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Squatting changes

September 16 2011
The government has called for criminalisation of squatting


The government last month issued a consultation paper proposing the criminalization of squatting in order to end what they described as the “distress and misery” the practice can cause.

The paper, entitled ‘Options For Dealing With Squatters,’ outlined different actions that the government is considering taking including stricter enforcement of current laws and a new offence that would make squatting a criminal act.

In the introduction to the paper, the parliamentary undersecretary of state, Crispin Blunt, writes: “The government has become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause.”

“Law-abiding property owners or occupiers who work hard for a living can spend thousands of pounds evicting squatters from their properties, repairing damage and clearing up the debris they have left behind.”

Squatters Action For Secure Homes (Squash), a squatter’s advocacy group, said that criminalising squatting would lead to tens of thousands more people facing homelessness and the erosion of civil liberties. They added that it would place a significant extra burden on the police.

The government’s action can be seen as a response to recent reports of squatters occupying residential properties. Last September, for example, the Sun newspaper reported how squatters had occupied the home of George Pope, a 72-year-old pensioner from East London, while he was walking his dog.

The Advisory Service For Squatters (ASS) said that both the government and media were misrepresenting squatters. They explained that coverage, through using the blanket term ‘homeowner’, tended to imply that properties being occupied were those of individuals when this was rarely the case.

“The vast majority of squatting takes place in property owned by institutions and left empty for a significant amount of time,” they wrote in response to the consultation paper.

They added that presentations of squatters incorrectly suggested that they would attempt to live in homes that were occupied. This normally did not occur, they said, as squatters generally recognised that this was illegal.

“Squatters occupy empty property,” ASS said. “If the property had an existing or planned occupier the squatters have made a mistake and have to leave. Apart from the legal aspect, squatters are looking for a home where they will be able to live for as long as possible. This obviously excludes places that are occupied.”

Squash agreed that there was a “massive and widespread” misrepresentation of squatters. They added that the media frequently sought to present squatters as people existing outside of normal society. They said that squatters’ activities were typically discussed as though they were already illegal, when under current laws this was not the case.

Rather than the social nuisances and house stealers they were presented as, Squash said that many squatters came from vulnerable backgrounds.

“The thing that unifies those who squat is that state services are unable to provide them with adequate accommodation for their needs,” they said. “Whether that be because they do not wish to bring up their children in a hostel, because they are immigrants who cannot access housing provision, because they suffer mental health issues that state-provision may only exacerbate, or simply because the job they do could never afford them rent where they need to live.”

Squash anticipates that the number of people needing to squat will rise rapidly as a result of the recent benefit cuts.