Although the coalition government has made no secret of its desire to criminalise squatting, the proposals are being quietly introduced by way of an amendment to the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill.
We are in an economic climate where jobs are being lost and public sector spending cuts are biting. There is a shortage of affordable housing, whether rented or owned, and rising levels of child poverty. Proposed restrictions on welfare benefits will only serve to exacerbate the problem: research suggests that up to 133,000 workless households in London will be unable to pay their rent under the reforms.
Recently the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University undertook research on behalf of Crisis about the nature and extent of squatting. The final report revealed some interesting and worrying statistics:
• Around 78% of homeless people who squat have approached a local authority for help, but although recognised as homeless they have not been entitled to housing because they are not in priority need or are considered intentionally homeless.
• Many squatters have significant welfare needs: 34% of homeless people who squat had been in care; 42% had physical ill health or a disability; 41% reported mental health problems.
• Homeless people who squat occupy empty buildings.
• Squats are often in poor condition, lacking running water, heating and electricity, with damp, broken windows and unsafe stairwells.
Given the current levels of housing shortage, is it really wrong for empty properties to be used in this way when the alternative is a life on the streets? Should the state be paying for the consequences of criminalising the actions of those in desperate housing need?
The government has produced an impact assessment specifically for the proposed new offence of squatting, which suggests that there could be between 350 and 4,200 defendants accused of the offence in any one year. Given that the vast majority of squatters will have no financial means with which to pay a fine, prison may well be the only viable option left open to the courts. It is therefore quite conceivable that the prison population (and attendant cost to the state) will continue to grow. In times of austerity, is that responsible?