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Squatting in empty houses will become a crime if new proposals put forward by the government are passed by Parliament, despite warnings from Crisis and other housing charities that this will make life even harder for many vulnerable homeless people.
Under the new laws, which are set to be included as amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, if passed by the House of Commons, anyone found squatting in a residential property will face up to a year in jail and/or a £5,000 fine. Squatting in commercial properties will remain a civil offence. The proposed law change comes just three weeks after the end of a government consultation process, which attracted more than 2,200 responses.
These responses included 10 from individuals and organisations whose property had been squatted, 25 from members of the public concerned about the harm squatting can cause but 2,126 from members of the public concerned about the harm which could be caused by criminalising squatting.
The government’s response to the consultation acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of responses opposed any change to the law, but argued that the views of those in favour of criminalising squatting should also be taken into account, even though they formed a minority.
The consultation attracted responses from13 housing and homelessness charities - including Crisis, Thames Reach, Shelter, Homeless Link, Housing Justice, St Mungo’s and the Advisory Service for Squatters. All opposed proposals to criminalise squatting.
Crisis released new research in response to the consultation which showing that those who squat are more likely than the average among homeless people to suffer from mental and physical ill-health as well as learning disabilities and drug and alcohol dependency.
The research, carried out by academics at Sheffield Hallam University, shows that two out of every five homeless people surveyed had squatted at some point, while six out of 100 homeless people were squatting on any given night.
Almost four out of five homeless people who squatted did so for the first time only after they had approached a local authority for help with their housing situation, the research showed. Although most of those who requested help were recognised as homeless, they were not considered a priority for housing.
Most of the squatters surveyed had tried to find other places to stay, attempting to access hostels and shelters. They resorted to squatting when they found there were not enough places available, or that the accommodation was too expensive. Nine out of every 10 squatters had also slept rough.
The consultation response from Thames Reach, a London-based homelessness charity, also opposed the criminalisation of squatters, on the basis that it would harm the most vulnerable people. However, they supported firmer action to close squats and to encourage squatters to work with homelessness charities and other bodies to improve their situation.
A statement from the organisation said: “Our experience of people engaged in squatting is that they are often extremely vulnerable and have chronic drug and alcohol problems and access to these squats is prolonging their avoidance of services and addressing these issues.”
Criminalisation of squatting was supported by local authorities and landlords’ associations.
The Metropolitan Police and two lawyers’ associations - the Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association - responded to the consultation to argue that the law needed no change. However, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Property Litigation Association supported criminalisation.
Announcing the proposed new laws, justice secretary Ken Clarke said: “Far too many people endure the misery, expense and incredible hassle of removing squatters from their property. Hard working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first. Our commitment to this new offence will ensure the law is firmly on the side of the homeowner so that quick and decisive action can be taken.”
However, Crisis chief executive Leslie Morphy said that people squat “out of necessity, not choice, in atrocious conditions where they are least likely to be disturbed. These are people that need help - not a year behind bars and a £5,000 fine.”
John Mcdonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, said: “By trying to sneak this amendment through the back door the government are attempting to bypass democracy.”