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Back-door squatting law is a democracy bypass

United Kingdom

Photo by Indymedia.

They say ’seven days is a long time in politics’. A little over a week ago, we learned that the government was planning to criminalise squatting in residential buildings via a sneaky last minute amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. On Tuesday that clause was voted through in parliament by 283 to 13 against.

The vote was the culmination of a farcical consultation process, announced by David Cameron last June. At Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) we had our misgivings from the start. But we took the time to respond to the government’s consultation  ‘Options for Dealing with Squatters’.

The document was extremely one-sided, ignoring the problem of homelessness and talking entirely about the ‘problem’ of squatting. The questions were loaded, and addressed to landlords and property-owners – not to those who have used or might have cause to need, empty buildings to live in.

But as it turned out, civil society was also against this attack on homeless people – despite the consultation’s bias. A staggering 96 per cent of respondents opposed the government’s proposals. The dissenters included lawyers,  homelessness charities and the Metropolitan police.

Despite our misgivings, what we didn’t realise was that the government would be prepared to blatantly fly in the face of its own consultation. Just four working days after the responses were published on 5 October,  Ken Clarke tabled a last minute amendment, clause 26, to the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill. Under clause 26, squatters face a £5,000 fine or a year in prison.

Housing and homelessness groups have repeatedly warned of the effects of these proposals. Crisis have shown that more single homeless people have used squatting to house themselves than hostels. With an estimated 20,000 people squatting nationally - and a 17 per cent increase in homelessness this year - the government’s plans may see tens of thousands forced onto the street within days.

We are in the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen. But as families struggle to cope in an ever-worsening economic climate, the coalition’s remedy is discipline and punishment, while systematically unpicking the social security net.

Forget the tabloid tales of demonic squatters stealing people’s homes and destroying their things. The reality is that strong legislation already protects ordinary people in their homes: it is a criminal offence (under the Criminal Law Act 1977) to squat the house that someone lives in. The Metropolitan Police know this. In their consultation response they said the squatting law was ‘broadly in the right place’ and that the existing array of offences allowed them to tackle the worst cases of squatting (for instance, where squatters cause the rightful homeowner to be displaced).

The new measures have nothing to do with protecting ordinary people. They are geared to  protect large-scale landlords and property speculators who keep properties empty simply to up their profits. The government distortions of the law are intentionally creating a climate of fear, to advance a draconian agenda in which the poor are simply locked up.

We are the ignored 96 per cent. We have tried engaging with the democratic processes but it has failed us. On Monday night, before the bill was passed, SQUASH organised a peaceful Sleep Out protest outside Parliament on Halloween. Police kettled and arrested the demonstrators, holding many people over night. Democracy is no longer just being bypassed its being totally disregarded.

Rueben Taylor is part of the SQUASH Campaign.

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