Vyvian Raoul is from the SQUASH Campaign (Squatters' Action for Secure Homes). He blogs at El Naco Libre.

Teaser: 

Vyvian Raoul is from the SQUASH Campaign (Squatters' Action for Secure Homes). He blogs at El Naco Libre.

Options for dealing with squatting

29.06.16-options-for-dealing-with-squatting-590x393.jpg

As the Metropolitan Police say, and this brilliant publication reveals, most buildings that squatters live in have been abandoned or are otherwise empty. When peoples’ only choice is criminalized, the legality of the law itself is discredited.’ – Danny Dorling (All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster)

Almost everyone was against the criminalization of squatting. When the Ministry of Justice put out their consultation – Options for Dealing with Squatting – in July 2011, it's safe to assume they had not anticipated that 96 per cent of respondents would ask them not to change the law; they must have been surprised to discover that included people like the Metropolitan Police Force, the Law Society, their own Liberal Democrat partners in government, and various homeless charities, including Crisis and Shelter. Despite overwhelming opposition, the government ploughed ahead with their property protection plan; what was previously a private matter between property owners and occupiers is now a matter for the police – and can be punished by up to six months in prison or a $6,760.00 fine.

Take a closer look and it's not difficult to see why most were against criminalization. At the time squatting was criminalized in England and Wales, there were 1.2 million families on housing waiting-lists, while over 750,000 properties stood empty for six months or more. Despite Ministers and the media laying the groundwork for legislative change by carpet bombing public opinion with mistruths, the reality is that squatting is a relatively minor problem; however, one of the major causes of the UK housing crisis is property being kept deliberately unavailable and unused by wealthy speculators – often as a way of avoiding tax. It is speculation, not squatting, that causes most insecurity in the housing market.

And as the consultation responses revealed, not everyone sees squatting as a problem: most respondents to the consultation wrote in support of its many positives. One such response pointed out that squatting is only a problem for those who own multiple properties, and that it has traditionally been a solution for those who can’t call themselves owners:

The number of Interim Possession Orders indicates that this really is quite a small problem for society (although it can be a large problem for a small number of individuals). The “tradition” of squatting, traced back to the Diggers, has undoubtedly had benefits for society.’

All this begs the question: why would the government spend vast sums of public money to protect those who perpetuate the problems caused by empty properties? And why would it do so by criminalizing homeless people in the midst of a housing crisis? Many respondents to the consultation questioned the government's priorities: property protection for the rich and prison for the poor seemed an unfair proposition of almost Dickensian proportion. In their consultation response, Liberal Democrat think-tank Alter pointed out that those who benefit from criminalization – wealthy tax-avoiders – have the ear of government:

This change is contrary to the interests of UK taxpayers. It would provide a valuable state funded benefit to wealthy tax avoiders. This influential lobby has the ear of Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt. If he were concerned about ordinary property owners who actually pay tax in the UK, there are far cheaper ways of protecting them from squatters.

During what little debate there was on criminalization, John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor) reminded the House of Commons that it should ask of all legislation: ‘Will it cause more problems than it seeks to prevent?’ After six months, not a single person arrested under Section 144 was found to be displacing a home-owner. The first person to be jailed under the new law was Alex Haigh, a 21-year-old brick layer who, struggling to find work during a housing crisis, was living in a property in Pimlico, London that had been otherwise empty for over a year at the time of his arrest, and was owned by property developers.

There is some hope that this obviously unjust law could be binned. These days, there’s significantly shorter shrift for wealthy tax-avoiders ploughing their ill-gotten gains into London property and leaving it empty, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis. Nobody could have predicted that John McDonnell – who campaigned against the criminalization of squatting both before and after the introduction of Section 144 – would one day become Shadow Chancellor. If a new-look Labour gain power, a repeal could well be on the cards – because, as McDonnell said six months after criminalization:

People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse.

Options for dealing with squatting is a short collection of responses to the consultation, published by Dog Section Press. You can read it online or pick up a print copy.

Vyvian Raoul is an editor at Dog Section Press.

Dangerous weaponry used on refugees with no legal status in Calais

29.01.16-Banksy-590.jpg

Across from the French Embassy in London, a crying Cosette from Les Miserables, her tears the result of a cloud of CS gas that engulfs her. by Banksy / banksy.co.uk

Infamous street-artist Banksy made headlines again this week with his latest illicit artwork. The piece, which was painted opposite the French Embassy in London, features a crying Cosette from Les Miserables, her tears the result of a cloud of CS gas that engulfs her. Like his recent pieces on the edge of The Jungle camp and around Calais, it's another comment on the refugee crisis. This piece takes a pop at the French government's handling of the situation – and, in particular, their use of public order weaponry against the people that live in the makeshift encampment.

In a first for the elusive street artist, his piece featured a QR code. By scanning the code with a QR reader, viewers were linked to a Youtube video of CS, rubber bullets and concussion grenades being fired indiscriminately into the camp, which is situated on dunes on the outskirts of the Port au Calais. Despite video evidence, just last week police spokesman Steve Barbet issued a denial against such tactics: ‘It’s not in our interest to use teargas unless it’s absolutely necessary to restore public order, and it is never used in the camp itself,’ he told the Guardian.

RELATED: Humanity adrift: Why refugees deserve better, the Jan/Feb issue of New Internationalist magazine.

Banksy has another link to The Jungle: when his Dismaland exhibition was dismantled after its five week summer run, the artist sent leftover materials to the camp to be turned into shelters. The materials were accompanied by Dismaland crew members, who have so far constructed 12 dwellings, a community centre and a children’s play area, in a project that has become known as ‘Dismalaid’.

When the crew visited, they found evidence everywhere of weapons being used inside the camp. An anonymous member of the of the Dismalaid crew told us: ‘It's impossible to walk from one end of the camp to the other without stumbling upon various bits of depleted weaponry – from CS canisters to rubber bullet casings to spent cartridges, they're all over the place. And everyone you speak to has stories of the Gendarmes firing them indiscriminately into the camp – seemingly with little reason, very often.’

And when crew members used Riot ID, a civic forensics project designed to help civilians identify riot control weapons, they found out that the weapons being used were not designed for shooting at people at close range or in confined spaces likes tents, lorries, tunnels and fenced in border zones. Impact munitions like rubber bullets have strict guidelines on distance and angles for firing. Likewise, how ‘safe’ or harmful tear gas is depends on the amount of chemicals released, how close you are to where it is discharged, as well as on how much air is moving through the area. Because refugee camps like The Jungle are overcrowded and heavily secured with fencing, razor wire and guards, when tear gas is set off, no one can escape very far.

Being trapped by tear gas can lead to serious injuries and even to death, as the killing of a 20-year-old Eritrean woman in Calais last July made clear. The young woman was hit by a car while fleeing from tear gas fired at close range by the police into the back of a lorry.

Not only are the French security forces shooting people with riot control weapons at close range, almost all the tear gas casings the Dismalaid crew found were identified as out-of-date. Like other chemical products, tear gas expires, becoming dangerous for a number of reasons. For one, the mechanism that sets off the canister or grenade can become faulty. This can lead to injury for anyone handling them. It can also make the devices more likely to cause fires – especially when lodged into enclosed spaces like tents or lorries. This dangerous police behaviour can be deadly.

RELATED: Global refugee crisis: zoomable infographic

In addition, the chemical compound contained in expired weapons may no longer be approved according to the most recent safety tests and certificates. But perhaps most ominously, expired riot control casings are very difficult to trace back to the point of sale – allowing both weapons manufacturers and governments to evade blame.

One can imagine the thinking behind using out-of-date, potentially illegal weaponry on people with no legal status: has someone in a police station somewhere in Calais taken the decision to use up old stock on those with no right to complain? Perhaps they gambled no one will find out and, even if they did, that no-one will care anyway. But more and more people are becoming sympathetic to the plight of the refugees perched on that small patch of land in the Port au Calais. And by using Riot ID, the crew in Calais were able to identify tear gas casing as products of French manufacturers SAE Alsetex, Nobel Sport Securite and Verney-Carron, as well as US-based Combined Tactical Systems. These companies are industry leaders that export around the world – in the Port au Calais they're profiting from the repression of refugees.

Riot ID is a project from Omega Research Foundation, Bahrain Watch and Bournemouth University with Minute Works graphic design. The RiotID pocket guide is available to freely download in Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish and Turkish . Dismalaid is an impromptu anarcho-aid project run by recycled crew from Banksy's Dismaland.

Anna Feigenbaum is a Lecturer in Media and Politics at Bournemouth University

Vyvian Raoul is a co-founder of STRIKE! Magazine and founder of Dog Section Press.

Squatting law is cause of problems, not a cure

houses
SQUASH say the criminalization of squatting in residential buildings needs a rethink Elsie esq, under a CC License

‘People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse. This new evidence demonstrates so clearly the need to repeal this misguided law.’ John McDonnell MP.

In August 2011, the British Ministry of Justice launched a consultation, optimistically entitled Options for Dealing with Squatting. After ignoring the 96 per cent of respondents who were against criminalization – including the Law Society, homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter, and even the Metropolitan Police Service – the government pressed ahead. In September 2012, the act of seeking shelter in abandoned residential properties in England or Wales – squatting – was ‘dealt with’. Under Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), anyone found putting a roof over their head in this way would be punished by up to six months in prison or a £5,000 ($7,427) fine.

Six months later, Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) has released a report into the effects of that law. Our findings suggest that homeless and vulnerable people have been disproportionately affected. In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time when homelessness is rising, the law has further narrowed options for many, and is indeed sending otherwise innocent people to prison.

The right-wing press – papers made by property owners for property owners – laid the ground for this legislative attack by carpet-bombing public opinion with endless articles about unwashed Eastern Europeans displacing honourable Hampstead homeowners. Members of Parliament made proud speeches about protecting homeowners, deliberately conflating homes and empty houses (and never mentioning the donations they receive from property developers). ‘We want to send a clear message to would-be squatters that it is simply not acceptable to occupy someone else’s home’, proclaimed Justice Minister Crispin Blunt.

At the time, property lawyers and housing experts pointed out that ministers and the media alike were deliberately misleading the public to push through their property protection law. And now SQUASH’s research has further exposed that dishonesty: not a single, solitary squatter arrested under the new law was found to be displacing a homeowner.

During the rush to criminalization, John McDonnell MP asked a pertinent question in a parliamentary debate: ‘Will it cause more problems than it seeks to cure?’ Section 144 couldn’t help but cause more harm than it prevented because, in reality, squatting caused almost no harm in the first place. Within weeks, the first ‘scumbag squatter’ was banged up: 21-year-old brick-layer Alex Haigh, who had no prior criminal convictions, was struggling to find work in the capital and had sought shelter in an empty Pimlico property. It had been abandoned for more than a year by its owners.

Ironically those, like Haigh, who are now behind bars, may have escaped an even worse fate: in February 2013, Daniel Gauntlett, who was homeless, died outside an empty bungalow in Kent, which media reports suggest he had previously been prevented from entering by the police. Section 144 was pushed through as farce: it is being manifested as tragedy.

But rather than rolling back the legislation, recently promoted Conservative MP Mike Weatherley has proposed an early day motion that calls for the law to be extended to commercial properties. Ominously, it already has 24 signatories.

At the very least, SQUASH calls on the government to carry out a full, independent impact assessment before further criminalization is considered. If parliament wants to protect all of the people it represents – not just those that own empty property – it should repeal this law; it has already caused too much harm.

Find out more and take action at the SQUASH campaign website.

Look out for the April 2013 issue of New Internationalist on the housing crisis around the world.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop