Squatting law will only criminalise the homeless. Let’s demolish clause 136

a young person homeless in London

Life expectancy on the streets is just 43 for women.

Tanya Gold talking a lot of sense in the Guardian. The Clause relating to squatting has now been changed to 136.

A new law is racing through the Lords, having passed the Commons. It is called the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, and it contains an infamous clause, which goes by the number 130. If clause 130 passes, squatting an unoccupied residential property will no longer be a civil offence but a criminal one, punishable by a maximum fine of £5,000 – which feels like a joke when tossed at the homeless – or a sentence of up to a year. If the government does jail the homeless for being homeless, the joke surely is – well, they won’t be homeless any more.

This government’s appetite for criminalising poverty is unslaked. It is, I suppose, a natural psychological response to their policies; once you have demonised your problem, you are not responsible for solving it. Squatters are by definition homeless and, according to the charity Crisis, 40% of single homeless people have squatted. Research also shows that 41% have mental health needs, 34% have been in care, 42% are ill or disabled, and 21% self-harm.

So these are the most fragile of citizens, who have almost always asked for housing and been refused – 78% have been turned away by local authorities because single people are rarely eligible for housing. Criminalisation only increases their vulnerability. Rough sleeping and prostitution may follow, or something worse. Life expectancy is 47 for homeless men, 43 for women.

Some do not last that long. Six years ago I met a homeless woman aged 21 under Waterloo Bridge. Her name was Kimberly Dowling and a month later she was dead and interred in a grave in Kilburn. So who can blame the homeless for squatting? You might even call it using your initiative to improve your situation, a homily Conservatives usually purr at, but not this time.

The government likes this law, and is ready to lie to persuade the public to accept it, possibly because squatting is now associated in the public mind with political activism, and imprisoning your critics is always tempting. It is, in fact, already a criminal offence to squat an occupied home, to access utilities without paying or to commit criminal damage, under the Criminal Law Act of 1977. The tiny number of cases where occupied homes are squatted are swiftly and cheaply resolved if the law is correctly enforced.

Two high-profile cases last year – Julia High, who came home from the Proms to find her house squatted by Romanians, and of Oliver and Kaltun Cockerell, whose home was squatted before they moved in – allowed Conservative MPs to mislead the public and conjure nightmarish visions of violation of their soft furnishings. The housing minister, Grant Shapps, told the BBC that when homes are squatted, the “police don’t act because the law does not support the police acting”.

The MP Mike Weatherley told the Daily Mail: “If those squatters claim that they did not break into your property – though they almost certainly will have done – you have no powers to throw them out.” This is a lie and 160 housing lawyers and academics wrote to the Guardian to say so. There is a problem with enforcement, but that is the fault of the police, not the homeless; the Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association oppose the new law, and even the Metropolitan police thinks the current one is ” broadly in the right place”. Nor is the public agitated by squatting. When the Ministry of Justice consulted about squatting, 2,126 responses came from “members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalisation” and only 25 were from “members of the public concerned about the harm squatting can cause”. The people, as ever, are kinder than their government.

The timing could not be more vicious. The chronic shortage of social housing, the cuts and the economic depression create a perfect storm of a housing crisis. Homelessness is up 15% nationally in the last year, and rough sleeping in London is up 8%. Shapps has promised funding to resolve homelessness but this money is a drop in an ocean of chaos; it will be wiped out by cuts elsewhere.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer wants to exempt abandoned properties from clause 130. There are nearly 930,000 empty homes in the UK, of which more than 350,000 have been empty for over six months. Now that is a scandal that the government should ponder; in the meantime, we have the victims to punish.