“People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse. This new evidence demonstrates so clearly the need to repeal this misguided law.” - John McDonnell MP
In August 2011, the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation, optimistically entitled Options for Dealing with Squatting. Successive governments have attempted to 'deal with squatting', but from the outset it was obvious that this one would continue the crusade not by addressing supply and demand in the housing market, but by seeking to criminalise people they termed 'squatters'.
After ignoring the 96% of respondents that were against criminalisation – including the Law Society, homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter and even the Metropolitan Police Service – the government did indeed press ahead with its plan. Last September, seeking shelter in abandoned residential properties – squatting – was dealt with: under section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), anyone found putting a roof over their head in this way would be punished by up to 6 months in prison or a £5000 fine.
Six months later, Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) has released a report into the effects of that law. As we predicted before the law was passed, our findings suggest that homeless and vulnerable people have been disproportionately affected. In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time when homelessness is rising, the law has further narrowed options for many, and is indeed sending otherwise innocent people to prison.
The right-wing press - papers made by property owners for property owners – laid the ground for this legislative attack by carpet-bombing public opinion with endless articles about unwashed, east-European cuckoos in the nest displacing honourable Hampstead homeowners. Members of Parliament made proud speeches about protecting those 'homeowners', deliberately conflating homes and empty houses (and never mentioning the donations they receive from property developers). "We want to send a clear message to would-be squatters that it is simply not acceptable to occupy someone else's home", proclaimed Justice Minister Crispin Blunt.
But it wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. At the time, property lawyers and housing experts pointed out that ministers and the media alike were deliberately misleading the public to push through their property protection law. And now SQUASH's research has further exposed that dishonesty: not a single, solitary squatter arrested under the new law was found to be displacing a homeowner.
During the rush to criminalisation, John McDonnell MP asked a pertinent question in a parliamentary debate: “will it cause more problems than it seeks to cure?”
Section 144 couldn't help but cause more harm than it prevented because, in reality, squatting caused almost no harm in the first place: the harm the new law would cause quickly became palpable. Within weeks, the first scumbag squatter was banged up: 21year old brick-layer Alex Haigh, who had no prior criminal convictions, was struggling to find work in the capital and had sought shelter in an empty Pimlico property. It had been abandoned for more than a year by its owners.
Ironically, those now behind bars may have escaped an even worse fate: recently a homeless person in Kent died outside of an empty bungalow, which media reports suggest he had previously been prevented from entering by the police. Section 144 was pushed through as farce: it is being manifested as tragedy.
But rather than rolling-back, recently promoted conservative MP Mike Weatherley has proposed an early day motion that calls for the law to be extended to commercial properties. Ominously, it already has 24 signatories.
At the very least, SQUASH calls on the government to carry out a full, independent impact assessment before further criminalisation is considered; if parliament wants to protect all of the people it represents - not just those that own empty property - it should repeal this law; it has already caused too much harm...