The Crown Prosecution Service confirmed last week that it had secured a first conviction under new legislation criminalising squatting in residential premises. As reported in the Guardian, Alex Haigh was sentenced following a guilty plea to the offence contained in section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. That Act, better known for its evisceration of public funding for legal services, changed the law to make squatting in residential premises a criminal, rather than a civil, issue.
The creation of any new criminal offence implies a number of things. The leading implication, however, is the suggestion that the conduct in question is best dealt with through the criminal law. In other words, usually both that it is a ‘bad thing’ to squat and should be punished and that it is an area of human behaviour in which criminalisation might have some deterrent force.
How did we arrive at this conclusion? It’s worth recounting quickly some of the justifications brought out by the Government.
Placed firmly at the front, and obviously designed to play on the—largely irrational—fears of the home-owner of moderate means, was that this would protect ‘legitimate owners/residents’ of homes. This was the idea that you might return home from holiday, or perhaps even work, to find a group of—in Tory eyes—dirty, dangerous, workshy louts forcibly occupying your home.
This trope has some intuitive appeal, in that it feels as though it might well be true. It is right, of course, that this offence extends only to residential premises. In at least one respect, then, this justification might appear to have some basis in fact. But in reality it is purposefully inflated and the statistics certainly don’t bear it out, as leading homelessness charities were quick to point outin May this year as the Bill slowly worked its way through the House of Lords. The vast majority of squats do not resemble the Government’s fictitious account. The majority are in long-term semi-derelict buildings. In London, these are usually the large houses of the wealthy elite. They are usually the houses of people who have more than one house. Usually, they’ve been empty for a long time. (And while I recognise that I am generalising—that ‘usually’ has appeared more than it might usually—you simply cannot produce penal policy on the basis of the 1% of bad cases.)
This helps flag the change for what it most likely is: a cynical vote-grabbing attempt. Perhaps it represents an appeal to a core of wavering, centrist voters, who have worked hard to drag themselves onto the ‘property ladder’. You might also imply from the measure that it was an equally cynical attempt to mollify Tory backbenchers, who were, at the time, becoming increasingly frustrated with the politics of Coalition and compromise.
It certainly didn’t appear to have made sense to almost all of those engaged enough to submit responses to the Government’s consultation, with 96% of respondents rejecting the solution.
Similarly, it makes no economic sense. Squash, the campaigning organisation, produced a report as the Bill passed through the Lords, suggesting that the cost of criminalising squatting over five years could be as much as £790 million, arising from the costs of additional social intervention as well as the high price of prison accommodation.
The problem here is not primarily an individual one. It is much larger than any one squatter. It’s like blaming a starving person, with no possibility or ability to acquire (sufficient) money, for stealing a loaf of bread. Realistically, the matrix of factors that push any person to squat, rather than rent or buy, are considerably more complex than this obviously facile (and possibly ideological) understanding. In fact, the sheer scale of the problem is potentially the real reason why this Government has resorted to simple measures. One statistic that provokes at least a little discomfort is that there is estimated to be approximately one billion squatters across the world.
In criminalising squatting the Government has simply pushed a clear social problem through the criminal justice system. It pushes those who previously squatted onto the streets, creating more homelessness and more of a social problem. It doesn’t even attempt to understand, still less tackle, the underlying issues: the way a person can fall into a state in which he or she simply has nowhere to go and no-one to turn to.
Alex Haigh, for sheltering in an empty—admittedly technically residential—building, now shelters for 12 weeks’ in prison. Do you think he deserves it?