Trespassers will be prosecuted

Tony Gosling tony at
Tue Aug 2 14:58:01 BST 2011

Trespassers will be prosecuted

31 July 2011: Government plans to criminalise squatting will affect 
rights to both housing and to protest says Liz Davies

Occupations like the one at UCL last year could become criminal 
offences under the government's proposals.

The Ministry of Justice is consulting on proposals to criminalise 
squatting with the intention of introducing amendments to the Legal 
Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in October.

In launching the consultation however, ministers were anything but 
open-minded as to the outcome. Justice minister Crispin Blunt said: 
'I am clear that the days of so-called squatters' rights must end and 
squatters who break the law receive a proper punishment.' Meanwhile 
housing minister Grant Shapps said he would tip 'the scales of 
justice in favour of the law-abiding homeowner once and for all.'

The idea that squatters break into people's homes while they are out 
at the shops is a right-wing media myth. It simply doesn't happen - 
and one of the reasons why is because squatting someone's home is 
already a criminal offence. Other reasons are that squatting 
someone's home is anti-social and ineffective.

Shapps's 'law-abiding home-owner' is already well protected. What the 
government is trying to do is to make it a criminal offence to squat 
an empty, non-residential building. Even without the support of the 
criminal law, owners of empty non-residential buildings are not 
exactly at a disadvantage. They can obtain possession orders from the 
courts very quickly and instruct bailiffs to remove squatters. When 
squats keep going for weeks, months or even years, it's not because 
the law is somehow 'pro-squatter'. It's because the owner hasn't 
bothered to get a court order to remove them.

Criminalising squatting raises all sorts of problems. First, some 
people squat who would otherwise be homeless and housed by local 
authorities. Second, the police are notoriously reluctant to 
intervene in what they see as housing disputes. Housing law is 
notoriously complex and the standard police response is to say to all 
concerned: 'Let the civil courts sort it out.' Third, it's impossible 
to criminalise squatting - where people want a home - without also 
criminalising other forms of trespass, such as occupations.

Should workers who non-violently occupy their workplace or students 
who occupy academic buildings be criminalised? They are already 
subject to civil law - the employer or academic institution can 
obtain a possession order. Should the employer be entitled to send 
the police in to remove a non-violent occupation? No doubt the Tories 
think so, but do the rest of us?

What criminalising squatting will certainly do is act as a deterrent. 
At the moment, all that squatters risk is that they may be evicted in 
a few days' time. However, if the landowner can call the police and 
have squatters immediately arrested and removed, far fewer people 
will take that risk.

And that would be a shame because squatting empty buildings helps to 
house people and maintain the building at the same time. 
Criminalising trespass will also deter legitimate political protest, 
such as occupations, peace camps or climate camp-type events.

The Ministry of Justice's consultation closes on 5 October. Responses 
can be sent to: squatting.consultation at There's an 
extensive lobby group in favour of criminalising squatting, so the 
opposite view needs to be voiced loud and clear.
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