New Internationalist

Becoming criminal at home


The international squatters' symbol. Photo: tuppus, reproduced under a CC license

Squatting is an ancient tradition; in fact, it is the oldest form of land tenure. The present property system we have in Britain is only a few hundred years old.

Squatting has a long history in this country. By far the biggest wave of squatters was from 1945 to the 1950s, when hundreds of families and former members of the armed forces occupied buildings, including army camps. The rightwing Daily Mail newspaper at the time referred to these squatters as ‘heroes’.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a massive family squatting movement. In the 1990s, squatters, travellers, ravers, hunt saboteurs and protesters were united in resistance against the government’s Criminal Justice Act, which increased police stop-and-search powers as well as tightening up the laws against squatters, travellers and raves. For many hundreds of years, successive governments have tried to whittle away our right to continue a long-standing tradition.

On 1 September 2012, a new law will be imposed, criminalizing trespass/squatting in empty residential buildings. Squatting is still legal in commercial and non-residential spaces and there are currently around 420,000 empty commercial properties across Britain.

The new law follows a year of propaganda from the media.Newspaper articles, such as those in the Evening Standard, Telegraph and Daily Mail, have painted squatters as home-wreckers, parasites, criminals, organized gypsy gangs and rapists, rather than home repairers and renovators.

You can only squat an empty building. The Displaced Residential Occupier (DRO) law already stops someone squatting an inhabited home. Tales of people going down the shops or on holiday and having their home squatted are lies and propaganda.

It is estimated that implementing the law will cost £790 million ($1.25 billion), far more than the £350 million ($553 million) saved by axing the legal aid system.

The government consultation was an undemocratic sham: 96 per cent of respondents did not want the homeless to be criminalized. This included the Police Association, lawyers’ groups, judges, homeless charities and housing groups.

After much hard work, the Squash Campaign was outraged by the government’s decision to ignore the consultation and undemocratically press ahead, criminalizing trespass in residential buildings by adding a small clause (Section 144) on to the Legal Aid Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).

The only people to benefit from this new law are the property-owning friends of our rich politicians, friends who have donated £3 million ($4.7 million) to Conservative Party funds over the last three years. The government has produced a report estimating that in one year of this law coming into effect, between 350 and 4,200 people could go through the courts and into prison. This is totally unacceptable.

The resistance is building for housing solutions, not criminalization, especially with the impending cuts in housing benefit, the rise of 25 per cent in homelessness, and the increase in redundancies during the recession. The next homeless person could be any of us – or our children. This law is unworkable.

At Squash, we will continue to campaign to repeal it and to create in its place something more sensible, positive and solution based. At the legal aid lawyers’ awards recently, Michael Mansfield QC said of the LASPO Act, ‘the uprising is on, let battle commence,’ echoing the feeling from the dispossessed on the streets.

With nearly one million empty buildings in Britain, there is no need for anyone to be homeless. Surely the solution would be to create jobs for the unemployed, repairing and renovating these empty spaces. How much better it would be to give people the opportunity to learn skills and create housing, rather than filling our already overcrowded prisons.

For information and advice go to the Squash Campaign or the Advisory Service For Squatters.

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