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? Section 144 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 this misguided legislation.
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.