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Criminalising squatting: misinformation wins again

The Tories like to keep their traditional supporters content.  So when they are doing things that cause upset (eg no referendum on Europe) they find it necessary to have a countervailing policy that will please the Mail and the Telegraph.  Unfortunately Eric Pickles and Iain Duncan Smith seem to be particularly adept at coming up with policies that fit the bill.  To get a few cheap tabloid headlines people deemed to be dependent on benefits are often the target, and so are social tenants.
I think this is where the policy to criminalise squatting comes in.  Squatting is not a huge issue in this country – in fact the Government cannot even estimate the size of the problem – and existing laws seem perfectly adequate to deal with abuse.  It’s the failure to
implement them that seems to be the problem.
But the Government sees a chance to stimulate the juices of Tory supporters by tackling the supposedly ‘soft-touch’ laws that allow decent people’s homes to be taken over by people who have no respect for property rights.  And they’re probably foreigners to boot – like in the Mail splash story of the Latvian who travelled 1,500 miles to squat a £6m mansion.
Enter Ken Clarke, pushing through an amendment to his Legal Aid etc Bill which will
criminalise all residential squatting with punishments of up to a year in jail or a £5,000 fine.  The homelessness charities have expressed alarm and see squatting largely as a symptom of the worsening housing crisis, mostly done by people who have no alternative other than to sleep rough with all its attendant problems.
Virtually all the respondents to the Government’s consultation on squatting were against the change, arguing that existing powers were adequate.  The Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association and the Met all supported the position that the Government should focus on enforcing the current laws rather than creating a new offence.
In its briefing, Crisis said:   ‘Whilst we of course have every sympathy with someone whose home is squatted, under the current law it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave someone’s home or a home that they are about to move in to. The new amendment will therefore largely affect empty homes, of which there are over 700,000 in England alone, including many that are dilapidated and abandoned.’
After the Government rushed its new squatting clause into the Legal Aid etc Bill, ameliorating amendments were put down to the effect that the new offence would not be committed if the property has been empty for six months or the squatter is a previously homeless person.  On November 1 the key amendment, tabled by John McDonnell MP, attracted only 23 votes, mainly Labour and a few LibDems.  The Labour front bench supported criminalisation but wanted better consideration of the Government’s clause, therefore abstained, and the 300 votes against were all Coalition members.
During his speech, John McDonnell said:  ‘Everyone in the House has to support evidence-based policy making. From all the evidence and information to hand, including from the Government’s own consultation and impact assessment, we must conclude that there is no evidence of a problem on any significant scale, that there is conjecture that it exists and that in the judgment of practitioners—not just the advocates, but the law enforcers—the  existing law is sufficient.’
‘I have looked at the statistics cycle over the past five years and found that, on average, between 650,000 and 700,000 residential properties stood empty during that time. Most are private properties, and 300,000 have been empty for more than six months. When there are 40,000 homeless families, 4,000 people sleeping rough in the capital, and 1.7 million households on waiting lists, desperate for decent accommodation, it is immoral that private owners should be allowed to let their properties stand empty for so long. My amendment could force those irresponsible owners to bring their properties back into use. More importantly, it would mean that desperate people who need a roof over their heads would not be criminalised for resorting to occupying a property that was being wasted by its owner.’
In an interesting contribution, Jeremy Corbyn MP offered some historical context: ‘This country has a long and chequered history when it comes to squatting. It goes back to the Forcible Entry Act 1381, which became law during the Black Death. The issue has arisen time and again during periods of great stress: it arose at the end of the Napoleonic wars, at the end of the first world war and at the end of the second world war, when there was widespread squatting because of a terrible shortage of housing….. The Criminal Law Act 1977… was introduced after a great deal of consultation by the then Labour Government.  There was a fair amount of opposition to the legislation, which distinguished specifically between the act of taking someone’s house when that person was occupying it and the act of occupying a property that was being kept empty.’
As a recent post by our guest blogger Monimbo argued, media influence means that politicians bend towards what they think are popular sentiments, which are often simply the views promulgated by the tabloids.  I suspect if it wasn’t for the tabloids nobody would be much bothered about squatting, nobody would confuse it with the St Paul’s anti-capitalist encampment or with Dale Farm, and the public would think the current law is balanced and sensible, but that it should be properly enforced.  Instead, we are fleeing in
front of an opportunistic display of prejudice and media misinformation yet again.
A better target for media outrage would be Westminster City Council, exposed last week as having kept four properties empty for years at a cost of over £100,000 in lost rent.
Where are Messrs Pickles, Duncan Smith, Shapps and Clarke on that one then?

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A Christmas Carol (in prose)

A guest post for Xmas from Bernard Crofton adding a seasonal spin on a topic previously reported on Red Brick here.

A Christmas Carol (in prose)…… being a …….. ghost story for Christmas. 

In November of 2010,  the two government departments facing amongst the biggest budget cuts, the Department for Communities and Local Government,  and the Ministry of Justice,  issued a new  guidance leaflet : “Advice on dealing with squatters in your home”   available as a pdf  download from  http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/advicesquatters,  where there is a helpful summary as well :-

There are an estimated 20,000 squatters in the UK. This guidance is aimed at homeowners and to make them aware of their rights where their property has been unlawfully occupied. It has been jointly produced with the Ministry of Justice which makes clear that it is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a residential property when required to do so by or on behalf of either a displaced residential occupier or certain other occupiers whose interest in the premises is protected under the legislation.

That stirred some queasy  questions about the “new” advice;  mainly “Why?”  and “Why now? “ .

However, when I clicked and the pdf started its weary download, I heard the rattling of chains in the cellar. Surely Jacob Marley has been dead these seven years (or 17  since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994).

The Advice starts with these words:

 “What can I do if my home has been taken over by squatters?

1                 If you return from holiday or walking the dog to find squatters in your home and they refuse to leave, you can call the police and report a criminal offence. “

I was fascinated by the imagery. Mainly because part of it was mine, come back to haunt me.  I was among the local government representatives consulted by the Home Office about the legislation. Actually the law, as laws of that era went, ended up quite fair. I never met any supporter of squatting who thought squatters should be able to move into an occupied dwelling and effectively evict the occupants.  Nor did I ever find a case where this had happened. Canvassing round the councils in London (where statistically almost all the squatting in the UK was concentrated) we couldn’t find a single case where that was  alleged to have happened.

We found a few cases where home-owners were trying to repair a newly acquired empty property before moving in, and it being squatted while undeniably unoccupied. We found very many parallel examples on council estates (and I managed a tenth of that national 20,000 squats figure) But the pubIic debate had far more of the tang of the illegal immigrants debate  It was about scroungers and spongers but with a more direct threat: they wouldn’t just take your money indirectly through the tax system, they would take your home and all that was in it!

One newspaper (I think of it as being the Daily Mail but I may just be prejudiced) ran a tale of a family returning from holiday to find their home squatted. “Vox populi” in the neighbourhood were said to be frightened to leave their homes unattended in case squatters moved in. We tried to find this example. The local council, where it reportedly occurred, only came up with a couple who lived abroad and owned several rented properties in the UK, one of which they found squatted on a visit back to the UK. They were certainly neither “displaced residential occupiers” nor  “protected intending occupiers” of the property.

So in discussions with the civil servants I pointed out that if I went out to walk the dog and found someone in my home when I returned, I would not find the Police reluctant to act on straightforward “breaking and entering” or even malicious damage grounds. My  sarcasm was effective. That “walking the dog” phrase alongside the “returning from holiday” one became shorthand for the fact the legislation was an over-reaction or a pandering to right wing prejudices. I still do not believe any owner-occupier was ever “displaced” by squatters while the kettle was still warm, or as Confucius say “swinging chain, warm seat”.

The issue, as local government and voluntary sector consultees all argued, was the time it took to get to court to repossess a squatted property. Ironically,court waiting-times  meant that if you bought an empty house that was immediately squatted, you were kept out of it for the full term of that other brilliant invention of the era: the shorthold tenancy.  So the law was eventually drafted to include the situations of both “a displaced residential occupier” and a  “protected intending occupier” of the property. And rather than put resources into reducing court waiting lists we got the “interim possession order”.

Now I never rule out the possibility there really was a case where people left their home to go on holiday and found it squatted on returning. I never completely rule out the possibility that somewhere there is a Big-issue seller who gets into his Rolls Royce at the end of the day. But I never met one remotely near that bracket, and so I remain sceptical. But as for home-owners being squatted while out for a walk with the dog, I never heard anyone ever suggest it has happened – except me as a sarcastic example of the hysteria over squatters.

Suddenly at the end of 2010, I find the example heading a new advice leaflet, not just from one but two government departments.  So I wrote to them both under the Freedom of Information Act (we didn’t have that when the 1994 Act was proposed, it was up to us to produce our own statistics). I asked:“Please supply me with any statistical information held or viewed by the Department or its predecessors, as to the number of owner-occupiers who have found squatters in their homes: a) on returning from holiday; b) after walking their dog.”

DCLG were first to respond, with the classic line from Fawlty Towers “ I know nuzzing”. The Ministry of Justice were more helpful.    The person with “responsibility for answering requests in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) which relate to civil (non family) law and housing possession related statistics which are to be handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)” told me : 

“I can confirm that the Department does not hold the information you have requested. MOJ does not record property owners or property occupiers who have found that whilst away from the property, for whatever reason, that it has been occupied by squatters.”

After advising me of the rights of the un-numbered disposed occupiers, he helpfully provided the following table which he was not obliged to do under FOI, as it did not directly answer my question. He hoped it would be of use to me, so I am using it below. He warned me :

Table 1 below shows the number of Interim Possession Orders and Possession Orders against trespassers made in the county courts of England and Wales for the past full five years. Please read the footnotes underneath the table which describe how the data were compiled. Please note in particular that the figures include cases where properties were occupied by types of trespassers other than squatters (figures for squatters alone could only be determined by inspecting individual case files at a disproportionate cost), involving non-residential properties; and also that not all such orders given result in actual repossession of a property from a trespasser.

Table 1 Number of possession orders and interim possession orders given for trespass in the county courts of England and Wales, 2005-2009

                  Possession orders          Interim possession orders

2005                  929                                            117

2006                 1036                                           114

2007                   752                                            154

2008                  626                                             164

2009                  653                                             136

Source HMCS manual returns

Notes:

1. Data from 2005 to March 2009 were gathered from the Dept’s Management Information System.  Data from April 2009 were collected from the courts online data monitoring system One Performance Truth

2. Quality assurance checks have been carried out to remove outliers.  However these decisions have not been verified by contact with the courts.  These figures should therefore be treated with caution.

3.  Orders against trespassers and IPOs can be given for the possession of both commercial and residential properties from trespassers.

4.  Not all orders and interim orders given for possession against trespassers relate to properties that are occupied by squatters.

5.  Not all possession and interim possession orders result in actual repossession of a property from a trespasser.                       

Now let’s ignore that the table includes squatted shop-units etc. and that not all trespassers are squatters.  The table shows possession orders against trespassers (I recall the definition used to be “against persons who entered as trespassers” but that mayhave changed).

I conclude from this table the following.

The number of full orders has declined significantly in the last five years.

The number of interim orders has started to decline, after a rise.

That at the current rate of full orders  it would take 30 years to remove the current number of squatters….if there were no new cases.

That at the current rate of interim (i.e. urgent?) orders it would take nearly 150 years.

No one seems in a hurry.

Is it me or is there something odd about the emergence of this new governmental advice from financially strapped departments just in time for the Xmas season? Conspiracy theories are accepted, but any genuine leaks as to why this ghost has been disturbed would be especially welcome.

Bernard  Crofton

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Empty homes and empty gestures

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

One of the curious things about the Ministry of Justice’s advice on dealing with squatters in your home, published yesterday, is that it has a section called “How can I evict a tenant who won’t leave?”  It then offers advice on the “difficult procedural requirements to be followed”. 

Another is the starting point: “If you return from holiday or walking the dog to find squatters in your home and they refuse to leave, you can call the police and report a criminal offence”.   Of course, this stirred the media juices and Grant Shapps got himself on the telly, where he denounced the Advisory Service for Squatters as a fully staffed organisation, whereas ASS say they are run entirely by unpaid volunteers and therefore must be part of the ‘Big Society’.  ASS are adamant that they do not promote lawlessness.  I suspect they will welcome the publicity and free advertising for what they do.  

You may not like it but squatting, in defined circumstances, is still a legal activity.  I suspect that the number of cases of people squatting other people’s homes while they are walking the dog is really quite small, and insignificant compared to the number of squatters in the country.  It’s also insignificant compared to the number of homeless people and the number of empty properties, and there is the real issue. 

That some squatters do some bad things is beyond doubt, and there has been an amount of difficult-to-justify squatter tourism in the past, but history tells us that squatting in this country has had a big impact on housing policy and pushing public authorities into tackling the waste of homes being kept empty.  Historically, the occupation of the Centrepoint tower block, a political squat, raised awareness of homelessness more than any other single act, apart possibly from the screening of Cathy Come Home. 

Big landlords and councils who kept homes empty deliberately awaiting development or sale, smashing facilities to make them uninhabitable, found themselves challenged by squatters who made them habitable again and showed that they could provide acceptable accommodation for people who needed it in the meanwhile.  Many sought to come to an arrangement with the property owners, seeking licenses and agreements to occupy, leading to the creation of a self-help housing movement in short-life housing.  In one of the biggest and longest squats, Elgin Avenue in West London, a terrace of large houses would have been left empty by the GLC for many years; instead an extraordinary community was formed and the GLC mended its ways, to the benefit of all concerned including the neighbours.

Attacking squatters for a cheap bit of publicity is one thing.  But all of the political parties in the Election highlighted new initiatives to deal with empty homes, and they all denounced it as a scandal.  Yet none acknowledged that it is down to the squatters of the past that this issue strikes such a chord with the public today.    

http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/advicesquatters

http://www.squatter.org.uk