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Squatting six months on

April 11 2013
We look at the longer-term effects of Section 144 of of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which criminalised squatting in residential buildings


Last September, after a brief consultation period during which it issued inaccurate and often sensationalist statements and ignored the almost complete rejection of the proposed law (96 per cent of the 2,217 respondents - including the Metropolitan Police, Law Society and Criminal Bar Association - were against it), the government rammed through Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Section 144 made squatting in residential properties illegal and punishable by up to six month in prison or a fine of £5,000. (In January, Hove's Conservative MP Mike Weatherley tabled an Early Day Motion to criminalise squatting in commercial properties also.) This would "end the misery of homeowners whose properties have been preyed on by squatters," according to Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, ignoring the fact that squatting someone's home was already a criminal offence under Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

The Ministry of Justice calculated that implementing S144 over its first five years would cost £25 million (and save £350m). This cost covers evicting all squatters from residential premises and prosecuting over 10,000 people at a time of housing crisis when over a quarter of the country's million empty homes have been empty long-term and when homelessness is rising. Squatters' Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) and Crisis asked for a Full Impact Assessment to cover the additional costs (which SQUASH estimated at £790m) of higher levels of rough sleeping, rehabilitation and new housing benefit claims, but this did not take place.

Six months later, SQUASH has launched an analysis of the impact of Section 144 and wants the law to be repealed. They have the support of many of the 160 legal academics, solicitors and barristers specialising in housing law who wrote a very forceful letter to the Guardian in September 2011 protesting against government misrepresentation of the legal situation.

In a second letter to the Guardian in March 2013, they say: "1) The concern expressed by the lawyers was correct; the offence was not necessary to protect home occupiers, it is not being used for that purpose. 2) Instead, the effect of it has been to facilitate keeping properties empty, despite the current housing crisis, rather than meeting the purpose for which it was claimed to be necessary". The Police Minister Damian Green responded that the government has no intention of getting rid of the law: squatting, he said, would not be tolerated.

As we reported in the last issue (‘Squatter arrested’), there have been arrests for squatting in abandoned buildings, but none for displacing somebody from their home - so much for ending "the misery of homeowners". However, local authorities and the police are gathering so little data on the Act's impact that the real picture is hard to grasp. There are no accurate figures for the number of evictions. Twenty-nine police forces hold no data on S144 offences. Several told SQUASH that that S144 offences are non-notifiable/not recordable and they could not locate the relevant Home Office offence code. (When they receive an allegation that somebody is squatting in a residential building, they have to investigate; the investigation and any subsequent actions should be recorded in the police Evidence and Actions Book. You can download the Metropolitan Police guidelines here.

And 91 per cent of local authorities do not record whether people presenting as homeless have previously lived in squatting buildings, though Crisis has previously found that 40 per cent of homeless people have squatted at some stage and suggests that squatting is the consequence of a housing and homelessness emergency.

The Case Against Section 144 is available from the SQUASH website, This is a longer version of the article that appeared in the April issue of The Pavement.