Lording it over the squats

This post was originally published on the SQUASH blog under the title “Squatting criminalised by ‘sham democracy’” and is written by Hannah Schling.

It is unnerving to witness a political process which criminalises up to 50,000 people in a matter of months. It is yet more unnerving when you consider the supposed ‘crime’: taking shelter in empty, abandoned properties. Following the passing in the House of Lords of Clause 145 to criminalise squatting in residential properties, countless numbers of people are attempting to orient themselves in a newly hostile situation: in the midst of a major housing crisis, soon to be criminalised in squats, vulnerable on the streets, turned away by local authorities. Twitter isn’t the only space buzzing with people expressing their rage at being criminalised overnight.

The political process which has criminalised squatting in residential properties was undertaken by an elite minority; who actively ignored the opinions of the vulnerable and their advocates; using manipulative rhetoric and purposefully obfuscatory propaganda to de-legitimise the experiences and arguments of opponents; with decision-making hidden in the dark hours of the night and in scripted performances; and deploying authoritarian and discretionary power. This can be named as nothing other than a sham democracy.

After a year of committed work by organisations such as SQUASH to oppose the criminalisation of squatting in residential properties, a year which has seen unlikely allegiances and arguments against the government’s plans from institutions such as the Law Society, the Metropolitan Police, and numerous MPs and Lords, the brokenness of the UK’s political decision-making processes are plain to see. The government introduced the clause to criminalise squatting into the LASPO bill three days before its final reading in the House of Commons, leaving absolutely no time for parliamentary scrutiny. This followed a consultation in which 96 percent of respondents were opposed to such action. All hearings in the House of Lords happened after 11pm at night, whilst government spokespeople persisted with misleading and often untrue statements to the national press. These processes faced large opposition and were widely criticised. I don’t remember the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats pledging to criminalise squatting within their election campaigns. So by what mandate, exactly, have they done so, and at such hair-raising speed? If this is a functional democratic process, I’ll eat my hat.

What really took the biscuit in the final House of Lords debate was Minister Northover’s remarks that the government holds a ‘responsibility’ to protect the ‘health and safety’ of homeless people – and could thus not permit their finding shelter in ‘unsanitary’ empty buildings. Lib Dem Lord Strasburger interrupted her to seek clarification – was Northover really saying that prison or rough sleeping would be better for the ‘health and safety’ of homeless people than squatting?

Attempts by the government to transform this into an issue of personal morality – the ‘evil-doings’ of the ‘home-stealing’ squatter or the ‘misguided’ homeless – have been present throughout the process. The government’s ‘moral responsibility’ to rectify such misguided behaviour is thus assumed and asserted. However, these are laughably inadequate rhetorical manipulations when squared up to the scale of the housing crisis the UK faces. When families aiming to rent a house in London require a £52,000 income, and when homelessness increases by 14 percent in one year, this can be nothing other than the shameless attempt to displace responsibility and blame from an austerity-wielding, property-speculator protecting government onto the poorest and most vulnerable. Attempting to plead ‘best-interests of the homeless’ whilst criminalising them for taking shelter in empty properties can be nothing other than the most cynical attempts at manipulating public opinion. Especially when adequate criminal law was already in place to protect residential occupiers and intending occupiers from displacement by squatters. The unnecessary nature of new criminal law was raised repeatedly by the most authoritative voices on the subject, and repeatedly ignored by the government.

In any case, it is worth debunking some of the government’s claims, made at the third reading of the LASPO bill, to be ‘offsetting’ the criminalisation of squatting with their ‘increased’ homelessness provision.

Firstly, the claims to increased spending on homelessness are a drop in the ocean compared to the whole gamut of social spending cuts the Con-Dem government are presiding over, and compared to the costs of criminalising squatting. Minister Northover announced a government promise of £400 million over the next four years for ‘preventing homelessness’, and £20 million for a ‘homelessness transition fund’. This is miniscule when compared to the costs of criminalising squatting: up to £790 million over the next five years.

Secondly, Northover side-stepped the question on how much of this money would be ring-fenced for those made newly homeless by the criminalisation of squatting, claiming it was up to local authorities to decide how to spend budgets. Baroness Lister’s questioning of Northover on this issue reveals how it significantly waters down the government’s claims to increased provision. Criminalising squatting will increase the financial burden on local authorities’ housing provision (with an increased housing benefit bill, increased single homeless presenting for housing, and so on), whilst local authorities are facing up to 30 percent cuts in their budgets, and when funding for homelessness provision has already been cut (for example some 2000 hostel beds have disappeared in the past year). Giving a few ‘extra’ pennies in general housing budget to local authorities is laughable.

Lastly, Northover was unable to ensure questioning Lords that ‘ex-squatters’ would not be deemed ‘intentionally homeless’, and therefore ineligible for local authority housing. She said it was ‘unlikely’. But ‘unlikely’ at the third and final reading of a bill the government have done their utmost to sneak through at the last minute is patently not good enough. What are the up to 50,000 people criminalised by this move meant to do with the non-reassurance it is ‘unlikely’ they will be left in the catch 22 of prison or street sleeping?

This catch 22 means that the government’s method of legislating is nothing short of draconian. It is an attempt to apply authoritarian power, the threat and actuality of forced eviction by police and of prison time, onto the most vulnerable. Squatting will not be ‘over’ because most of those who squat have no means and no options but to continue squatting. Especially not when there are almost 1 million empty properties in the UK.

This calls for an organised response. As has been recognised by SQUASH: “This has always been a right-wing attack to defend and enhance private property rights over the human right to shelter and we now have to defend ourselves”. That defence does not play itself out in the upholstered arena of sham-democratic institutions such as the House of Lords. It happens on the streets, and in empty properties up and down the country.

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