Labour to back government in support of homeowners despite concerns

Front doors of a squat in Mayfair
Labour will support government moves to outlaw squatting despite concerns that changes to trespass laws could leave thousands of homeless people facing year-long prison sentences and fines of up to £5,000, the Guardian has learned.

Sources working for the shadow justice minister said they did not think there was any possibility that the new law would affect sit-ins and occupation protests as previously feared, and they would support the change to show their support for homeowners.

Under the government’s new proposals, rushed into the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, it will become a crime to squat in any residential building whether or not there is someone living there or intending to move in. Under the 1977 Criminal Law Act it is already an offence for squatters to displace current residents.

Labour insiders said that after consultation with lawyers they believed that the changes were the most minimal possible to current law, but they would still be asking serious questions about the proposals.

The results of a consultation on squatting, published on Wednesday, revealed that the Law Society and Criminal Bar Association were strongly opposed to new trespass laws. The Association of Chief Police Officers told the Ministry of Justice that the law was “broadly in the right place” for them to be able to tackle the worst cases of squatting.

Out of a total of 2,217 responses to the consultation, 90% were against changes to the law.

MoJ figures suggest there are upwards of 12,000 people squatting in England and Wales at any one time. A previous government reportquoted a figure of 20,000 from the Squatters’ Advisory Service.

The Met police have identified 224 squats in London. In May, Baroness Hanham, the parliamentary under-secretary for communities and local government, said there were no centrally collected figures on the numbers of people who squat.

The lack of information has fuelled fears that the new law could have many unintended effects, including increasing the strain on public finances as homelessness increases and as the justice system is forced to prosecute hitherto civil cases.

Roger Harding, head of policy, research and public affairs at Shelter, said: “There is already an existing law to protect homeowners and we are concerned that the government could be rushing through new laws without the robust evidence needed to avoid unintended consequences that could penalise the innocent.”

Paul Reynolds, a campaigner with Squash, said: “The government has no idea how much this is going to cost the public purse … They don’t know how many squatters there are and how many people this new law will affect, because they have done no research into squatting.”

Reynolds said Sqaush’s provisional research suggested it could cost hundreds of millions of pounds. “If you add up costs to the police, the courts, social housing and homelessness provisions then the bill to the taxpayer will run into hundreds of millions.”

Cat, a 26-year-old squatter who did not want to give her second name, said the plans were ridiculous in a time of austerity and rising homelessness. “I’ve never claimed the dole and I’m not interested in sponging off the state [so] where can I live? I’ll be in prison with a five grand fine [if these proposals go through],” she said.

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the housing charity Crisis, said: “A year’s imprisonment for some of society’s most vulnerable and desperate people is draconian and utterly counterproductive.

“Independent research is clear that 40% of single homeless people have resorted to squatting. Homeless squatters have extremely high incidences of mental and physical ill health, learning disabilities, drug and alcohol dependency and a raft of other disadvantages. They squat out of necessity, not choice, in atrocious conditions where they are least likely to be disturbed. These are people that need help, not a year behind bars and a £5,000 fine.”

by Shiv Malik