John McDonnell’s speech from Tuesday

It was a nail-biting debate on Tuesday night, and despite the fact that the vote was lost, some Members spoke extremely eloquently in opposition to the criminalisation of squatting. Reproduced below is John McDonell’s speech – you can read the full transcript from the debate here. We would like to thank those MPs who were brave enough to stand up for the vulnerable, and we hope that the Lords will pay attention to the words of those like McDonnell who clearly showed why these laws are deeply wrong.

Making new laws, especially ones that can put people in prison for up to a year, is an extremely serious matter, so judgment cannot be undertaken or driven by anecdote, prejudice or media headlines.

There are questions that have to be considered for wise judgment. What is the problem to be addressed? Is it real? What is the scale of the problem? Is there an existing law, and if so, is it defective in a way that renders it ineffective? If we are to make legislation of this sort, what are the consequences of creating a new crime for the people seeking a remedy in this way and for those who will be brought into the criminal justice system? What are the consequences and implications for the resources, operations and standing of the law enforcement agencies and our communities overall? Finally, during my years in the House, I have learned another key question: will it cause more problems than it seeks to cure?

Is there a significant problem with squatting in residential properties? To be frank, the evidence produced by the Government so far has not demonstrated this. There have been some highly publicised cases in the media and statements by MPs and Ministers, but no hard evidence. The Government’s consultation paper acknowledged the lack of statistical evidence. For instance, the equality impact assessment states that

“there is no consensus on the true extent of squatting, or the proportion of squatting that is in residential buildings.”

Based on a number of assumptions — I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter that many of them were supplied by squatters themselves or housing campaigning associations — the Government estimate that there might be between 200 and 2,100 criminal squatting cases in residential properties across England and Wales. That is a tenfold range, demonstrating the inexact nature of the Government’s evidence.

In the response to the Government’s consultation, only seven victims of squatting in residential properties came forward. The lack of evidence has led the Law Society to object to changes in the law that are not evidence-based and the Magistrates Association to express its reluctance to see new laws created without proper analysis. This is the first time that I have been in alliance with the bench.

Is the current law defective? Even if only a small number of people are affected, it is right that we sympathise with them and ensure that action is taken to protect them. If the law is defective or lacking, there should be a remedy, but most legal authorities that commented during the consultation felt that the existing law was sufficient. As has been said, under existing law, it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave someone’s home or a home that they are about to move into. Under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is already an offence for any person on a residential premises not to leave on being required to do so by or on behalf of a displaced residential occupier or protected intending occupier.

According to the response to the consultation, the Metropolitan police said that

“the law was broadly in the right place and that the existing array of offences allowed them to tackle the worst cases of squatting (e.g. where squatters cause the rightful homeowner to be displaced).”

The Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association confirmed the same view. The Law Society stated:

“The consultation paper acknowledges that there are no reliable data on the nature and extent of squatting. In the absence of any such evidence, we have no reason to believe that the existing law does not deal adequately with squatting.”

It went on to describe the operation of section 7 and confirmed that no evidence had been produced to demonstrate that it did not work adequately when properly used. Those concerns were confirmed by the Criminal Bar Association.

The Law Society reported that section 7

“is not often used, as squatting happens infrequently, but where it is our members”—that is, the lawyers concerned—“report that it is extremely effective.”

These are the responses to the Government’s own consultation.

Everyone in the House has to support evidence-based policy making. From all the evidence and information to hand, including from the Government’s own consultation and impact assessment, we must conclude that there is no evidence of a problem on any significant scale, that there is conjecture that it exists and that in the judgment of practitioners — not just the advocates, but the law enforcers — the existing law is sufficient.

Clearly there are a small number of cases, which we have already identified, that have caused genuine concern. The problem appears to be not with the existing law, but with its operation, as the consultation has made clear. Annington Holdings plc, a property holder of considerable size, said:

“In Annington’s experience enforcement is the crux of the problem; our past experiences have shown that delays arise in removing squatters from properties due to limitations on police resources.”

If the current problem is with police resources, the question — which has been raised by the High Court enforcement officers, the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society — is whether the police would have the resources to enforce the law if a new offence is created, when they appear to be unable to enforce it against the existing offences. The Met has acknowledged that and is seeking to address it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and the Minister have said. The Metropolitan Police Service said in its statement that there was a lack of training and practical knowledge on the law on squatting, particularly section 7 of the 1977 Act, which may be a barrier to effective enforcement, and that it was conducting further training to address the issue.

By criminalising squatting, the new clause certainly does not appear to be needed, but it will have consequences if introduced, some of them unintended. The new law will have consequences for those who will be brought into the criminal justice system for the first time, and it is worth repeating who those people are likely to be. The housing charity Crisis commissioned research into squatting from the centre for regional, economic and social research at Sheffield Hallam university, which was published only a month ago, in September. It found that, by and large, squatters were homeless people. The House of Commons Library note sets out for Members that “squatting is a common response to homelessness”, and that “most homeless people who squat try other avenues to resolve their housing problems before squatting”

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said that 40% of single homeless people had squatted at some time. Furthermore, 6% of the homeless population are squatting tonight, 41% of homeless squatters report mental health needs, 34% have been in care, 42% have physical ill health or a disability, 47% have experienced drug dependency, 21% are self-harming, 15% have a learning disability, and 90% have slept rough. Those are the people whom this legislation is about to criminalise.

The Crisis survey found that many of those people had no alternative, and that 78% had approached the local authority for help and been turned away. Among the housing charities — Crisis, Thames Reach, Shelter, Homeless Link, Housing Justice, St Mungo’s — there is a fear that the new legislation could criminalise extremely vulnerable people and force them into more dangerous situations, particularly rough sleeping.

What will be the effect of the new law on squatters’ lives? We know that many, although not all, vulnerable people live chaotic lives. They will be fined up to £5,000 or face up to a year in prison. Not many will have the resources to pay the fine, so prison will be a reality for a significant number of them. I have heard no estimate from the Government of the extent to which this will swell prison numbers. I fear that people will be drawn into a cycle of squatting and going to prison. One third of people coming out of prison have no home to go to, so they will get back into the squatting cycle.

I hope that the House will not pass the new clause into law, but if it is determined to do so, I have tabled amendments to ameliorate its impact. Amendment (a) would provide that squatting remains a civil matter in all residential buildings that had been left empty long term and were not being brought back into use. This would ensure that residential buildings that had been lived in recently or that were being brought back into use would be covered by the criminal law. That includes the question of refurbishment that was raised earlier.

I have looked at the statistics cycle over the past five years and found that, on average, between 650,000 and 700,000 residential properties stood empty during that time. Most are private properties, and 300,000 have been empty for more than six months. When there are 40,000 homeless families, 4,000 people sleeping rough in the capital, and 1.7 million households on waiting lists, desperate for decent accommodation, it is immoral that private owners should be allowed to let their properties stand empty for so long. My amendment could force those irresponsible owners to bring their properties back into use. More importantly, it would mean that desperate people who need a roof over their heads would not be criminalised for resorting to occupying a property that was being wasted by its owner.

It is not for me to criticise the Speaker, of course, but I regret that my amendment (b) was not selected. I had hoped to try to persuade the House to protect the most vulnerable people in our society from being dragged into the courts, but I am sure that there were good reasons for not selecting it, and perhaps it will be debated in another place.

My amendment (c) would address the fact that the present wording of the new clause criminalises those who are currently squatting in a residential building. It is one of the principles of good government that retrospective legislation is unjust. I should like to quote from article 11, subsection 2, of the universal declaration of human rights:

“No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time it was committed.”

There is a basic injustice about retrospective legislation, and I hope that the House will accept that and address it at some stage in this Bill’s consideration.

Finally, there is a mounting housing crisis. I criticised the last Government as much as this one for their failure to address the supply of decent housing. We have got the return of appalling housing conditions in my constituency —overcrowding, high rents and the return of Rachmanite landlords. People are desperate and will resort at times to any means to put a decent roof over their and their family’s heads. Squatting is sometimes the only way. People should not be criminalised for wanting a decent home.

The new clause is being rushed through Parliament. The Secretary of State launched in July a consultation on a range of proposals to criminalise squatting. The consultation ended in October. More than 2,000 responses were received, 90% of them opposed to the Government’s proposals. Clearly, there has been no serious consideration of the consultation responses because the clause was brought forward only three weeks after the consultation closed. This is rushed legislation, and rushed legislation, as I have said, is generally poor or bad legislation. The consultation, if it had been properly taken into account, made it clear that the current laws were sufficient to deal with any abuse. Professionals, police and others have told us so. My fear is that we now risk putting people on the streets and possibly into prison because our society has failed to provide them with a decent home. If this clause goes through tonight, I believe that many will regret it.