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September is now upon us, and at a time when an increasing number of people are falling into redundancies, unable to find employment, unable to pay their rent, and ending up without housing; the new squatting law comes into force as of today. This new piece of legislation now makes squatting a criminal offence in England and Wales. However, squatting in commercial premises will remain a civil matter.
The new offence, introduced by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, will be punishable by a maximum prison term of up to six months, a maximum £5,000 fine, or both. Under this new law, the Police will now be able to assist landlords in evicting squatters from their property.
This change in the law has been described as ‘a tax subsidy’ for landlords, with the Chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, Giles Peaker, stating that:
‘ [Landlords] will no longer have to pay to get people evicted; it will be the police’s job to do it, paid for out of the public purse’.
Right-wing homeowners are delighted; whilst left-wingers such as lawyer and journalist, David Allen Green stated on Twitter:
“Bit by bit, the British state is shifting property rights from a civil law to a criminal law basis. Both misconceived and highly illiberal.”
A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘Residential occupiers are already adequately protected from trespass under the Criminal Law Act 1977, and for that reason we, along with the Metropolitan Police, the Magistrates’ Association and many others, did not see the need for the introduction of a new criminal offence for squatting.’
Campaigners have warned that criminalising squatting in residential buildings would lead to an increase in some of the most vulnerable homeless people sleeping rough. Furthermore, once a person is confined to a life on the street, it is very difficult to find a way out. Employment is unavailable to those without a fixed address, leaving a large number of people destined to life of homelessness for as long as they are unable to squat or have their name listed on a very long waiting list for council accommodation – provided they have a disability or dependents. As the homeless charity, Crisis, has stated, the new law will now criminalise vulnerable people who are just trying to find a place off the streets, leaving them in prison or facing a fine that they are unable to pay.
Ultimately the Government needs to tackle the reasons as to why homeless people squat in the first place by helping, not punishing them. “It also misses the point,” Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of Crisis, said. “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.”
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt also added: “For too long, squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Not any more. Hard-working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first – this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting.”
Certainly, one advantage to the new law is that having the police involved in removing squatters is surely more preferable to an unscrupulous landlord “sending the boys round”, which might also put innocent tenants at risk in a case where a home has been sublet without the landlord’s permission, unbeknown to the innocent subtenant.
Whilst the right-wingers and homeowners may continue to cheer as they read these words, I raise the question as to whether the police will have the resources to enforce this new offence, given their previous unwillingness to act with the previous law outlined by section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. Not to mention that the new law is poorly drafted. Unlike section 7 of the 1977 Act, which previously protected homeowners by making it a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in a property after being ordered to leave by the owner; the new law does not cover gardens. Therefore, a person squatting in someone’s garden shed will, technically speaking, not be covered by the new law. Thus, we might now discover some truth in the fairytale phrase “pixies at the bottom of garden”…
On that note, I wish you all a nice weekend.