By Tim Hardy
Having already cut support to those in social housing and refused to regulate private landlords, only a sick individual could look at a country in which millions are priced out of home ownership and unregulated private rents are soaring and decide that the next step is to criminalize squatting.
As with each piece of regressive legislation pushed through by the coalition, the ground for this move to entrench the power and wealth of those who already own most of the country was prepared by a campaign of ignorance and lies perpetuated by the usual suspects in the press.
The Harley Street neurologist Dr Oliver Cockerell and his pregnant wife became the media “poster victims” in the run up to the legislation. He told the Evening Standard that criminalising squatting would not victimise homeless people:
It is not really the homeless to blame – they do not squat, they sleep rough or in hostels. It is professional squatters who don’t want to pay council tax or any other bills. We all hate paying bills, but they think they are above it.
He is perfectly entitled to his mean-spirited and unpleasant views but the editors and journalists must have known that their stories were based on a lie. Homeowners are already protected from adverse possession under section 7 of Criminal Law Act. If the police are too incompetent to enforce the existing laws then extending the law will not magically make them any less useless at doing their jobs. But the truth never matters to the gutter press who continued to create a climate of fear with evidence-free stories about gangs of organised squatters – gypsies no less – who were waiting to break in the moment home owners popped out for a pint of milk.
The coalition held a consultation on the proposal – then when 90% of respondents said it was a bad idea, tore up the results and pushed the changes through immediately by tacking them onto the Legal-Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) bill as Clause 136.
Labour lost any right to be called a progressive party when they joined forces with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to vote this through with an overwhelming majority.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary Crispin Blunt made his feeling clear to Channel 4 News last week when he told them he had “no sympathy” with squatters who said they would be homeless if they were evicted.
Squatting is not an answer to homelessness. A proper homelessness strategy, which is what the government has got, spending a very substantial amount of money to address to them homeless, is the answer to homelessness.
But squatting is simply going to be a criminal offence for taking over a property – stealing a property – which does not belong to you.
But of course the government does not have a proper homelessness strategy. Criminalising homelessness is their idea of a solution. As with so much of the Conservative party rhetoric, all the talk of making people self-sufficient turns out to be hot air. The moment anyone tries to help themselves at no cost to the state by taking advantage of one of the 700,000 empty homes in the country, the nanny Britons of the propertied classes insists that only big government has the answer.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have any idea what to do with the economy beyond keeping a hyperinflated property bubble inflated. If this means punishing those who had the misfortune to be born too late or to parents too poor to give them the help they need to put together a deposit for a mortgage then so be it – the alternative is unimaginable.
When the bubble bursts, millions who have fooled themselves that decades of wage stagnation and empty pension pots don’t matter because their homes have increased in value will finally wake up to the hard economic reality that they have been sold a lie.
To this end the government is happy to waste billions of tax payers money through QE and underwriting mortgages in a desperate attempt to stave off the coming electoral disaster.
Those excluded are a growing embarrassment to be swept out of sight as far as possible.
Baroness Sue Miller, a former Lib Dem home affairs and environment spokeswoman for the party, tabled an amendment on Thursday that attempted to strike the squatting clause from the bill stating:
This pernicious bit of legislation is all about saying something is being done to protect homeowners – when in fact they are already fully protected against squatters by both criminal and civil law. Of course I believe a person’s home should be sacrosanct, and my amendments certainly do not undermine the protection people rightly expect against having their homes squatted.
This draconian measure will not even save money, with campaigners warning squatting law reforms could cost taxpayers £790m over five years. (Full report here.)
Next Tuesday 20 March, Clause 136 of the Legal-Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill will be debated and voted on in the House of Lords. If it’s passed, it would sanction a £5000 fine or up to a year in prison for those squatting in residential buildings.
It’s not too late to join the final push and get involved in the campaign to