Monday, October 31, 2011

Act now - imminent parliamentary debate on squatting

According to Empty Homes, this country has an abundance of empty properties, most of them privately owned, like these trophy homes. In Redbridge this amounts to 2.18% of residences. And of the publicly owned properties, according to SQUASH (Squatters' Action for Secure Homes),

“In 2010, there were still 79,739 empty properties belonging to local authorities (39 per cent), housing associations (54 per cent) and other public bodies (7 per cent). The value of the local authorities’ portion of empty properties comes to around £7 billion in 2011, with London making up £3 billion. This is a waste of public assets.”

We know from Shelter that the homelessness statistics in June 2011 - a staggering 44,160 households - were up 10% on last year, and that every two minutes somebody faces the prospect of losing their home. Crisis tells us that the average life-expectancy of a rough sleeper is a mere 42 years and that 39% of homeless people squat or have squatted, and that hidden homelessness is likely to be a huge iceberg of which we only see the tip.

It seems a very odd tack, then, in these straitened times for a government to have it in for squatters. And through the back door - despite a consultation and report which raised many problems with criminalisation, Kenneth Clarke has proposed an amendment (Clause 26) to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which would create a new blanket criminal offence of squatting in a residential building.

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There will be a key debate this afternoon and a possible vote tomorrow Tuesday 1st November so if you want to contact your MP you will need to act now to ask them to vote against Clause 26 or at least in favour of an amendment which introduces exemptions. SQUASH have produced an MP's briefing and an example letter.

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A couple more things.

Are home owners or rightful occupiers already protected by law? Yes - page 8 of the above report acknowledges that occupants are protected by law and the Met affirms this on page 10, where it expresses reservations about blanket criminalisation. 158 legal practitioners and scholars wrote an open letter confirming that home owners are indeed protected by existing law, and it was misleading of Housing Minister Grant Schapps to say that "the police don't act because the law does not support the police acting" . The problem is not existing law, but police misunderstanding existing law, or lack of enthusiasm for enacting existing law.

And a final word on freeloaders. Yes, some squatters are freeloaders, including the spoilt brat trustafarians famous to Daily Mail readers, who have plenty of choices in life but only want to stick it to the man and in doing so tarnish the reputations of all squatters. But far from all squatters are like that. Many are in genuine need and would be relieved not to have to squat. And anyway, there's something wrong with piling so much opprobrium on society's most visible freeloaders while ignoring the more sophisticated ones. After all, isn't it widely agreed that this financial crisis was triggered by people whose job it was to gamble with other people's money without incurring any risk themselves? They may have nice clothes and mortgages, and we may feel hesitant about pulling the rug from under them because we don't understand what they do. They may excite less of the kind of "public concern" the government is wringing its hands about when it comes to squatting - but that kind of freeloadery does a lot more damage to you and me than any squatter could do. So when this government comes for squatters while giving other freeloaders a more or less free rein, you know it's not putting people first.

Previously: this B21 post outlining the Conservative-led coalition government's plans to criminalise squatting.

23 comments:

  1. Just read the story in the Ilford Recorder last week, about the local chap whose home was trashed by squatters. He is hardly a Trustafarian.

    And isn't theft theft, whoever's doing it, banker or squatter? Two wrongs don't make a right etc.

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  2. As I understand the Law at present, the difficulty with "Squatters" is that the burden of proof as to whether or not the "trespass" is civil or criminal rests with the property owner - having to prove that the house is a "home". What I believe the proposed new legislation is aimed at is that it should be a criminal offence if any person(s) are occupying a property without the permission of the legal owner.

    Imagine a "Grand Designs" type of situation or a fire or flood where extensive refurbishment of a property is required to the extent that the occupants vacate the property while the rebuilding work is taking place. The day before the legal occupants are due to move in, squatters break in to the property and claim that it is not a "home" as the previous occupants have been living somewhere else.

    The first question the Police will ask (according to ITV 2) of the legal owner is "are you currently living in the property" to which the answer will, of course, be "No" as they were about to move back in!

    See this week's "Recorder"

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  3. Well, only this Sunday, I was described by one of this blog's readers (not a contributor!) as somebody who tends to contribute the 'obvious', which is his valued opinion (no, not the other half!).
    However, I still feel motivated enough to say thank you to jawal1. I was wondering if going shopping was going to create an opportunity to squatters, and, of course no!
    Surely if one pays the council tax on a house and also pays the utility bills, that should go some way to proving that the house is your home.

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  4. Old but true saying, jawal1: the law is an ass. But don't forget that much of it is drafted by lawyers who seem very adroit at leaving gaps and ambiguities that become "nice little earners" for their fellow lawyers.

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  5. Anne, the obvious is not in great supply in certain quarters ...

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  6. J, the trustafarians I was referring to were some squatters - the kind the Mail likes to present as characteristic of all squatters. I wasn't referring to home owners (though of course some acquired their homes through their parents).

    Jawal, Anne - yes - the 'grand designs' scenario has happened, and indeed without going to extreme lengths it's difficult to make a house secure if it's being renovated. However, if you read the open letter from 158 legal types - linked above - it's pretty clear that if you are the rightful residential occupier, even if you only intend to move in, reasonable force can be used to evict the wrongful occupier. So in the case of Mr Channa you refer to, there has been a misunderstanding of the law leading to an impression that it was unlawful to evict these squatters, when in fact according to existing law it wouldn't have been. That's why the Met says in the report linked above that the existing law is sufficient.

    (I note the gratuitous reference in the Recorder piece to the squatters' ethnicity, as if that had any bearing on the story...)

    Anne, I hope you mustered the courage to leave your house today ;-)

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  7. Well. Clause 26 passed, without amendments. So squatting in wasted space when there's no place for you to call home is now illegal. Nice one.

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  8. Yes, and now it's a criminal offence squatters will be rehoused at Her Majesties (Taxpayers)Pleasure!

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  9. It is a dumb, dog-in-the-manger waste engineered by a bunch of politicians who possess enough to be petrified of the increasing hoards of dispossessed. Sickening.

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  10. 691 trolleybus fan12:52 am, November 02, 2011

    Given your attitudes, Mira Vogel, I just hope that one day you experience the shock of coming home to find your house filled by about a dozen scruffs who won't let you in.

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  11. Mira: Are you also addressing the dog-in-the-manger attitude of those who remain in council or housing association homes despite earning well-above average salaries, thus depriving those in genuine need of a roof over their heads?

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  12. 691, That doesn't solve the problem.

    Judith, that couldn't happen round here, could it?

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  13. Anne, I hope you mustered the courage to leave your house today ;-)

    01 November, 2011 19:38
    Mira, I am not the sole occupier! (We do have house rats too to keep anybody at bay!)
    Most days, sun or rain or snow, you can see me on the allotment dealing with the weeds, the clay, the rubbish donated by the passing public and making sure no trespasser is on site.
    Not a nice person,... I know!
    annesevant

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  14. I don't wish to Crow, but the problems involved when council tennants want to downsize defies logic and belief.

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  15. Weggis, get out of the Fairlop Oak now! I wasn't referring to downsizing within the system, but to those taking greedy advantage of a system that can't eject affluent tenants.

    In the case of Crows, that could perhaps read 'effluent'.

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  16. Or perhaps time for the Crows to nest elsewhere?

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  17. 691 trolleybus fan @ 02 November, 2011 00:52

    "In reality, if you do find someone in your house, you call the police, who come and get rid of them. Squatting in someone's home, like burglary, or vandalism, is a criminal offence. That's why the Association of Chief Police Officers recently advised the Ministry of Justice that the law is already "broadly in the right place".
    The change to the law concerns unoccupied residences, which means houses that no one lives in or intends to live in (there are 700,000 such properties in Britain)."


    FACTS as opposed to Daily Mail Myths

    "There is a housing crisis in this country. The Government seems to think it concerns people with many homes, as opposed to people with no home at all. They've got it upside down."

    Evening Standard

    I just hope that one day YOU find yourself homeless.

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  18. 691 trolleybus fan11:15 am, November 03, 2011

    Sam

    Having been through the process of providing for myself rather than remaining ensnared in a council house that is unlikely. In order to fund that I decided to forego racy cars, expensive foreign holidays, designer clothes, Italian shoes, expensive restaurants, DRUGS and all the other status symbols to pay for the most essential possession.

    And I read neither the Daily Mail nor the Evening Standard.

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  19. 691 trolleybus fan,

    So, just because you choose to look like a stereotype squatter, as portrayed by the Daily Mail, doesn't mean you are actually squatting?

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  20. "Social housing fraud is the largest category of fraud loss in local government" - Audit Commission report Nov 2011.

    Perhaps if that were addressed properly, those genuinely in need of a home would be better helped?

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  21. Having read the Summary and Recommendations in this report, a thought occurred to me that if the Home Office National Fraud Authority (NFA) apparently knows enough about fraud in order to "estimate" the scale of it then why is that knowledge not self-evidently being used to reduce it? Discuss.

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