Widely opposed, but anti-squatters legislation sneaks in - by Paul heron

A new criminal offence of ‘squatting in a residential building’, came into force on 1st September 2012 by way of section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

This vindictive piece of Con- Dem legislation will raise concern across England and Wales. For some, it marks a long-awaited triumph for private landlords, but for many others it comes as a serious threat to their basic need for shelter and a home. The ‘consultation exercise’ that preceded its introduction saw 96 per cent of responses not wanting to see any action taken on squatting.

Out of 2,217 responses, 2,126 of those were from members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalising squatting, and only 10 people bothered to write in claiming to be victims of squatting. 

Amazingly the Metropolitan police, The Law Society, The Criminal Bar Association and numerous homeless charities such as Crisis all came out publicly opposing its introduction. In the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen, up to 50,000 squatters who are currently squatting in empty properties across the UK face becoming criminals and this because they are occupying abandoned residential properties in order to put a roof over their heads. 

Not surprisingly when squatting is reported in the media it often cites an example of the homeowner who ‘goes on holiday, and returns to find his home squatted.’ While sympathy can be extended in such cases, they are very rare and are often overplayed in the press for political gain. The reality is that for most people who squat it is because they do not have access to affordable accommodation, and it is in properties that have been abandoned for many years. 

With a stroke thousands of ordinary working class people will possibly become criminals overnight, facing up to six months in jail and fines of up to £5,000. Yet questions need to be asked of this legislation, homelessness rates are rising, a hidden army of sofa surfers exist across the country, housing benefit caps are further placing the screw on many, and remember of course many of those receiving housing benefit are working. 

Yet with the number of empty properties, according to the Empty Homes Agency, standing at 930,000 then we must ask – who is this law protecting? As socialists we can only see that it protects profiteering landlords and property speculators, properties are being kept empty to protect profits, and the new law does nothing but shore up this practice. In fact it can even be argued that the law is open to abuse by rogue landlords, which could mean trouble for even existing tenants – who may have a tenancy agreement that the landlord will deny. 

The legal process has been hijacked by an elite minority that has seen to it that criminalising squatting in residential properties be a priority. It is an ideological attack using rhetoric that has no basis in reality and is there with the sole reason to defend private property rights – usually affecting landowners who have left property vacant for many years. 

The attack against squatting is a marked shift not only in the campaign against people now facing homelessness, but one to defend private property rights over the human right to shelter. 

Paul Heron