Damned Lies and No Useful Statistics – The Criminalisation of Squatting in England and Wales
In 2012, as we all know, new offence of squatting in a residential building was created by the Government, following a moral panic in the media whipped up by a few right-wing politicians. After a rushed consultation, a last-minute clause was added to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) which meant that it was never properly discussed in the House of Commons. The bill was then pushed through the House of Lords at midnight. Section144 criminalises trespass in a residential building with up to 6 months in prison and/or £5000 fine. Previous campaigns to criminalise squatting in the late 1970s and mid 1990s had failed, unfortunately this time it partially succeeded.
This new law is ridiculous and has already had fatal implications, following the devastating news that Daniel Gaunlett froze to death outside a derelict house having been threatened with arrest if he were to enter.
Eight months after the introduction of this ridiculous new law, it seems worth assessing the impact of it so far, especially when three people in Brighton are about to go on trial for squatting. No-one has yet pled not guilty, a far as we know, so precedents have not yet been set.
The extremely dubious retrospective nature of the law has also not been tested yet, again as far as we know. A woman in Wales took on a test case under human rights legislation regarding the squat where she has lived for 11 years with her four children, but unfortunately that case has been discontinued (paid off by the Ministry of Justice perhaps?)
Before September 1
When the law change was under discussion, Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis, said: “A year’s imprisonment for some of society’s most vulnerable and desperate people is draconian and utterly counterproductive. Independent research is clear that 40% of single homeless people have resorted to squatting.” She proceeded to say “they squat out of necessity, not choice, in atrocious conditions where they are least likely to be disturbed. These are people that need help, not a year behind bars and a £5,000 fine” (the maximum penalty later became six months in jail).
Of course it is true that material need is the main driver for squatting. As the Simon Community (“living and working with homeless people in London since 1963”) comment in their response to the consultation: “The vast majority of homeless people who squat empty buildings – that is buildings which are not being used, are responsible people keen to bring housing stock back into use. Squatters are more aware than most people of the importance of housing and have no reason to make others homeless; in fact squatting for many is a moral and political choice.”
Kesia Reeve and different colleagues have written several papers for Crisis, which identify a link between homelessness and squatting. In The Hidden Truth about Homelessness: Experiences of single homelessness in England, 437 single homeless people were surveyed in 11 towns and cities across the UK; 142 claimed to have previously squatted (39%). In an earlier report, Life in the Margins, 165 homeless people from three locations were surveyed (London, Craven and Sheffield). Of these, 68 people had previously squatted (55 men and 13 women).
However, it must be clearly stated that Reeve is demonstrating that some people who are homeless squat as a means of taking shelter, not that all squatters are homeless people in the sense of squatting through deprivation (although it is also true that all squatters are technically of no fixed abode and therefore legally defined as homeless).
It must be remembered that there are no viable statistics generally. Indeed, there are no statistics about homeless people who squat. As Reeve comments:
Very little is known about squatting as a homeless situation: Despite the relatively high incidence of squatting amongst the homeless population, there is virtually no evidence, awareness, or understanding about the nature and extent of squatting, nor about the situations, profile or experiences of homeless people who squat (Margins)
Despite this clear statement, a callout for an academic conference at the University in Durham happening in March 2013 began by stating: “Squatters, as a population, are disproportionately vulnerable: research has shown that they are often homeless, former prison populations, alcohol dependent and with mental health problems.” Reeve’s statistics had been drastically misunderstood. Fortunately, the academics have now changed their statement to the following:
Squatters, as a population, can be viewed as disproportionately vulnerable relative to the general population. While comprehensive data about the nature, extent, or motivations of the squatting community is elusive, research suggests that a significant proportion are homeless, and of these, a substantial proportion can be viewed as vulnerable (former prison populations, alcohol dependent and with mental health problems).
Still, it is a bit worrying even academics fall for these stereotypes. And it also a bit worrying that this discourse came to predominate. The issue at root isn’t about making squatters victims (although the devastating example of Daniel Gauntlett shows that this was not idle concern), but rather that tens of thousands of buildings are standing empty even though we are in a housing crisis. More on that below.
Even though the Association of Chief Police Officers told the Ministry of Justice that the existing law was “broadly in the right place” AND the Metropolitan Police said that “despite some of the claims in sections of the press, the reality is that there are already more than adequate means for removing squatters.” The law was brought in on the back of a moral panic that squatters (sometimes foreign!) were stealing homes…
However, despite the claims in the mainstream media, even Weatherley (MP for Hove and cheerleader for criminalisation) has stated “Such stories are rare and are not illustrative of the wider problem.” He made this climbdown in the speech he gave to Tory wanker students at the second attempt, having been chased off campus by University of Sussex students first time round.
A Freedom of Information request of January 2013 reported 102 arrests across the UK with 13 convictions. Three of these have resulted in custodial sentences. A SQUASH report analyses these figures in greater detail.
Through an unfortunate set of circumstances, a 21 year old man called Alex Haigh was first to be arrested in Pimlico, London, on September 2 and was later sentenced to three months after pleading guilty. To our knowledge, twelve other people have so far been convicted, with the only other prison sentence being for a homeless Polish man, Michael Minorczyk. In that case, police forced their way into a derelict house and woke up to warn him that he would face arrest if he was there 20 minutes later. They came back, he was and he ended up being sentenced prison for 15 weeks.
A Freedom of Information request of January 2013 reported a total 102 arrests across the UK. A SQUASH report analyses these figures in greater detail and also notes the difficulty in tracking figures.
Three squatters were arrested in a building in Brighton on September 3 last year after a a seven hour stand-off and they intend to fight the charges (abstraction, obstruction and squatting), with their case to be heard in April 2013. This website is set up to support them.
Since then many squatters have been evicted under threat of arrest and in Ilford two men have been convicted of squatting a pub, despite the consultation paper stating that “the Government will not seek to criminalise squatting in non-residential buildings, such as disused factories, warehouses or pubs.” In the main, it seems that a standoff has developed where the police are fairly reluctant to charge people, but will use it to evict under threat of arrest, especially when the squatters are seen as easy targets.
This might then explain why 41 out of the 95 people arrested for squatting by the Metropolitan police were Romanian (who perhaps but not necessarily were inexperienced squatters and/or could not speak English very well to assert their rights). The Evening Standard panted excitedly that “some will see the squatting statistics as justification for ending the migration rules — which only allow Romanians and Bulgarians to work here in agricultural jobs or as self-employed.” Not us.
According to Detective Chief Superintendent Sue Williams, over in Ilford, “squatting is linked to Anti-Social Behaviour and can cause a great deal of nuisance and distress to local residents.” But of course she doesn’t give any figures.
But how many people are actually squatting? It is clear that there are no exact figures available. Squatters themselves are not interested in the question, for example the opinion of SNOB(AHA) was that knowing a precise number of squatters, even simply within the Brighton area had no particular use for it as a group.
In its paper ‘Options for dealing with squatting’, the Ministry of Justice stated that “there is no data held by central Government about the number of people who squat or their reasons for doing so” and then proceeded to estimate the number of squatters nationally at 20,000. The reasoning for this figure was difficult to follow – a Freedom of Information request revealed that the estimate had been reached after considering that there had been 216 granted interim possession orders and 531 granted ordinary possession orders were granted against trespassers of all descriptions (not just squatters) in UK courts in 2010. Was the Ministry of Justice’s estimate reached by adding up the total number of granted possession orders, knocking off 247 cases as unrelated to squatting and then multiplying by 4 to get 20,000? Would that really make sense? A further freedom of information request requesting clarification does not appear to have been answered yet.
It is interesting to read the briefings produced by Wendy Wilson for the House of Commons library regarding squatting in 1994, 2009 and 2011. The latest version begins with a quote from Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in 2010, which declares “Information on the number of properties occupied by squatters is not held centrally.”
However, there seems at least to be general agreement that in the mid1970s, there were around 30,000 squatters in London and 50,000 total in England (Franklin, Platt in Wates and Wolmar, Ward, Voice)
So how many people are actually squatting? This seemingly arbitrary figure of 20,000 has been bandied about a lot, but I suspect it could be a lot higher in reality. The managing director of a “vacant property specialist” firm stated in the Evening Standard in 2012 that “There are about 100,000 cases a year in the UK, and there is significant risk that comes with that,” although of course the more squatters the merrier in terms of his business.
There is really no way to tell, however we do have firm statistics on the number of empty buildings. According to the group Empty Homes as of November 2012 there were 710,140 empty homes, just over 3% of the total stock.
So what is actually going on? Well, in December 2012, Shelter released a report which claimed that one in every 115 households across England is at risk of homelessness. It stated that “in the 12 months to September 2012, 198,470 households were threatened with losing their home – equal to cities the size of Liverpool or Bristol being evicted or repossessed”.
How could this be happening? Well, the writing has been on the wall for a long time. To turn again to the experts, Shelter produced a report in 1991 which argued that unlike most other European countries, where housing policy is based on “reduction of inequalities between different forms of housing, or responding to changing housing needs,” in England housing policy “has been driven primarily by the wish to increase owner occupation and reduce the role of local authorities in providing homes for rent.” (Foster with Burrows).
A group of 40 lawyers recently wrote to the Guardian, saying that “none of the 33 known arrests so far (leading to 10 convictions and three prison sentences) involve the squatters having displaced people from their homes. The properties concerned were all empty.”
On of the signatories was Andrew Arden QC, a leading expert on housing law, who said “The only difference from the old law is that it wasn’t criminal before, until you were asked to leave. It is a superfluous law that criminalises action taken by the most needy whose housing needs are certainly going to worsen.” This at a time when, as the Independent reports, the latest Government figures show 34,080 families were homeless in 2012, up 12 per cent on the previous year.
As Polly Toynbee warned last year, “The epic scale of the crisis now unfolding is only just dawning on some: most of the public may not see it until late next year” but she argues more recently that “Labour’s answer must be build, build, build.” I don’t agree. Surely the first act should be to use the empties, exactly what the squatters have been shouting from the rooftops since the 1970s as in Ron Bailey’s book The Homeless and the Empty Houses. For all its dumbing down of the issues, the Great British Property Scandal did a good job of arguing precisely that.
Yet the winds of change do seem to be slowly picking up. The Government is considering a plan to make it easier to convert offices into residential. But remember that this is also the Government which criminalised squatting, probably because it saw better than anyone else that we are heading into a housing crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1970s (when a strong politically active squatters movement arose).
Can we mobilise and take action again? Well it’s not going to be easy, but it doesn’t seem impossible. Putting people in prison for occupying empty property won’t help solve the housing crisis. We’ll have to solve it ourselves.
Bentham, M. ‘Romanians make up 45 per cent of squatters breaking new law’ in Evening Standard.
Crisis Press Release ‘Year’s imprisonment for vulnerable squatters to be forced through next week.’
Dillon, J. ‘Immigrant first man jailed for squatting’ in Lancashire Telegraph.
Foster, S. with Burrows, L. Shelter (1991) Urgent Need for Homes Shelter: London.
Franklin, A. Squatting in England.
Hunter, C. ‘Homeless man Daniel Gauntlett dies frozen on doorstep of empty bungalow in Aylesford’ in Kent Online.
Ministry of Justice ‘Options for Dealing with Squatters.’
Parsons, R. ‘Squatting victim begs ministers to speed up change in law’ in Evening Standard.
Reeve, K. ‘The UK Squatters Movement 1968-1980’ in Hoogenhuijze, L. (ed.) Kritiek 2009 : Jaarboek voor Socialistische Discussie en Analyse Aksant pp.137-159.
— with Batty, E. The Hidden Truth about Homelessness: Experiences of single homelessness in England London: Crisis.
— with Coward, S. (2004) Life on the Margins: The Experiences of Homeless People Living in Squats London: Crisis/Countryside Agency.
Shelter ‘Eviction risk hotspots revealed.’
Simon Community ‘Response to Consultation.’
SolFed ‘”Squatters 1: Tory party nil” – anti-squatting MP chased from university campus.’
SQUASH The Case Against Section 144.
Toynbee, P. ‘How to turn a housing crisis into a homeless catastrophe’ in Guardian.
— ‘Why 2013 will be a boom year for bailiffs and slum landlords’ in Guardian.
Ward, C. Anarchy in Action Freedom: London.
Wates, N. & Wolmars, C. (1980) Squatting: The Real Story Bay Leaf: London.
Weatherley, M.’Despite recent attack by violent squatters Mike delivers speech to Sussex students.’
Williams, S. ‘Police statement on squatting January 20 2012.’
Wilson, W. (2011) ‘Squatting’ House of Commons Library.
— (2009) ‘Squatting’ House of Commons Library.
— (1994) ‘Policy on Squatting in the Criminal
Justice and Public Order Bill’ House of Commons Library.
Yapp, C. ‘Squatting law challenged by Powys woman’ on BBC News.