Leave squatters alone!

Last week, Britain’s prime minister David Cameron announced something about burglars and squatting and knife crime and legal aid and ... well it was all rather confusing, wasn’t it?

But in this new criminal justice bill, buried among all the headline-grabbing bogeyman hunting, the government laid out plans for a crackdown on squatters and an attack on other vulnerable groups.

Firstly, the prime minister said he will launch a consultation on whether to criminalize squatting. Cameron would have us believe that these measures are designed to protect ordinary homeowners from the ever-present threat that squatters may take over while they pop out for a pint of milk.

In fact, strong and fully adequate laws already exist that protect the rights of owner-occupiers, and make it illegal to squat a house in which someone lives, or in which they are intending to live. Criminalizing squatting is actually about protecting property speculators who keep buildings empty while families are being forced out of their homes; and unscrupulous landlords, who want an easy route to evict vulnerable tenants.

This measure comes in the middle of a housing crisis. Earlier this week  we heard warnings of a ‘tidal wave’ of mortgage defaults and home repossessions; five million people are on the waiting list for council houses; housing benefit is being slashed and secure council tenancies are at risk.

The street homeless are also under pressure, with new measures being trialled in London to criminalize rough-sleeping. And yet at the same time, nearly a million buildings stand empty.

Even in terms of the government's own cost-cutting agenda, the criminalization of squatting makes no sense. How will the government re-house the estimated 10,000 squatters in London alone? These plans will pile pressure onto an already creaking housing system, and costs onto the justice system. They are both morally and economically nonsensical.

In the same speech, Cameron delivered another no-brainer measure. He declared that squatters will no longer have access to legal aid.

Now, anyone with any knowledge of squatting will have raised a quizzical eyebrow at this announcement, racking their brains for a squat that ever secured legal aid for an eviction case.

Newspapers report tales of scrounging squatters squeezing the state to defend their ill-gotten gains. In this case, the French occupiers got initial legal advice through a housing and possession court scheme at a cost of £80 to the British taxpayer, according to the Guardian’s Jon Robbins. The reality is that getting legal aid is nigh on impossible for most squatters.

Eviction tends to be on the grounds of trespass, a civil offence. To get legal aid for this you have to stand a good prospect of success – a criterion squatters are highly unlikely to fulfil, unless they are ex-tenants. Unsurprisingly, the government has been unable to detail the amount the squatters have actually cost the legal aid system.

So why bother with the law? It seems the government is using the carefully cultivated public antipathy towards squatters as a smokescreen to hide the measures that seek to bar the most vulnerable – the elderly, migrants, disabled, abused, children and the mentally ill – from legal aid.

‘This planned legislation will disproportionately impact on the most needy and the least able to defend themselves, who are suffering from the most complex problems like destitution, domestic violence and family break up,’ says Des Hudson from the Law Society. ‘The reforms effectively scrap social welfare law from the legal aid scheme.’

The government and the right-wing press would much rather feed and nurture public discrimination against groups such as squatters, than admit that their measures will leave abuse victims and the children of broken homes defenceless.

Rueben Taylor is part of the Squash Campaign. For more info, see Criminalising the Vulnerable: Why we can’t criminalise our way out of a housing crisis.