The First Squatter Is Jailed Since Being Homeless Was Criminalised by the Tories

27.9.12

This afternoon, on my way back from a disturbing bike ride around Mayfair, where money is almost literally oozing out of every orifice of those who find it easier than ever to enrich themselves at the expense of society as a whole, I arrived back at Charing Cross, to catch the train back to south east London, where I was confronted by the front page of the Evening Standard announcing, “London Squatter First to Be Jailed,” which threw me into an angry depression.

The squatter in question — actually a 21-year old from Portsmouth, Alex Haigh, who only arrived in London in July — is indeed the first person to be jailed for squatting since the law on squatting was changed on September 1, transforming it from a civil to a criminal offence, punishable by a six-month prison sentence and a £5,000 fine.

Haigh was given a 12-week sentence after pleading guilty to squatting a property in Pimlico owned by the housing association L&Q (London & Quadrant), which, ironically, is supposed to be in the business of providing homes to those in need, like all providers of social housing. He is now in Wormwood Scrubs, where his accommodation for the next three months will be provided by the British taxpayer. Depriving people of their liberty costs, on average, between £27,000 and £29,000 a year, and £2.2 billion is spent in total on the 80,000-plus prisoners in England and Wales.

Surely, if we are faced with such a pressing need to cut costs, as the government asserts with grindingly monotonous regularity, it would be worthwhile not spending around £7,000 on depriving a 21-year old of his liberty for having stayed in an empty flat. Haigh’s father Peter, who runs a construction business in Plymouth, accurately told the Evening Standard, “They have made an example of him. To put him in that prison environment, I don’t understand it. If he broke the law he should be dealt with but it is like putting someone who has not paid their tax into Dartmoor Prison.”

The right-wing spin on the story has been predictable. The Evening Standard — which is the only excuse for a newspaper in the whole of London — claimed that the new law “was brought in amid a squatting crisis in London as organised eastern European gangs and other squatters targeted family homes.” This managed to play a racist card, and to stir up unwarranted fears about squatters taking over people’s houses while they popped out to the shops for a pint of milk, which are totally unfounded and/or dangerously inflammatory.

The truth is that the processes that were in place to deal with squatting before September 1 were perfectly adequate, and what the new law, which was designed to appeal to right-wing Tories, does is to protect those who sit on empty properties while there is a genuine housing crisis — one in which, to cite the example of London, a huge number of people find it impossible to pay the astronomical rents that unprincipled and unregulated landlords are charging.

Throughout the country, there are almost a million empty properties, and a comparable number of people in need of shelter. At any one time, there are around 50,000 squatters, who, tonight, must be fearing the worst. While the criminalisation of their need for shelter ought to appal anyone who believes that homes, rather than prisons, are suitable places for the homeless, the cheerleaders for adding to Britain’s overcrowded prisons by stuffing them full of homeless people have also not done their sums. As the Guardian reported in March this year:

The cost of a new law to further criminalise squatting could run to almost 20 times official estimates, wiping out government legal aid budget savings, according to the findings of a newly published report.

The study, commissioned by Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (Squash) and supported by academics and politicians including a former Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, finds that the Ministry of Justice’s new law fails to account for extra spending on housing benefit squatters will claim once they are evicted.

The Can We Afford to Criminalise Squatting? report, published on [March 16, 2012], finds the total costs of the law — clause 136 in the Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Lapso) — could run to between £316.2m and £790.4m over five years, depending on the number of squatters in England and Wales. This compares with the £350m in savings the MoJ hopes to make by cutting the legal aid budget.

Every time I wake up and ask what’s happening in my country, I find that the Tory idiots who claim to be in charge are almost unable to sleep, as they’re kept so busy rushing from one group of vulnerable people to another, making sure that all of them get a good kicking.

Squatting is based on need — a need for shelter, which is a fundamental human right. There may be the odd example of opportunism, and even of pointedly bad behaviour, but the law that has just imprisoned a 21-year old — and very possibly ruined his future — for something that could have been sorted out without him getting a criminal record is a cruel law indeed, and one of which all decent people should be ashamed.

*****

Below, I’m cross-posting an article by that was published in the Guardian on August 31, the day before squatting became a criminal offence, which was written by Joseph Blake, Squash’s press officer. I had meant to cross-post it earlier, under the heading, “Criminalising Squatting: The Hideous Triumph of Greedy Right-Wing Property Owners,” in which my first line would have been, “Britain — or England in particular — is under the control of a government with no redeeming features whatsoever, but in this world of cruelty, stupidity and cynicism, the decision to criminalise squatting is a new low.”

I had also intended to draw on another Guardian article, by George Monbiot, published in January, written when the House of Lords was about to consider the bill containing the proposal for criminalising squatting, which he described as “a cruel and unnecessary clause, whose purpose is to protect landlords who keep their houses empty.” Succinctly, Monbiot explained the situation that existed until September 1, and here are the quotes I’d planned to use, because they describe all that is wrong with the criminalisation of squatting:

Under current law, if squatters move into your home (or a home that you are soon to occupy) and fail to leave the moment you ask, the police can immediately remove them. The only houses with weaker protections are those that remain empty. There are 700,000 such homes in England alone, almost half of which have been empty for a long time. They have long been a refuge for street sleepers and other homeless people. Landlords already possess civil powers to remove them, and the police can step in if squatters ignore the court orders.

Last year the government launched a consultation on criminalising all squatting in residential buildings; 96% of the respondents argued that no change in the law was necessary. But on 1 November, just five days after the consultation ended, the government jemmied an amendment into the legal aid bill, already halfway towards approval. This meant that the House of Commons had no chance to scrutinise it properly, and objectors had no chance to explain the issues to their MPs.

The result of this blatant insult to democracy is that people who have housed themselves at no cost to anyone are likely to be summarily evicted. Houses will fall back into disuse, and the government’s housing bill will rise: by between £35m and £90m, according to the campaign group Squash. Worse still, the new law will help unscrupulous landlords to evict tenants where there is no written contract, by declaring them squatters and calling the police.

And finally, for now, here’s Joseph Blake’s article:

Criminalising squatting hurts the poor and benefits the rich
By Joseph Blake, The Guardian, August 31, 2012

This rightwing law protects unscrupulous landlords and property speculators keeping properties empty to maximise profits

From Saturday, a massively unjust, unnecessary and unaffordable new law will come into force in England and Wales. In the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen, up to 50,000 squatters who are currently squatting in empty properties across the UK face becoming criminals, and this because they are occupying abandoned residential properties to put a roof over their heads.

Of course, we have all heard the horror stories of the innocent homeowner who “goes out to buy a pint of milk and comes back to find their home squatted” – and we have sympathy with this situation. But most people don’t realise that such instances are extremely rare and overplayed in the media for political gain. They are also already a criminal offence, and homeowners are already strongly protected by existing legislation. One hundred and sixty leading legal figures wrote to the Guardian to explain this point.

In the face of this new law, thousands of vulnerable people will possibly become criminals overnight, facing up to six months in jail and fines of up to £5,000. With homelessness rates rising and the number of empty properties currently in the region of more than 930,000 according to the Empty Homes Agency, we must ask: who is this law protecting? It protects unscrupulous landlords and property speculators who are keeping properties empty to up their profits. The new law encourages these properties to remain empty and is worryingly open to abuse by rogue landlords, which could mean trouble for tenants.

96% of responses to the government’s consultation didn’t want to see any action taken on squatting, but the government ignored the results of its own consultation. What is the point of even having a consultation in the first place? Out of 2,217 responses, 2,126 of those were from members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalising squatting, and only 10 people bothered to write in claiming to be victims of squatting.

On top of all this, the new law is completely unaffordable. Squash produced a report while the law was going through the House of Lords – after it bypassed the normal process in the Commons – which shows that this law will cost the taxpayer £790m over five years. The report concludes that this law alone will wipe out the entire expected costs of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, which is supposed to be a cost-cutting bill.

Unlikely bedfellows such as the Metropolitan police, The Law Society, The Criminal Bar Association and numerous Homeless Charities such as Crisis have come out strongly against it and squatters know they have this on their side. We believe that possibly even the government ministers pushing this through will admit it is not popular legislation.

So how has this all happened? The political process that has criminalised squatting in residential properties was undertaken by an elite minority who actively ignored the opinions of the vulnerable and their advocates. Using manipulative rhetoric and purposefully obfuscatory propaganda to delegitimise the experiences and arguments of opponents, they made their decisions in the dark hours of the night and in scripted performances, deploying authoritarian and discretionary power. This is a sham democracy.

The attack against squatting has always been a rightwing ploy to defend and enhance private property rights over the human right to shelter. New groups have sprung up to support and defend squats from evictions in response to the new law, so it could get nasty in the next few weeks. Who can blame them? They have nowhere else to go.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

37 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Paula Helliwell wrote:

    And it will get worse and worse
    But don’t complain or you may be going to America

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    wtf?!?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne Garage wrote:

    I agree, totally outrageous! How is this supposed to reduce the government’s deficit! Responsible squatting should be encouraged with rights for people who do up derelict properties while living in them!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Heidi Emers-Jones wrote:

    Andy, Same here in USA. Disgusting slumlords.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Heather Davidson wrote:

    *sigh*

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends, for sharing the outrage. It’s so depressing to think of all the vulnerable people just trying to get a roof over their heads who may be imprisoned so that fat cat landlords can keep their spare properties empty as investments. And it’s important, Anne, to point out how counter-productive this is if we’re supposed to be reducing the deficit. Instead of squatting, people will now have to claim housing benefit, or be imprisoned at a cost of £28,000 a year on average. Way to go, Tory scum. As ever, your stinking inhumanity and cruelty precedes you.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Paula Helliwell wrote:

    True Andy and as I said before one of the reasons I loathe Tony Blair is that his megalomania made people disregard some of the good Labour actions and landed us with this Tory heartless scum

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I know what you mean about the loathsome Blair, Paula, but Labour also wanted the best of both worlds – good elements of a socialist state but also cosying up with big business and the banks – and you can’t have both. The housing boom has been ruinous for everyone except the rich and the lucky. Now anyone not rich enough to be allowed to take out a huge mortgage to buy a house is stuffed – private rents are horribly out of control, and social housing has been privatised.
    Bloody L&Q, who own the property in question, should have refused to allow charges to be pressed. But they’re part of the new system – knocking down social housing, building new “luxury” properties for City workers, and then making a small amount of unaffordable “affordable” housing available to ordinary people.
    And no one’s talking about where the hell they’re dumping everyone when they move them out of their homes to raze them to the ground for their new projects. London is being socially cleansed – and other towns and cities are becoming dumping grounds. And it will only get worse unless people wake up to it and force these Tory scumbags from power. Wakey-wakey!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Chazz Pink wrote:

    thanks for your very focused writing, as always

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Chazz, for the supportive words. I’m trying to articulate some of the anger and disgust that I know many people feel, but which the mainstream media, with its damned “balance” and “objectivity,” rarely captures. I can’t be bothered to be polite and contained anymore. Nothing’s going to change that way.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Pete Forde wrote:

    I have worked in social housing for many years and seen the good and the bad of Government medling – but this takes the biscuit to a large extent. i am sure there are far more important issues that the Government should be dealing with like getting our money back that we lent to the bankers when their greed and short sightedness plunged the west into disarray. God knows what they would do if they had been voted in !!!!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Pete. Good to hear from you. I agree absolutely about where the real criminals are – like Cameron’s dad, a pioneer of dodgy offshore banking under Thatcher – but I’m not sure they could have done anything more if – in an impossible world – that smarmball flabhead tiny dog’s arse-mouthed Cameron had managed to pull the wool over voters’ eyes sufficiently to get an actual majority, instead of having to form a Frankensten’s Monster coalition of the undead with the useless Lib Dems. They are working at destroying the state and turning the clock back, certainly to before the time of the Victorian reformers, and in many ways to the middle ages.

  13. eyja says...

    An UTTER discrace….NOT so great britain a right wing tory country.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Eyja, exactly. Thanks for the comment.

  15. Cosmic Surfer (Jan) says...

    Hi, Andy.

    Living in a city that made similar laws ( It is illegal to be homeless in Denver), I understand the absolute absurdity of punishing victims for the perversion of the economy created by those who would steal the food out of the mouths of babes if they thought they could make 2 cents off of it.

    It is rotten; it is shameful and it should be punishable.

    The Tories were kicked out of the US 235 years ago but they didn’t take their “Hubris” virus with them and it has infected the right wing zealots here as it has in the UK.

    Still have my pitchfork at the ready.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. I recall our conversations about the passing of laws in Denver making it illegal to be homeless. We have not gone that far yet, although the homeless – always invisible – are being ignored even more than usual under the immoral leadership of the Tories, who are encouraging hard-heartedness, which, in turn, is being embraced by far too many of my fellow citizens, eager for powerless scapegoats. And all this while the number of homeless people increases alarmingly.

  17. Eleanor says...

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! – so what do we do about it?

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Eleanor,
    “What do we do about it?” – the all-powerful question.
    Lobby MPs, join the Labour Party to get the to remember who they’re supposed to be, support the squatters’ organisations, write to newspapers that have a right-wing bent, comment online, wake people from their torpor!

  19. Dean L says...

    What was the point of putting him in jail?

    What has Cameron got to say about this obscene waste of tax payers money? (nothing.)

    He even came to London to find work – but obviously not blessed with parents who could fund his shelter in London or access to benefits to cover his costs – the message is quite clear: don’t move to find work unless you’ve access to money.

    The police could simply have said “On your way, son”

    Hopefully this will blow up in people’s faces as prison costs, police costs and housing benefits costs all rise.

    Would really like to see a rise in youth mass squatting type of protests.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Dean,
    Great to hear from you.
    Yes, the message is certainly that people without a trust fund shouldn’t think about coming to London to seek work, which is thoroughly counter-productive when people are supposed to be seeking work – and London and the south east is where there are jobs.
    I also want to know what L&Q, the housing association, were thinking when they refused to allow charges to be pressed. Disgusting behaviour, but probably most indicative of how L&Q has completely lost touch with its roots and its purpose.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    So there’s a housing crisis. And there’s a lot of empty property. This unfortunate young man gets jailed for solving the two problems directly. I don’t necessarily agree with squatting but it’s time for humanity, decency, practical intelligence and compassion to enter public life. Well past time actually. I found out yesterday that 11,000 people have already died from being forced off disability by ATOS. 11,000!!! That’s three 9/11’s and yet there isn’t an outcry. This is nothing short of a cull of the weak and the poor by a corrupt, heartless elite, and with the NHS changes, it looks like it’s going to continue. The crisis is upon us people. Invoke the Light, stay in the Light, be the Light!

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Richard. You are right to describe this as “a cull of the weak and the poor” when it comes to the government’s appalling treatment of the disabled. Establishing the exact numbers is difficult, as many people with severe illnesses may well have died without the hugely stressful and negative intervention of Atos and the government. but it is true that some of those 11,000 people died directly as a result of the actions of their own government. I intend to write an update soon, but in the meantime this is my round-up of events from August: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2012/08/08/where-is-the-shame-and-anger-as-the-uk-governments-unbridled-assault-on-the-disabled-continues/
    My report – and photos – of a protest in London against Atos: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2012/09/01/photos-of-the-paralympics-demonstration-against-atos-healthcare-in-london/
    And – very highly recommended – the Atos Miracles page here on Facebook, where activists are doing a wonderful job covering in detail the malignant ideological assault on the disabled: http://www.facebook.com/pages/ATOS-Miracles/259364897425986

  23. elaine says...

    Hi, I followed this whole scandal, especially during the very sparse reading in the Lords. After having lobbied MPs and sympathetic Lords it seemed that through the well co-ordinated efforts of Squash we might get somewhere, (squatting law on a legal aid bill with imminent Tory housing strategy???) but at the very same time as the Lords reading the NHS bill was being offered so concern over the legal aid bill seemed to go on the back burner.

    However, if you look at the Hansard transcripts for the Lords reading you will find out something quite shocking- the biggest concern about the squatting clause was the cost to local authorities for housing benefit payable to ex-squatters- the response? Squatters evicted under the new law won’t be entitled to any benefits as they will be “intentionally” homeless. Phew! Panic over, go back to sleep.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Elaine,
    Great to hear from you, and thanks for the very useful comments. Unfortunately there was so much going on when the welfare reform (destruction) bill was being passed – the NHS reform (destruction) bill that I spent a lot of time campaigning against – that I didn’t have time to follow everything that happened with the welfare bill. It doesn’t surprise me that squatters were excluded from any support, but I do wonder if it will be acceptable to the British people in general when more and more excluded people end up on the streets. Perhaps they hope that no one will notice, or are counting on people having lost the last vestiges of their sympathy for others less fortunate than themselves, but I hope that doesn’t come to pass. The end of sympathy is the beginning of tolerating atrocities, history tells us …

  25. Thomas says...

    Some squatters (a minority) are evil and squat homes that are very much lived in or destroy stuff.

  26. Damo says...

    We’re all up in arms about this …..yet nobody and I mean nobody is protesting…..,,we are letting Tories ,the banks all of them do exactly as they please and this is all gonna get much worse..I watched a program on rt news last week about some poor bastard in India breaking ships apart by hand a hard miserable shitty life I turned over and on the NBC news they had these cretins queuing up for iPhones …..now wot does that say about modern life….

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Damo,
    Good to hear from you. I’d been thinking of dropping you a line to check that you were OK, as I hadn’t heard from you for a while. I’m struggling myself with the general lack of engagement. Maybe that’s what the slimeball politicians and their corporate/banking masters are counting on – that we’re too atomised to get together like the Spanish people, for example. Perhaps an unprecedentedly hard economic winter will turn the tide …

  28. Damo says...

    It seems Andy that the British bulldog has had it’s cock and balls cut of,lol so much for the Dunkirk spirit it’s gone mad,crazy ,gaga,..everything that’s going on right now..jailing young boys for being homeless wtf yet the banisters walk free and get paid to walk free and carry on…ooooh I forgot were all to distracted yeah we need the latest iPhone consumer electronic gewgaws rubbish so we can endlessly bother and pester people with texts and tweets,lol,lol all the while the world goes to hell around us…silly me.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, Damo, this is what happens when all notions of solidarity are destroyed. How those in power must be laughing, now that it’s so evident that Thatcher’s dream of “no such thing as society” was a promise and not just a vile aspiration. People need to start looking out for each other again. If that happens, we’ll be able to take on these clowns. If not, it’s going to be a Darwinist struggle for survival when it all comes crashing down.

  30. Damo says...

    Your right Andy solidarity is being destroyed but for what aim ..I saw a sight this morning people going thru the bins round the back of tesco not trendy dumpster divers but men and women some woman with two small children it really has come to this now haven’t it.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    The indifference is heartbreaking, Damo. People have so sympathy, no empathy for others. They forget Pastor Niemoller’s words about the run-up to World War II in Nazi Germany:

    First they came for the Communists
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Communist
    Then they came for the Socialists
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Socialist
    Then they came for the trade unionists
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a trade unionist
    Then they came for the Jews
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Jew
    Then they came for me
    And there was no one left
    To speak out for me

    When governments have disdain for all but the top “earners” (I put it in inverted commas because most of those “earnings” are in fact stolen from someone else), we need to come together to stop them and replace them with others who recall who they are supposed to represent. It ought to be simple.

  32. Damo says...

    Yes of course Andy we should be coming together now our world is in crisis…but as I’ve said before iq,s have dropped globally we are letting gadgets,gizmos do our thinking for us we are all now so ….distracted…and ways of thinking and behaviour that 20 years ago would have horrified people have now become the norm we are changeing and changeing for the worst I,m afraid.

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, you have a point about the distractions, Damo – very possibly, people’s way of thinking is changing, and along with that they are losing their ability to empathise. However, many, many people don’t like what’s going on – are furious about it, in fact – but we have lost our ability to mobilise in large numbers, or to constantly try to undermine the state through all manner of guerilla tactics – not violence, just a million tiny acts of disobedience would start the ball rolling …

  34. Damo says...

    Thank god there are still humans about,lol people with there humanity still intact ..but how how do we overthrow the machien..how do we do it Andy…how do we destroy the matrix..lol

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s what we need to work out, Damo.
    George Monbiot had a good article in the Guardian this week, entitled, “A rightwing insurrection is usurping our democracy,” and the comments are interesting. The first asked, “Yes, George, I’ve been watching it happen. You’re right. So what are we going to do about it? Voting doesn’t seem to work – mainly because there’s no one other than the neoliberals to vote for. I’ve just been listening to news from the Labour conference. Pathetic!” And George’s response? “Only three solutions: mobilise, mobilise, mobilise. Do nothing alone. Don’t start a group if one exists already. Join, protest, march, demonstrate.”
    There’s a TUC march, ‘A Future That Works‘ on Saturday October 20 in central London. Perhaps we can start brainstorming there …

  36. Damo says...

    A very good article Andy ,a right wing insurrection ..and very true it’s funny as I was reading the article I was half watching ..the nazis a warning from history..

  37. Andy Worthington says...

    Glad you liked it, Damo, but it’s sad, isn’t it, that none of us know what we can do, decisively, to shorten the life of this damned government.

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