MP's & lawyers get behind campaign to repeal UK anti-squatting law

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Apr 3 19:01:45 BST 2013

MP's and lawyers get behind the campaign to 
repeal anti-squatting law in the UK
Matthew Fish 3 April 2013
Subjects:Democracy and government Civil society UK

The government's ill considered "squatting law" 
was badly written, inadequately debated and drew 
opposition from both the Law Society and the Met 
police, to name but two. It is time to repeal section 144.

It has been a mere 6 months since section 144 of 
the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of 
Offenders Bill came into effect in England and 
Wales. Better known to many as the 
‘anti-squatting law’, in one fell swoop this ill 
thought through and poorly debated piece of 
legislation made squatting in residential 
buildings a criminal offence. If caught and 
convicted, one can now be given a six month jail sentence and a £5000 fine.

By circumventing established parliamentary 
procedure, section 144 was only debated by MP's 
at the bill’s third hearing, thereby preventing 
necessary scrutiny at the committee stage. A 
thorough debate at committee level may have 
allowed ministers to fully examine the results of 
the government's own consultation procedure, 
which saw 96% of respondents opposed to 
criminalisation. Amongst those were the Law 
Society, the Metropolitan Police, and other legal 
experts who noted that the existing Criminal Law 
Act of 1977 provided perfectly adequate 
protection to any home owners that may find 
themselves displaced by squatters. Indeed, 
refusing to leave after displacing residential 
occupiers was in itself a criminal offence. 
Accordingly the Met's own statement concurred 
that the existing law was 'broadly in the right 
place.' Such opinion was conveniently omitted 
from debate, as was the fact that only 10 
individual respondents claimed to be 'victims' of squatting.

Regardless, the media line that doggedly 
underpinned the government's plans focused 
exclusively on the displacement of individuals 
and families from their homes at the hands of 
squatters who were alternately 'parasitic', 
'feral' or 'scroungers', and all too often it 
seemed, 'of Eastern European origin'. Had the 
legislation not passed when it did a 'Squatters 
Ate My Baby' headline wouldn't have come as a 
complete shock. Media coverage trading on fears 
over immigration and the 'other' continued 
unabated this week via the Evening Standard's 
pernicious attempt to interweave its 
anti-squatting narrative with an equally 
well-trodden anti-immigration position. Such 
rhetoric is divisive and opportunistic to say the 
least. That it coincides with MP Mike 
Weatherley's Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for 
an extension to section 144 to encompass 
commercial properties is perhaps to be expected. 
In a debate characterised by the creation of 
sensationalist straw-men and carefully crafted 
caricatures, it is unsurprising that legislation 
like section 144, buoyed by tabloid outrage, 
sailed through aboard a raft of moral panic.

However, it seems that opposition is mobilising 
to ensure that this doesn't happen again. SQUASH 
(Squatters' Action for Secure Homes), a pressure 
group which reformed to oppose section 144 
released a report this month entitled 'The Case 
Against S144'. Backed by a group of concerned 
MP's, peers, academics, lawyers and homelessness 
charities the report examines the effects that 
the new law has had since its introduction, and 
concludes by calling for its complete repeal. The 
report highlights that no one has been arrested 
under the new legislation for displacing someone 
from their home, and that those convicted thus 
far were otherwise homeless people taking shelter 
in long term abandoned buildings. Given their 
vulnerability and extremely precarious situation, 
that two homeless people with no prior 
convictions are serving custodial sentences for 
taking such action is extremely worrying, and 
belies the government's initial assurances as to 
limiting the effects that the new law has on the 
homeless population of the UK.

Furthermore, the death of homeless man Daniel 
Gauntlett earlier this month on the doorstep of a 
derelict bungalow in Kent illustrates the 
demonstrable dangers that section 144 poses. 
Gauntlett, 35, froze to death after being warned 
not to enter the property by police. Whether they 
specifically cited section 144 is unknown, though 
the fact that it is classed as a non-notifiable 
offence for many police forces means that it is 
impossible to acquire an accurate record of its 
use. Without wishing to instrumentalise this 
devastating incident, it nevertheless serves as 
an all too poignant reminder that this law, as 
predicted by many, is disproportionately 
affecting the most vulnerable in society.

Some of the same lawyers that backed the SQUASH 
report have this week submitted a letter to the 
Guardian echoing the reports call for repeal. 
Signed by 40 leading legal figures including 
Andrew Arden QC and solicitor Giles Peaker, it 
states that section 144 is not necessary to 
protect home occupiers and is not being used for that purpose.

The Independent's piece on the issue highlights 
the alarming rise in homelessness figures and 
leads with the argument that after six months it 
is clear that the new law is not only 
unnecessary, but in jailing young homeless people unjust and unaffordable.

MP John McDonnell has tabled his own EDM this 
week, citing the SQUASH report and similarly 
calling for the Government to take action to 
repeal section 144. SQUASH have called for people 
to contact their constituency MPs to sign 
McDonnell's EDM, in addition to signing the 
Government petition to repeal section 144.

It would seem that despite the misinformation and 
political sleight of hand that saw section 144 
‘snuck through the back door’ (as MP John 
McDonnell put it), there is a committed group of 
people who are determined not to let Mike 
Weatherley’s proposed extension gain any 
momentum. In a neoliberal climate of increased 
private ‘development’ of urban space, 
privatisation of social housing and ‘decanting’ 
of former council tenants to the periphery, do we 
really need a law which further protects property 
speculators and large companies who choose to 
profit off empty buildings? This is a punitive 
law which clearly places property rights above 
the right to housing, thereby negatively 
affecting already vulnerable people. Indeed, in 
the midst of the UK’s deepening housing crisis 
and a triple dip recession increasingly 
characterised by cuts to welfare (in particular 
April’s impending housing benefit reform), the 
SQUASH report makes clear the need to repeal section 144.

SQUASH are one of a number of projects funded by 
the Edge Fund, a new, democratic funding body 
dedicated to radical work. Today the Edge Fund 
writes for openDemocracy on what they're doing - 
read it here.
+44 (0)7786 952037
Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered 
that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye 
hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27
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