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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 September 2012

Con-Dems criminalise homeless people

Paul Heron, Solicitor, Hackney Community Law Centre (personal capacity)

A new criminal offence of 'squatting in a residential building', came into force on 1 September 2012 by way of section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

This vindictive piece of Con-Dem legislation will raise concern across England and Wales. For some, it marks a long-awaited triumph for private landlords, but for many others it comes as a serious threat to their basic need for shelter and a home.

The 'consultation exercise' that preceded its introduction saw 96% of responses 'not wanting to see any action taken on squatting'. Out of 2,217 responses, 2,126 of those were from members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalising squatting, and only ten people wrote in claiming to be victims of squatting.

Amazingly the Metropolitan police, the Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association and numerous homeless charities such as Crisis, all publicly opposed its introduction.

In the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen, up to 50,000 squatters face becoming criminals because they are occupying empty residential properties in order to put a roof over their heads.

The number of private and public new homes has fallen to the lowest level since the 1920s. Consequently, homelessness rates are rising, a hidden army of 'sofa surfers' exist across the country, housing benefit caps are further tightening the screws on tenants, and remember, many of those receiving housing benefit are working.

Not surprisingly when squatting is reported in the media it often cites an example of the homeowner who 'goes on holiday, and returns to find his home squatted.'

Protecting profits

While sympathy can be extended in such cases, they are very rare and are often overplayed in the right-wing press for political gain. The reality is that for most people who squat it is because they do not have access to affordable accommodation, and it is in properties that have been abandoned for many years.

With a stroke of a pen thousands of ordinary working class people will possibly be convicted, facing up to six months in jail and fines of up to 5,000.

Serious questions need to be asked of this legislation. With 930,000 empty properties according to the Empty Homes Agency, who is this law protecting? As socialists we can only see that the new law protects profiteering landlords and property speculators. Properties are being kept empty to protect profits, and the new law does nothing but shore up this practice.

In fact it can be argued that the law is open to abuse by rogue landlords, which could even mean trouble for non-squatting tenants - who may have a tenancy agreement that the landlord will deny.

The attack against squatting is a marked shift not only in the campaign against people now facing homelessness, but one to defend private property rights over the human right to shelter.

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In The Socialist 5 September 2012:

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Socialist Party news and analysis

Southampton council pay dispute

London Met university crisis

Con-Dems criminalise homeless people

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Stopping the far-right - The need for democratic debate

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