Tomorrow clause 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act kicks in, which will make squatting in residential buildings punishable by up to 6 months’ jail and/or fines of up to £5,000. Given that there are now nearly 5 million households on Council (including ALMO) and Housing Association waiting lists, together with 80,000 families officially classified as homeless, and given that fewer houses are being built this year than in any year since 1923, the expulsion of squatters under the Tories’ new law can only result in a big increase in homelessness. Some estimates of the number of squatters across the country believe that 20,000 persons could now be at risk of being displaced without anywhere else for them to go.
This is a gratuitously callous and cruel measure. The great majority of buildings used by squatters have been unoccupied for a considerable time, and against the background of almost no new housing being built and cutbacks in local authority temporary accommodation because of funding shortages, it is not only heartless but irresponsible to deny squatters a roof over their head. It’s not as though there isn’t legal redress available for owners who wish to repossess the property – there is. And it’s not as though squatters choose it out of preference – rather it’s the only option left as the result of a broken marriage or an abusive relationship. Demonising squatters is no less reprehensible than the current demonising of disabled persons by Atos – the former are no more capable of getting a house or flat than the latter are of getting a job in the midst of austerity.
What really stinks about this latest Tory attack on the poor and vulnerable is the unquestioning prioritising of property rights over human need. A lot of the houses or flats taken over have been empty for months and are often not in a habitable condition anyway – requiring major repairs to the roof or the plumbing which the squatters often undertake themselves. To drive them out unnecessarily, and increase the cost to the State if they are then accepted as homeless, is perverse especially when they have actually improved the state of the property which the owner had shown no intention to do.
In any decent society human rights and needs should always override property rights. There has already, a year ago, been one explosion by the under-class of the dispossessed. With new laws like this it would not be surprising if soon there was another.