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Why outlawing squatting will be way too expensive

Human Rights

A new study shows that government moves to make squatting a criminal offence could cost the UK taxpayer a whopping £790 million.

More than 720,000 properties across the UK lie empty.

As regular readers of the New Internationalist blog will know, proposals are currently before the House of Lords which will see people who use empty residential buildings for shelter facing up to a year in prison or a £5000 ($7800) fine.

In response, Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) released a report ‘Can We Afford to Criminalise Squatting?’ on Friday, which is backed by a range of academics and legal practitioners. In it, we show that clause 136 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill is likely to cost the UK taxpayer around £790 million ($US 1.24 billion) over the next five years.

In other words, the costs of criminalising squatting will obliterate any savings made by a bill that has savaged Legal Aid for the poorest to make savings of just £350 million ($548 million).

The government has not done its maths. We've done it for them, by putting numbers against the costs that were left out of their ‘back-of-the-envelope’ Financial Impact Assessment. We considered the cost of rehousing those who currently squat, rehabilitating those who end up on the streets, eviction and prosecution to the Criminal Justice System, as well as managing the rise in rough sleepers.

We think it’s about time the government does a proper assessment before they push through this law. This has been a campaign driven by media hysteria and anecdote since the very beginning.

Legislation should be based on facts. For instance, the fact that the housing crisis in the UK is severe. First-time buyers are floored by unaffordable house prices and ever-rising rents, which eat up a huge proportion of average wages. Some five million people are languishing on social housing waiting lists in England alone. Homelessness is spiralling, with the latest figures showing an increase of 18 per cent on this quarter, compared to last year.

For many people, squatting is a last resort. Around 40 per cent of homeless people rely on it at some point to keep themselves off the streets. And here’s another fact which ministers seem determined to ignore: it’s already a criminal offence to squat an inhabited house, LAPSO has nothing to do with protecting ordinary homeowners.

Instead, it’s like a security racket for the super rich, which is geared at protecting off-shore property speculators and major landlords.  In the words of the ALTER lobby group (of which Nick Clegg is vice-president), criminalization will ‘provide a valuable state-funded benefit to wealthy tax avoiders.’

Like much of this government’s ‘austerity’ drive, this is an ideologically-driven bill. It has nothing to do with saving money, and everything to do with a radical right-wing conception of the state and its citizens.

Put simply, the criminalization of squatting is part of a wider mission to protect the rich and powerful and unpick the safety nets of the poor and the vulnerable.

Reuben Taylor is part of the Squash Campaign. Both images by Squash Campaign.

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