As of midnight tonight, under clause 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, squatting in residential properties will become illegal holding a penalty of up to £5,000 and six months in prison.
The housing minister Grant Shapps summarised the new move saying,
“No longer will there be so-called squatters’ rights. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.”
Housing charities have expressed concern that it may force people into sleeping rough as the state struggles to provide enough social housing. The homeless charity, Crisis’ Chief Executive,Lesley Morphy commented,
“[the new clause] misses the point. There was already legal provision that police and councils could, and should, have used to remove individuals in the rare instances of squatting in someone’s home. It will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place – their homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. Ultimately the Government needs to tackle why homeless people squat in the first place”
There is currently a huge shortage in social housing which is why this government has pledged to build an additional three million homes by 2020. In times of austerity however, there is wide-spread concern that this is another promise the government will fail to deliver.
Grant Shapps himself spelled out the nature of the problem we face. In 2009 he tabled an EDM which stated, “Of the 784,000 homes which currently vacant 327,000 have been empty for a period of more than six months; is further concerned that despite the presence of 1.8 million families on the social housing waiting list”.
Why then, would he be taking measures that many believe will force more onto the streets?
It is in this context then that I condemn this move to criminalise squatting. Not because I don’t think private landlords have a right to protect their properties, but because this government is clearly in no position to offer the support that those who are forced into squatting need.
There are currently 930,000 empty homes across the UK, 350,000 of which are long term empty. As a short term solution it seems to make sense for people to be able to use them.