Why outlawing squatting will be way too expensive

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.

Back-door squatting law is a democracy bypass

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.

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.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop