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Squatting? It's a choice between homelessness and a criminal record, says Laurie Penny

Moves to outlaw squatting in empty houses should be an outrage on the left.

The police called some of them "scum". Many of them who are not already among Britain's tens of thousands of homeless people will shortly become so, following today's ratification of Clause 26 of the Legal Aid bill, which criminalises squatting in empty houses.

And yet, as officers moved in against the impromptu demonstration outside Parliament on Monday night -- dragging and forcibly removing many -- the demonstrators sat down, linked arms and sang "Happy Birthday". "It's one way to defuse a situation like that," said a 26-year old squatter, who did not want to give his name.

The passing of this amendment, tabled in the face of overwhelming public pressure, means that most of the 20,000 citizens who currently live in empty or abandoned housing stock in Britain will be forced to choose between homelessness and a criminal record -- maximum sentence is a year's jailtime and a £5,000 fine.

I have written before about the misrepresentation of squatting in the press, but given that there are over half a million empty properties in Britain, half a million "hidden homeless", five million people currently on the housing list and tens of thousands more facing homelessness as a result of government cuts to housing benefit, according to leading homelessness charities, it should be a point of outrage on the left that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have thrown their support behind the anti-squatting amendment.

This, however, is a campaign that has, from the start, been about turning the property-owning middle classes against the poor.

The tabloid narrative, pushed most heavily by the Evening Standard, has been that decent, hardworking homeowners come home from holiday and find their houses invaded by filthy reprobates who are somehow protected by law from being evicted. In fact, in the few incidents where occupied buildings are squatted, there is already legislation in place to criminalise those who threaten homeowners in this way, under the terms of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

This new amendment would make it an offence to squat any empty residential building -- even if it has been abandoned for years. With rents going up, wages going down and homelessness a very real possibility for tens of thousands of people, one can understand why a government determined not to actually fund infrastructure investments like housing projects would want to stop desperate people getting any ideas.

Actual cases of hostile home takeovers are incredibly few and far between. A government consultation on the proposed changes to the law found that out of thousands of respondents, over 90 per cent agreed that no changes were necessary, whilst just ten wrote in to say that they had been "victims" of squatting.

Most squatters do not pose a threat to ordinary homeowners, but they are a potential embarrassment to a government whose best response to the housing crisis is to make homelessness illegal, which is rather like solving a food shortage by making hunger illegal.

Squatting an empty property is an act of defiance, a reclamation of psychic space, and it is no accident that police have focused on raiding squats and other "alternative" communities while searching for dissidents and student protesters this year. Many, although by no means all, squats have become centres for alternative thought, in which people attempt to live outside of the restrictions of capital and consumerism, building new kinds of community. Most have no more illicit aims than running free mother-and-toddler yoga sessions for local residents, but that's exactly the kind of Big Society organisation that's punishable by a night in the cells in David Cameron's Britain.

Squatting is an ancient right, enshrined in the British tradition of the Commons -- or it was, until today. In Cameron's Britain, there is no room for diggers and dreamers, no space for the destitute and homeless who make lives for themselves in the cracks between capitalism. The confiscation of that right will make thousands homeless, for no better reason than spite.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.