SQUASH launch new report in Parliament

Meeting in Parliament/ Launch of Case Against section 144 report

Date: 4th March 2013 Venue: Committee Room 19, House of Commons

Parliament

The event marked the launch of SQUASH’s 6-month report and impact analysis of section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). It provided an opportunity to discuss what the MP’s, Lords, lawyers and academics could do to help, and highlight Mike Weatherley’s Early Day Motion (EDM) which looks to extend criminalisation to commercial premises.

Chaired: SQUASH [John McDonnell could not chair as he was speaking in Parliament against the Justice and Security Bill (aka the Secret Courts Bill) which was happening in the Commons that evening.]

Hannah Wilcox (SQUASH)

The new report “The Case Against section 144” seeks to highlight, respond to, and scrutinise the use of the new law, s144 LASPO, especially in relation to homelessness. Preparing the report has highlighted the lack of information on the use of the new law and the collection of data in any systematic way. SQUASH filed a large number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests but most police forces considered it as a non-notifiable offence. The report has been divided into four key sections:

1] Undemocratic:This section examines and critiques the legislative process, showing that there was a clear democratic deficit in the way that the new law was legislated. The consultation process was just a tick-box exercise and the respondents who advised against criminalisation, or advised caution, were simply ignored. There was no committee stage for more in-depth investigation and the House of Lords debates were held late tat night. In the end, the highly ambiguous s144 was passed. 2] Unjust: reiterates the link between homelessness and squatting, which has been obfuscated by the media. The most recent case of Daniel Gauntlett, who was forced to sleep outside an empty building and later died of hypothermia from exposure to the elements, is a prime example of how the new law is impacting the homeless. The report has additional case studies of the realities of the homeless seeking shelter in empty properties by necessity and being criminalised in the process. 3] Unnecessary: One of the key messages of the campaign against criminalisation, which has been spoken about so many times, but largely ignored; the DRO and PIO legislation adequately covered displaced occupiers before the new law came in. Instead of protecting home-owners, the new law has been used to summarily evict squats or licensees and able to force people to leave under the threat of arrest, thus causing displacement. It has resulted in a highly un-transparent process in which the police can act without third party complainant, with the change from a civil to criminal process, and it being a non-notifiable offence. S144 has given the police the right to force entry, undermining tenancy law and opening it up to abuse for landlords to threaten vulnerable tenants. 4] Unaffordable: implementing the new law has already cost between £107k – £114k in direct eviction and prosecution costs, and with the five-year costs look to reach £30million when move-on accommodation and the rehabilitation of rough sleepers is taken into account.

Alex Kennedy (Crisis)

The government hasn’t been looking at the impacts of the new law on homelessness and there is a large gap in data collection on this important issue. Crisis works with single homeless people, and their research has found that a large proportion of homeless people have at some point squatted in cycles between different forms of homelessness. When they pulled together their existing information, they found that 6% of homeless people were squatting on any given night. The debate in Parliament when the new law was proposed kept talking past the issue of homelessness and the associated problem, such as the high levels of mental health issues that affect the homeless. The three people known cases of those who were handed custodial sentences had no other housing option at all, contrary to the popular media portrayal of “life-style” squatting; the facts have shown that in fact the myths created by politicians and the media were myths after all.

The Case against s144

The talk of extending the law to commercial properties is extremely concerning, especially without more information about types of people being affected. SQUASH/SLN/ASS should be collecting any evidence of people displaced by the police without being given other housing options, since the government said, when passing the new law, that if people were made homeless, they would be given assistance. Any evidence that it is not happening would send a strong message.

Sophie Priestley (Tuckers Solicitors)

Tuckers have anecdotal evidence of how the law is affecting people from cases of prosecution and enquiries from those who have been threatened with it/ homelessness. The way the law has been implemented has evidenced that the law was not about protecting home-owners, which was a myth. There have been major issues with the nature of the legislation, since the act can be defined very widely and there is a difficulty in that buildings such as residential care homes and hospitals might fall under the auspices of “residential”. The only way to check the interpretation is to go through the courts, and since those who have just been displaced are unlikely to want to go through whole process to test the law, it is very hard to get any clarity on the law. Questions like whether residential property which is “not fit to be lived in” is covered under the act which can only be tested in courts, and taking the risk to prove it, since magistrates don’t want to make difficult decisions and are unlikely to award in favour of squatters. Definitions such as the “intention to live/stay” and “trespasser” are still open areas of law; for example people occupying a hospital in relation to a closure and “intending to stay a night” may or may not fall under the law; the issue is manifest.

Tuckers take on a number of cases of civil law against the police; since s144 has made squatting a policing issue and the threshold for arrest is very low, issues of “unlawful arrest” become hard to prove. If a tenant/licensee/squatter is reported by property owner, that is sufficient for arrest and since the “eviction” has already taken place, it is very difficult to rectifying afterwards. The police are expected to judge complicated and confusing home issues (eg verbal agreements with the owner) without sufficient training, and are unlikely to look too closely at these things. While there are sentencing guidelines, the disparity in sentencing (some custodial sentences, some fines) has left no clear judgements or decisions to clarify the situation; most cases go to magistrates court, which are not reknowned for clear judgements. Lots of people going to court unrepresented which is an additional sign of vulnerability. The concept of expanding without testing current law is absolutely “mad”.

Bob Baker (Simon Community)

Used to be a squatter in the mid-1980′s and has had difficulties finding secure housing throughout his life; experienced all kinds of housing (private, short-life co-ops, commune). Squatting is a housing solution when there are no other available options. The Simon Community is a radical charity run by homeless people for homeless people which rejects government funding because of the need to be independent. Offer kindness for people, campaign on their behalf and deal with the hard end of homelessness (eg those with complex needs, those who have reject other help or been rejected by other homeless units).

The Panel

The Simon Community actively campaigned against section 144, sending four letters of protest published in the Guardian; the Simon Community is looking forward to help with the next phase. The new law has had an impact on the homeless, and the law is one protecting people keeping property empty against those needing shelter. There has been an increase in the occupation of derelict buildings, which are not fit for human habitation, much like the situation in Britain after WWII when many people had to live in bombed-out buildings. The government is pushing spectacular economic mismanagement, with austerity, a growing housing crisis and a lack of affordable housing, so that people are living in increasingly insecure situations and part of a massive dislocation of working people out of London, out of their social networks.

The use of Bed and Breakfast accommodation for emergency housing provision by local councils has increased up 800%; however these are only priority cases (eg mothers with children) and figures of dislocation do not include the number of single people or couples. Squatting is a direct response to homelessness not a lifestyle choice; it is a morally correct course of action in response to the 710k empty properties in England and Wales. There is a need for a building programme based on social housing. Action on this issue should include people signing the repeal s144 petition, stopping the government expanding the law, campaigning expanding to those who have not traditionally been supportive of squatting and the adoption of the European law: ”Everyone has the right to housing”.

Questions & Comments:

David Watkinson (housing barrister): Why were 2/3 of those arrested released without charge and did not convicted? Why were the charges dropped? It seems a high proportion of arrests to the number of convictions. SQUASH and ASS could only surmise that people were being arrested as a means of eviction, or to displace the occupiers so they did not have a building to return to. Sophie reasserted that the threshold for arrest was set very low, and therefore suing for unlawful arrest is not easy to pursue afterwards and possibly the police believed that most people wouldn’t followed up on it. The information suggests that a great number are being arrested when they shouldn’t be. The guidance set out by the Metropolitan Police on s144 was actually quite good, setting out a step by step set of questions for police to themselves to see if any action was required and judge whether action was proportionate or even necessary. Judging by the statistics, the guidance was not being carried out in terms of arrests.

Alex: With the rise in property guardianship, would the commercial premises being protected be considered residential since they have been “adapted for living”? Sophie replied that the Act could be applied very widely and a long list of building classes that were traditionally considered “commercial” are covered under the act, such as hotels, young offenders institutions, hospitals. It seems that it is not relevant who owns the property, or what purpose it was intended for, but rather it seems it to be more important whether it can be lived in or not; even so, would non-livable/non-habitable space fall under the act? What is “adapting”; could it just be putting in a shower, a bed, etc? Need cases to go to the High Courts to see how the law will be applied, which could take a long time; this is not a fair position for people in uncertain circumstances to find themselves in. Bob Baker showed the group a sign on a derelict pub, written by the landlord, which claimed that the building was considered “residential” and therefore a criminal offense to squat it; is simply claiming that the building is residential enough to be arrested?

John McDonnall [back from the debate on the Justice and Security Act (“Secret Courts” Bill)]: Where do we go from here? John is interested in generating some sort of legislative interest, and will be organising a meeting for interested MPs and Lords, to bring them together to discuss possible parliamentary process. SQUASH should use the report to expose what’s happening, and what legislative change is needed. Since this is the mid-term of the current government, there will be more assaults coming, but at the same time opposition parties will be looking at their manifestos for the next election. He advised to fend off reaction for the time being and consult with lawyers for advice on creating room to manoeuvre. Need regular guidance going out to those being affected and giving high profile to individual cases, using every mechanism to broadcast the information. Should not pull back from direct action, which helps to gain a focus on the issue and helps to get issues lobbied at parliamentary level. Need other organisations, not constrained by being dependent on funding, to take up the issue and create a focus through direct action (eg Greenpeace’s erecting a fracking tower in Parliament square, which got media attention on the issue).

Some ideas for stopping the new law: The Report has been sent out to 200 journalists; what else could be done with it? Thrust of the argument should be that it is the criminal offence element of the legislation which is objectionable.

Baroness Sally Hamwee suggested that the report a should be sent to Women’s Hour, and that some squatting representatives go on the show, since the show has lots of listeners who are not usually supportive of squatting but might resonate with mothers whose children are finding it difficult to find housing.

Lush mentioned their support for an upcoming campaign in support of squatting; this would be happening inside and outside some of their shops.

Jeremy Corbyn mentioned his EDM around the private rented sector and crucial rent controls, drawn up in consultation with his constituents; suggests squatting groups should do the same.

To read or download the report, visit SQUASH’s “The Case Against section 144” Page