Criminalise squatting in commercial premises, say Tory MPs

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Dec 1 23:30:11 GMT 2012

Criminalise squatting in commercial premises, say Tory MPs
Justice minister urged to extend recent change in 
law beyond residential properties to prevent targeting of closed businesses
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent - The 
Guardian, Friday 30 November 2012 16.00 GMT
It could soon be chucking out time at the Black 
Bull. The disused inn, around the corner from 
Chelsea's football ground in south-west London, 
has been occupied by squatters for two weeks. The 
landlord wants his property back.
The confrontation comes as Conservative MPs are 
pressing for the criminalisation of squatting to 
be extended to commercial premises to prevent 
abandoned pubs, empty offices and warehouses being targeted.
The demands are an attempt to prevent an influx 
of those who fear being driven out of houses and 
flats by changes in the law that came into effect on 1 September.
Making the occupation of residential properties 
with permission a criminal offence has coincided 
with a crisis in the pub trade. An average of 18 
pubs a week are closing down. Shifting drinking 
patterns, competition from supermarkets and a 
rise in beer tax have been blamed.
Abandoned pubs have been selected as squatters 
swap sites to avoid risking a criminal record. 
Among them have been the Cross Keys in Chelsea, 
the Tournament in Earls Court, both in London, 
the Upper Bell Inn near Chatham, Kent, and the 
Bute Dock Hotel in Cardiff. Bar areas are 
classified as commercial, but any upstairs 
landlord's flat may be deemed residential.
In the first floor bar of the Old Bull, 
Alessandra De Luca, 21, and her boyfriend, David, 
26, explained how they are only using the 
commercial parts of the pub. Around a dozen young 
people, and two dogs, are in residence. On 
Fridaythey received a county court summons for eviction.
"We hope to stay here for a few months," said 
Alessandra, who is from Italy. "The people here are homeless.
"We survive by doing a lot of 'skipping' - 
finding food thrown out by supermarkets. We are 
looking for work." The Ministry of Justice says 
it is considering whether to criminalise the 
squatting of commercial properties.
The justice minister, Damian Green, said: "The 
[new] offence covers squatting in residential 
buildings because that is what the public were 
most concerned about. We recognise that squatting 
can also have a serious impact on commercial 
property owners and we will continue to monitor this situation closely."
Tory MP Mike Weatherley, who represents Hove and 
Portslade in East Sussex, has met the justice 
secretary, Chris Grayling, to press him on the matter.
"Of the pubs targeted that I have spoken to, the 
owners want to bring them back into use. I have 
spoken to a lot of squatters, too.
"One suggested that where people know a building 
is going to be empty for some time, it should be 
used as a temporary accommodation for the 
homeless. I would certainly put that forward to government."
But most squatting, he said, was not about 
homelessness, as it was carried out by "web-savvy 
and educated" young people. Guidance provided to 
the police already warned they should be careful 
charging people if "there are genuinely homeless people involved".
The MP's views are not popular. In mid-November, 
when he turned up at Sussex University to debate 
with students about squatting laws, he was 
attacked and had to be driven to safety in a police van.
The Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, 
Tracey Crouch, became involved in the campaign to 
extend criminalisation after a local pub, the 
Upper Bell Inn, was squatted. "When [residential 
squatting] was being debated, it was said that 
50% of squatters were in commercial properties. 
That seems to be increasing," she said.
"Owners of warehouses and commercial enterprises 
come to me to say they are spending hundreds of 
thousands of pounds clearing squatters. I have 
written to the justice secretary calling for 
squatting in commercial property to be a criminal offence."
She added: "There are people from wealthy or 
middle-class families who are squatting through 
ideological reasons. It's not fair to suggest 
that everyone who squats is homeless."
Under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing 
and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, squatting 
in residential homes in England and Wales is 
punishable by up to six months' jail and fines of up to £5,000.
Shortly after the law came into effect, Alex 
Haigh, originally from Plymouth, was arrested at 
a flat in Pimlico, central London. The 
21-year-old, who was sentenced to 12 weeks in 
prison, became the first person to be jailed 
under the anti-squatting legislation. Homeless 
charities say there is no evidence so far the new 
law has led to a rise in rough sleeping. There 
are estimated to be around 20,000 people in squats.
In Cardiff, a group calling themselves the 
Gremlins, wearing black masks, have taken over 
the Bute Dock Hotel, another abandoned pub. South 
Wales police, whose officers have been to the 
building, confirmed that no offence has been 
committed because it is a commercial building.
Catherine Brogan, of the squatters' rights 
campaign group Squash, says: "There are so many 
other things [the government] should be worrying 
about, rather than criminalising homeless people."
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