NUS Student Activism 2011 Conference: why is squatting relevant to students?

On Saturday Squash will be representing at the NUS Student Activism 2011 conference, at Goldsmiths. Come down and say hello. We’ll be giving a talk at 2pm entitled ‘Trespass! Why criminalizing squatting could affect students…? Here’s why we think students should be concerned about the government’s plan’s to criminalise trespass:

Many squatters ARE students. With rising rents and rising fees, many students face an impossible financial situation. They turn to squatting because it provides an affordable housing option, and in many cases enables them to continue study which they would otherwise not be able to afford.

What is squatting?

In England alone there are an estimated 726,238 empty homes, and the number is increasing. More than 42,000 are officially homeless and 50,000 are living in ‘temporary’ accommodation and in priority need of stable housing. (Squash fact sheet, 2011)

According to homelessness charity Crisis, 39% of single homeless people have squatted, and one in four homeless people have squatted ‘as a direct response to a housing crisis since leaving their last settled home.’ (Squash fact sheet, 2011) Squatting is a practice that has a vibrant place in English social history. Form Gerald Winstanley in 1649 to the post WW2 squatters, empty land and buildings have been put back into use by ordinary people. Currently trespass is a civil not a criminal offence. More and more students are squatting in direct response to unaffordable accommodation.

The main fear driving the legislative change seems to be of squatters breaking into already occupied homes. However, this is already a criminal offence: if the property is occupied then home owners are protected (under Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977) as displaced residential occupiers, and can be evicted by police immediately. The idea that this is widespread is a myth put about by the right wing press.

Squatting is under attack.

As you may be aware, the UK government is currently trying to criminalise squatting. Earlier this year they held a consultation, in which 96% of respondents stated that they were concerned by or opposed to criminalisation, including the Metropolitan Police.

In spite of this overwhelming response to the consultation, Ken Clarke has rushed through the criminalisation of squatting, as a last minute appendage to the Legal Aid Bill on the day the consultation response was published. John McDonnell MP described this as ‘bypassing democracy’- ignoring the results of the consultation and underhandedly rushing  the law through, giving little time for groups to lobby and respond. The bill to criminalise squatting in residential buildings was voted through the House of Commons and now must go to the Lords.

Attacks on students

We think that this is a central issue to students. Not only does squatting provide a housing option for many, but also its prohibition could curtail the right to protest. Criminalisation of “unauthorised occupation” has clear implications for the student movement. Though at the moment the government is only proposing to prohibit this in residential buildings, they have left many hints that they do not want to stop here. Some, such as Alexander Vasudevan [1]have suggested that the further criminalisation of occupations in a time of public sector might be seen as attempt to proscribe the very right to protest. Cameron has made clear that he does not view occupations as an “appropriate” method of protest, and another Tory declared that it would be a “thoroughly good idea” if legislation against squatting also outlawed protest occupations.[2]

In a time of recession and cuts to public housing, we argue that criminalising squatting would only serve to criminalise vulnerable people, exacerbate the housing crisis and be very expensive for the government to carry through. (See Criminalising the Vulnerable, Squash 2011) What is being overlooked currently is the impact on those engaging in the political activity of occupation.

Pop by our stall at the conference and have a chat, or come to our afternoon session ‘Tresspass!.’ at 2.00pm, where we will give a bit more background to the issues and its impact on students. We can also give you info on how to get involved, put motions through your SU, and start squatting.