Tuesday, 11 September 2012
So, they've finally done it. They finally criminalised squatting. On Saturday, it became a criminal offence - with a penalty of up to six months in prison or a £5000 fine - to trespass in a residential property, under section 144 of Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
Successive governments have made overtures, initiated clumsy attempts: all have stopped short of actually criminalising the homeless. But for the man who makes Margaret Thatcher look like Mother Theresa, there are no such boundaries. For the government that promised to protect the NHS and then started flogging it off at the first opportunity, there are to be no silly limitations placed on the pursuit of profit.
Compared with the privatisation of our health care provider, there's been relatively little opposition to the criminalisation of the homeless. To your average punter - who probably has property ladder aspirations of their own - it seems a reasonable proposition, sensible even. Criminalise squatting? Yeah, sure, I'll put my name to that - squatters are stealing aren't they? When Crispin Blunt MP - smart man in a smart suit, who has the word Justice in his job title - says they cause 'untold misery', that's not hard to understand. Didn't you read the Evening Standard report about that nice doctor and his pregnant wife who suffered at the hands of unwashed cuckoos in their nice Hampstead nest?
But read right to the bottom of that story and you'll find the little truth that belies the bigger one: in all of these cases - without exception - the home in question was a second home. Squatters go to great lengths to avoid occupying an already occupied property, or even one that looks like it might become so soon, because, apart from the fact that almost nobody wants to make someone else homeless, that's already a crime. This was laid out by the 160 property lawyers and academics who wrote a letter during the rush to criminalisation, claiming that both ministers and the media were deliberately misleading the public:
“We want it to be clear that it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone's home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977.”
Another seemingly salient point trotted out by Crispin and his cronies is that squatting is not the answer to homelessness. True enough. But squatting is just a name – a name that sounds a bit unpleasant, that has unpleasant associations. The act it describes is is no more complex than seeking shelter in abandoned property. It's been done for years, and has even, in the past, been thought of as a sensible solution to a housing shortage.
Clearly there's no substitute for building enough affordable housing for everyone. But that isn't happening, and hasn't been happening for decades. Ask yourself whether you'd rather see people face the horrors of rough sleeping while the government gets its act together over housing – if you believe it ever will – or whether it's acceptable for them to take the initiative in the meantime, so long as they cause no harm. If it's the latter, then squatting can be a solution, albeit a temporary one.
And almost nobody with any insight believes that temporary solution - making good use of Britain's 720,000 empty homes - actually causes harm. 96% of respondents to the government's consultation – Options for Dealing with Squatting – were against criminalisation. That included people who you'd expect to know what they're talking about, people like the Law Society, homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter, and even the Metropolitan Police Service. Nearly all were ignored, in favour of the seven landlords (of over 2000 respondents) who took the time to reply.
Even the Telegraph, who initially ran a campaign supporting criminalisation, this weekend softened their opinion, proclaimed 'nobody really believes that squatters have rights', and called criminalisation a 'bonkers waste of time for no great result'.
My own experience was so far from the scumbag shenanigans of squatters presented in the press, it seemed surreal when I read reports of renegade gangs of East Europeans usurping rightful owners. Tim, who eventually bought the property in which we resided (a property that had been empty for four years previously) didn't seem unhappy either. After we left what was to become his home, he wrote us a reference in case we were taken to court by someone less understanding.
This odious piece of policy can't help cause more harm than it prevents, because there was almost no harm caused in the first place; significant harm - untold misery, even – will be left in its wake. Advice was issued this week to the law enforcement agencies expected to carry out the evictions they told the government they didn't want; the entire sum of the Ministry of Justice's counsel is: 'liaison with local authorities and homelessness providers would ensure the appropriate advice and assistance is offered to the accused after the point of arrest'. Presumably those authorities and agencies will simply ask - as they did during the consultation - that the eviction, and subsequent arrest, not take place; point out that their services are already stretched to breaking point without unleashing another 50,000 souls onto the streets.
Like most of what's said about squatting, we're firmly in fantasy land. Never mind that it might actually cost the tax payer millions by creating more homelessness: there's money to be made. It's been on the Tory policy wish-list for decades, and now their property protection wet-dream has been realised; it remains to be seen what state the sheets will be left in when everyone wakes up, or who will mop up the mess...