Anti-squatting laws and the coming crackdown on occupations

A letter in today’s Guardian voices the concerns of unionists, students and MPs about possible new squatting laws. Here’s the full story.

homeless

It’s been less than a year since it became a criminal offence to take shelter in abandoned residential buildings, but it appears that the government is concerned that they haven’t yet caused enough misery and distress to homeless people. It’s looking increasingly likely that new proposals to extend the criminalisation of squatting to non-residential properties may be brought forward by the end of the year. As well as the disastrous impacts that this will have on those who rely on squatting to provide themselves with a home, these moves are likely to outlaw occupation as a political tactic, with wide-reaching implications for our right to protest.

What has the government said?

Of course, many bonkers back-benchers never stopped hounding the homeless since the last law came in, constantly pressing for an extension to non-residential properties. We all know these guys pretty well by now – Mike Weatherly, Tracey Crouch and their chums – a bunch of callous careerists who see an opportunity for self-advancement in persecuting some of the most vulnerable people in society. But we know as well as their party leaders do that this lot are clowns – useful to test the toxicity of particular policies, but otherwise probably given a wide berth in the dinner queue by anyone with any sense.

The worrying bit is when Mike gets shoved back in his box, and we start hearing from people like Chris Grayling, the justice secretary. This has started happening over the last month or so, and it means it’s a policy they’re taking a serious interest in. Grayling has launched a consultation among MPs (he wouldn’t make the mistake of consulting the public on this again!). Apparently “We in the House have perhaps more awareness than anybody else about what is happening on the ground” – a fascinating insight into the fantastical perspectives of the most out-of-touch government in recent history – and sources close to Grayling have suggested that amendments could be introduced to a Bill going through parliament by the end of the year.

Occupation (bw)

Why didn’t they criminalise non-residential squatting last time?

Certainly not out of the goodness of their hearts. Two key issues are the level of opposition that their proposals attracted, with 97% of consultation respondents raising serious concerns; and the fact that criminalising the unauthorised occupation of commercial properties obviously has dramatic implications for our right to protest. As they said in their consultation response:

“Stopping short of criminalising squatting in non-residential buildings represents a balanced compromise … By limiting the offence to the unauthorised occupation of residential buildings, the Government will eliminate the risk that protest activities in non-residential premises such as university buildings are captured by the offence.”

While of course this vicious legislative assault was anything but a “balanced compromise”, it seems they have lost interest in achieving even a semblance of concern for protecting democratic rights. Along with Cameron’s attempt to distinguish our right to “legitimate” protest from the tactics of the Occupy movement, the signs are ominous for the future of democratic dissent.

What would further anti-squatting laws mean for the right to protest?

We do not know exactly what form a new law would take, but we can find some clues. Section 144, the current law against squatting in residential properties is phrased as follows:

(1)A person commits an offence if—
(a)the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser,
(b)the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, and
(c)the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.

The new law would probably be pretty much the same, but without the word “residential”. Under this law, university occupations, workplace occupations and library occupations would all be outlawed.

What can we do?

squat

The best thing would be if proposals are never brought forward, as it will be much more difficult to defeat something at voting stage. We need to show them that this law will be unpopular and unworkable. Some things you can do:

1) Write to your MP and raise your concerns. MPs are being asked to tell Grayling what they think, so it’s worth trying to get your one to respond. There’s a sample email here.
2) If you are a member of a student union, trade union or anti-cuts group, talk to your group about endorsing this letter
3) Sign this petition calling for the repeal of section 144, the law making residential squatting criminal.
4) Get in touch with Squash if you’d like to help with our work – info[at]squashcampaign.org
5) Stay tuned for updates and information, and make sure others know about it.