Government criminalises residential squatting
The House of Lords, on 28th March, during their debates on clause 136 to criminalise squatting, agreed with the Government to make it a criminal offence to squat in residential buildings. However, the definition of residential buildings is vague, so it could possibly come to include non-residential buildings once enforced. This will be clarified by legal challenges that groups such as the Advisory Service for Squatters and Squash will pursue in the coming months. This is currently what they defined as residential building:
(a) “building” includes any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure), and
(b) a building is “residential” if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.
This Clause is a part of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and is yet to receive Royal Assent, this is likely to happen on the 9th May. Royal Assent means the Monarch formally approves and promulgates an act of her nation's parliament, making it a law. After Royal Assent the Secretary of State must commence the law, but prior to commencement the Government must consult and prepare a number of organisations whom will be affected by the change in law, these include: National Homeless Advice Service, Citizens Advice, Crisis, ACPO, Local Authorities.
The consultation prior to commencement could take an unknown quantity of time, and the law will stay the same until it is completed then commenced.
It is important that this information is understood and that the current law is the only law enforced by Police.
If you are organising and preparing for the coming criminalisation of squatting get in touch with local anti eviction networks and squatter networks, here are but a few: Bristol Housing Action Movement ( http://www.public-interest.co.uk/bham/), Squatters Network of Brighton (and Hove actually) , Squattastic ( http://squattastic.blogspot.co.uk/), North East London Squatters Network, Okasional Café, Autonomous London ( https://londonscn.wordpress.com/), Kebele ( http://www.kebelecoop.org/)
If you need legal advice contact the Advisory Service for Squatters ( http://www.squatter.org.uk/) - 020 3216 0099
The Squash Campaign provides resources on these impacts to raise awareness on the matter.
Meanwhile, separate to this but worth mentioning in this context, proposed changes to remove legal aid to people trespassing on land, which have now been dropped thanks to 2 amendments in the House of Lords, were according to the Community Law Partnership set to negatively affect the Gypsy & Traveller community in large numbers. Read here.
Anti-Squatting legislation: We are here because on Tuesday 1st November, the government passed a bill in the House of Commons (the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill) which includes a new law which will make squatting of residential property a “criminal offence” with up to 51 weeks imprisonment, as opposed to a ‘civil matter’ as it is now. This is despite the fact that legislation already exists to protect residents from having their home squatted, namely Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 in which it is already a criminal offence to squat someone’s home. Last September, 158 leading legal figures wrote an open letter which was published in The Guardian highlighting this fact.
Critics point out that this new law will criminalise homelessness and the vulnerably housed. A recent study by Sheffield Hallam University said ending so-called squatter's rights would criminalise homeless people who usually occupied disused or abandoned properties as a last resort after being turned away from hostels and shelters.
Homeless charity Crisis, trade unionists and student leaders have warned that the new powers making trespass a criminal rather than a civil offence could also outlaw occupation-style protests and sit-ins and lead to some of the most vulnerable homeless people sleeping rough.
The government attached this amendment onto the bill at the last minute, seeming to have in effect bypassed the democratic process in not allowing any meaningful opportunity for public debate on the specific proposal. It seems clear that the government have ignored the results of their own consultation (Ministry of Justice) ‘Options for Dealing with Squatters’ which came to an end on October 5th. Of 2,217 responses, over 90% of responses argued against taking any action on squatting (results table published on Squash’s website).
On the evening of Wednesday 14th March, the proposed new law to criminalise squatting in residential properties (clause 130 of the LASPO Bill) was debated in the House of Lords. This was, in fact, the first time the clause has been properly debated since it was proposed.
Nevertheless, in the House of Lords debate Baroness Sue Miller, Baroness Stern, Lord Judd and Lord Bach all spoke in opposition to the clause. Some key points were convincingly made by all of them.
Firstly, all the peers that spoke against the clause agreed that the existing law adequately protects property owners and that a new criminal offence would be nothing but a form of propaganda. People displaced from their homes by squatters are already fully protected by the 1977 Criminal Law Act that protects displaced residential occupiers (DROs) and protected intending occupiers (PIOs) by making it a criminal offence to squat someone else’s home.
Lord Bach (Labour’s Justice spokesman) said “It is very telling that the Metropolitan Police, the Bar Council and the Law Society, none of which are natural friends of the squatting community, all think that bringing this particular legislation is completely unnecessary.”
Baroness Stern, a cross-bencher, clearly stated that the creation of a new criminal offence, far from being a solution to an unclear issue, also contradicts the Government’s promise not to create new unnecessary offences.
Secondly, both Baroness Miller (Lib-Dem) and Lord Bach (Labour’s Justice Spokesman) argued that, given the existence of a clear law on squatting related issues, the new offence appears to be motivated by the negative and manipulative press campaign that some newspapers have been waging over the past year.
Peers from across the spectrum seem keen to oppose the clause by endorsing the spirit of Baroness Miller’s amendment to exclude long-term empty property from the proposals. So far two amendments we support have been proposed by some Lords. The first, would strike the clause entirely and the second, tabled by John McDonnell MP and Homeless Charity Crisis previously in the Commons, states that any new law only covers residential property left empty for less than 6 months.
Proposed Change in the law to Criminalise Squatting - why this is bad:
The proposed legislation will have impacts on the most vulnerable people in society, will empower unscrupulous landlords and will burden the justice system, police and charities. This is about more than just squatting: this will exacerbate the current housing crisis, erode tenants rights, and remove a fundamental right to protest.
The proposed laws could affect:
- Tenants accused by landlords of being squatters for being behind with rent
- Students and workers' occupations of workplaces
- Rights to protest and peacecamps, vigils ..etc
- Squatters, Gypsies, Travellers, the homeless, poor and vulnerable
Let us not forget the UK's own rich history of squatting particularly straight after World War II. In response to the dire need for homes after the war including returned servicemen who found their families were homeless, mass squatting took place in former military accommodation as well as empty civilian buildings across the country.
A person or business in ownership of a property which is occupied currently have to make a civil claim for repossession. Currently, the quickest way for property owners to re-establish possession is to obtain an Interim Possession Order (IPO). This order is pending a judge’s decision to grant a full possession order and if granted requires squatters to leave within 24 hours and then not return within 12 months. In order to get one of these orders a landlord needs to make a claim within 28 days of finding out that they have squatters. An IPO can cost around £3,000, and so, in terms of cost, an IPO will more likely not be used, and a court order requires 28 days notice of eviction to be served.
However, IPOs do not apply where a residential occupier as been displaced by people who are thereby trespassing (where someone’s home where they are currently residing is occupied or where someone is about to move in to live there). Anti-squatting propaganda has robustly reported on numerous incidences where squatters have been claiming squatters rights in homes temporarily vacated by persons on holiday, which is trespass pure and simple. The law states it is a criminal offence under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 to occupy a property where there is a ‘displaced residential occupier’ or a ‘Protected Intended Occupier’ (someone about to move in to live there). In neither case is a possession order required. The displaced/protected occupier can use force to enter the property and reasonable force to remove the trespassers. The police can arrest anyone remaining in the property after the trespasser has been informed that there is a displaced/protected occupier.
Use it or Lose it
This is why for properties which have been empty for a long time, if through research it is found that the owners are distant, squatters can often be in possession of a property for many months, if not years in some cases. Local authorities have been given new powers since 2006 to use Empty Dwelling Management Orders to bring unoccupied property back into use as housing, though in a new revision to this policy under the new Government, local authorities will only be able to use the powers on empty homes that affect neighbours. So far, EDMOs have been issued at a slow trickle. The Empty Homes Agency said that in 2009 there were 1 million empty homes in the UK.
What about Land?
Current legislation which stands where a trespasser is on land privately owned stipulates that liability for unintentional intrusions arises "only under circumstances evincing negligence or where the intrusion involved a highly dangerous activity*". Where the trespasser is on public land (owned by a local authority or other state body), the body has to bring possession proceedings, but can also seek an injunction banning the trespassers from the land under threat of arrest and committal for contempt of court. The body can seek a pre-emptive injunction, banning the trespassers from other areas of land owned by the body to which it appears the trespassers are likely to move.
[* - The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 Part VII (Public Order and Trespass) strengthens the powers of police to move unauthorised travellers' sites, whilst the provisions of the
Public Order Act 1986 as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 Part VII (Public Order and Trespass) gave police power to intervene if a public assembly of just 2 or more people appeared likely to cause 'serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community' (as opposed to 20 before).
Proposed legal aid changes which threatened travellers
The government's new proposals will not include the government's previous announcement of plans to make any unauthorised access to land a criminal offence, such as camping on private land, under a new law of 'Intentional Trespass' (after the police apparantly advised they would be against it on the grounds of it's difficulty in enforceability based on the experience of the Garda in Ireland). Read more about their original proposal for this new law here
Also, the proposal to remove legal aid from trespassers has now also been dropped, a proposal which would have had a negative impact on particularly gypsy and traveller communities who for some decades have increasingly relied on occupying unauthorised sites or parking up on public land in situations where authorised sites are usually not available. Some 25% of the Gypsy and traveller population who live in caravans do not live on authorised sites. This is a population which in large part has no option but to trespass, using article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in possession claims.
There has been a sophisticated campaign against squatting in the national media over the last 12 months being likely coordinated by a so-far unidentified PR Agency. A flurry of anti-squatting propaganda has come recently at a time when there has been a spate of cases of squatting of families’ residential homes by squatters from Eastern Europe who have acted in an unreasonable way to utilise this legislative dispensation which allows for squatting within the law.
The Daily Mail have been most vocal (unsurprisingly) in this regard. Their article published on 18th March entitled “Squatting is to be a crime: Police will be able to turf out intruders” contained a number of glaring misrepresentations, notably about the work of the Advisory Service for Squatters. Read their letter in response here.
Please also sign this petition:
Housing Activists serve Eviction-Notice on Justice Secretary Ken Clarke:
Activists from Squatters Housing Action Group served a mock six-month eviction notice on the Secreatary of State's house (around the corner from Parliament) and unfurled banners with slogans such as "Housing is a Human right" whilst perched on the roof of his porch. See this video of the action against the proposed criminalisation of squatting outside the front of Justice Secretary of State Ken Clarke's London home last week:
Squatting campaigners hail judge's ruling on empty homes
Sept 7th, 2011
A judge has ordered that Camden Council must comply with a Freedom of Information request, and make public a list of empty homes in the borough. Housing and squatting campaigners celebrated the landmark judgement, that will have repercussions for the management of council-owned empty property and which puts pressure on the governments controversial plans to criminalise squatting.
The Squash campaign: www.squashcampaign.org
Advisory Service for Squatters: www.squatter.org.uk
Squatters Housing Action Group: www.squattershousingactiongroup.wordpress.com
See also Kate Evan's cartoon on the subject here.