A response to Tanya Gold on squatting

Turning squatting from a civil offence into a criminal one is not 'criminalising poverty'. It is about maintaining the rule of law and it should have been done a long time ago

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Just poor and homeless, or anarchists too?
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Frank Manning
On 23 February 2012 10:14

Tanya Gold wrote a standard Guardianista blog this week about the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Specifically about clause 130, which will turn squatting in an unoccupied residential property from a civil offence into a criminal one.

According to Ms. Gold, this is all part of the government’s appetite for criminalising poverty. Quite apart from the ‘Conservatives are evil’ hyperbole which is par for the course in the Guardian, she misses the point entirely.

As usual with the Guardian, there are suspicious looking statistics to give the impression of public support for a left-wing issue, in this case squatters. Apparently, during the consultation on the bill, the Ministry of Justice received 2,217 responses from the public. Out of these, 2,126 were from “members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalisation”.

However, as the source which Gold herself references states, 1,990 of these were directly from SQUASH, the Squatters’ rights action group. This is hardly a cross section of the public.

The reality is that squatting is dramatically unpopular with the British public. A YouGov survey from November 2011 found that 81 percent of Britons think squatting should be changed to make it a criminal offence, with only 13 percent disagreeing.

The change in law has widespread support from all three major parties as well.  In fact, 93 percent of Conservative voters think the law should be changed, along with 75 percent of Labour supporters and 77 percent of Liberal Democrats. The full results are available online.

Property rights are one of the last bastions of a free nation. If you own property, neither the state nor your fellow citizens should be able to take it off you. This is what trespass was invented for, and it should therefore be enforceable under law.

Squatting is a peculiarity of law; a leftover from a different age. As it stands, by breaking into an empty house and placing a notice in the window it is possible to claim ‘squatters’ rights’ under the Criminal Justice Act. As long as one of the squatters remains in the property at all times, the owners and the police are banned from entering the property. As it is currently considered a civil issue, a drawn out and costly legal process begins in order to evict the squatters.

The internet is full of advice from groups on how to squat. Indeed, it seems to exist as a type of subculture, sometimes connected with anarchist elements. There were rumours at the time of the student riots that the most violent elements live in a network of squats in East London. One website virtually absolves criminal damage during access, under the heading ‘Getting in’

“Many empty properties can be walked into as they have become insecure through vandalism. You do not want to commit “criminal damage” and the police may try to accuse you of this, but they would only be able to do anything if there were witnesses.  Once you are in, you should change the locks or secure every door and other way in so that you control entry and are physically, as well as legally, protected. You should repair any damage done by other people straight away.”  

The professionalism of these groups gives the game away. This is not a small number of homeless people desperate to find a roof for their heads, this is a well-organised collection of wannabe ‘anarchists’ who think they can live outside of society and get away with it.

The public money spent on civil court cases and policing these issues could be used to fund actual support for homeless people that really need it through groups such as Shelter, who actually want to help the homeless rather than give them an excuse to break into houses which aren’t theirs.

Of course homelessness is a terrible thing, and there are a variety of organisations attempting to help the problem that deserve support and philanthropy. But what these advocates of squatting are effectively suggesting is a mass land grab of the 930,000 empty homes in the UK. Why should anyone buy a house when you could just walk in and take one? Well, primarily because that leads to anarchy.

The media is full of stories about squatting, albeit with very different slants. While the majority of the press highlights mansions taken over by the workshy, the Guardian and Observer have whimsical pieces about creative ‘collectives’ living the rent-free dream in Mayfair. For everyone struggling to afford to live in London, both sides of the story are deplorable.

This is not about the government ‘criminalising poverty,’ it is about maintaining the rule of law and it should have been done a long time ago. The coalition government have had a rocky couple of years but this will be looked back on as a small, important victory for private property. If you needed any more convincing, Laurie Penny is a huge fan of squatting.  

Frank Manning is the Campaigns Coordinator for the Young Britons' Foundation, a non-partisan, not-for-profit educational, research and training organisation that promotes conservatism in schools, colleges and universities. He tweets at @BillyManning

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