle Survey, Great Britain, updated November 2010

[8] Communities and Local Government, Live Tables on Homelessness, http://www.communities.gov.uk/housing/housingresearch/housingstatistics/housingstatisticsby/homelessne ssstatistics/livetables/

[9] Oxfam, Coping With Destitution: Survival and livelihood strategies of refused asylum seekers living in the UK, (February 2011)

[10] Patrick Butler, Homelessness: charities face 30% funding cuts, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2011/feb/10/homelessness-charities-funding- cuts?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

[11] Citizens Advice Bureau: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/pressoffice/press_index/press_20110606.htm

[12] Crisis, The Hidden Truth About Homelessness, 2011