The Tories like to keep their traditional supporters content. So when they are doing things that cause upset (eg no referendum on Europe) they find it necessary to have a countervailing policy that will please the Mail and the Telegraph. Unfortunately Eric Pickles and Iain Duncan Smith seem to be particularly adept at coming up with policies that fit the bill. To get a few cheap tabloid headlines people deemed to be dependent on benefits are often the target, and so are social tenants.
I think this is where the policy to criminalise squatting comes in. Squatting is not a huge issue in this country – in fact the Government cannot even estimate the size of the problem – and existing laws seem perfectly adequate to deal with abuse. It’s the failure to
implement them that seems to be the problem.
But the Government sees a chance to stimulate the juices of Tory supporters by tackling the supposedly ‘soft-touch’ laws that allow decent people’s homes to be taken over by people who have no respect for property rights. And they’re probably foreigners to boot – like in the Mail splash story of the Latvian who travelled 1,500 miles to squat a £6m mansion.
Enter Ken Clarke, pushing through an amendment to his Legal Aid etc Bill which will
criminalise all residential squatting with punishments of up to a year in jail or a £5,000 fine. The homelessness charities have expressed alarm and see squatting largely as a symptom of the worsening housing crisis, mostly done by people who have no alternative other than to sleep rough with all its attendant problems.
Virtually all the respondents to the Government’s consultation on squatting were against the change, arguing that existing powers were adequate. The Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association and the Met all supported the position that the Government should focus on enforcing the current laws rather than creating a new offence.
In its briefing, Crisis said: ‘Whilst we of course have every sympathy with someone whose home is squatted, under the current law it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave someone’s home or a home that they are about to move in to. The new amendment will therefore largely affect empty homes, of which there are over 700,000 in England alone, including many that are dilapidated and abandoned.’
After the Government rushed its new squatting clause into the Legal Aid etc Bill, ameliorating amendments were put down to the effect that the new offence would not be committed if the property has been empty for six months or the squatter is a previously homeless person. On November 1 the key amendment, tabled by John McDonnell MP, attracted only 23 votes, mainly Labour and a few LibDems. The Labour front bench supported criminalisation but wanted better consideration of the Government’s clause, therefore abstained, and the 300 votes against were all Coalition members.
During his speech, John McDonnell said: ‘Everyone in the House has to support evidence-based policy making. From all the evidence and information to hand, including from the Government’s own consultation and impact assessment, we must conclude that there is no evidence of a problem on any significant scale, that there is conjecture that it exists and that in the judgment of practitioners—not just the advocates, but the law enforcers—the existing law is sufficient.’
‘I have looked at the statistics cycle over the past five years and found that, on average, between 650,000 and 700,000 residential properties stood empty during that time. Most are private properties, and 300,000 have been empty for more than six months. When there are 40,000 homeless families, 4,000 people sleeping rough in the capital, and 1.7 million households on waiting lists, desperate for decent accommodation, it is immoral that private owners should be allowed to let their properties stand empty for so long. My amendment could force those irresponsible owners to bring their properties back into use. More importantly, it would mean that desperate people who need a roof over their heads would not be criminalised for resorting to occupying a property that was being wasted by its owner.’
In an interesting contribution, Jeremy Corbyn MP offered some historical context: ‘This country has a long and chequered history when it comes to squatting. It goes back to the Forcible Entry Act 1381, which became law during the Black Death. The issue has arisen time and again during periods of great stress: it arose at the end of the Napoleonic wars, at the end of the first world war and at the end of the second world war, when there was widespread squatting because of a terrible shortage of housing….. The Criminal Law Act 1977… was introduced after a great deal of consultation by the then Labour Government. There was a fair amount of opposition to the legislation, which distinguished specifically between the act of taking someone’s house when that person was occupying it and the act of occupying a property that was being kept empty.’
As a recent post by our guest blogger Monimbo argued, media influence means that politicians bend towards what they think are popular sentiments, which are often simply the views promulgated by the tabloids. I suspect if it wasn’t for the tabloids nobody would be much bothered about squatting, nobody would confuse it with the St Paul’s anti-capitalist encampment or with Dale Farm, and the public would think the current law is balanced and sensible, but that it should be properly enforced. Instead, we are fleeing in
front of an opportunistic display of prejudice and media misinformation yet again.
A better target for media outrage would be Westminster City Council, exposed last week as having kept four properties empty for years at a cost of over £100,000 in lost rent.
Where are Messrs Pickles, Duncan Smith, Shapps and Clarke on that one then?