Death of homeless man blamed on anti-squatting laws

Daniel Gauntlett froze to death last weekend on the doorstep of an empty bungalow.

A homeless man in Aylesford, Kent, froze to death last weekend on the doorstep of an empty bungalow, according to Kent Online. Thirty-five-year-old Daniel Gauntlett had previously had trouble with the police when he tried to break into the abandoned building for shelter, and apparently took the decision to stay outside for the night, risking his safety to stay on the right side of the law.

Chris Hunter reports:

Derek Bailey, 80, who lives next door, said Mr Gauntlett had not appeared to be in ill health.

"They took him up to the hospital about a fortnight before when they'd found him and social workers got involved," said Mr Bailey.

"It was just the bitter weather. I know a lot about cold weather because I was in the Canadian army. I've known it drop to minus 70 but the trouble with this country is the dampness."

The news has been widely linked to recent anti-squatting legislation, after a bill signed into law last year made squatting on residential property a criminal act. The Morning Star's Rory MacKinnon reports about the site "Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet?" which places direct blame for Gauntlett's death on Tory MP Mike Weatherley, who proposed the legislation to the commons. MacKinnon writes:

The Bill, which was proposed by Mr Weatherley and signed into law last year, made it a criminal offence to squat in a residential property - meaning police could immediately evict and arrest Mr Gauntlett. The MP could not be reached for comment today, but the creator of anonymous website Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet? pulled no punches.

"[The] situation of homeless people is already desperate. Mike Weatherley is personally responsible for making it worse," they told the Morning Star. "I hope he remembers that every time he tries to go to sleep."

Weatherley's legislation sparked widespread protest, with much of the objection focusing on the fact that squatting was often the least-worst outcome for someone on the verge of homelessness. While a working housing system wouldn't need to allow squatting, we clearly do not have a working housing system. Charities warned that criminalising squatting would lead to an increase in homelessness, and the government proceeded anyway, with Grant Shapps, then the housing minister, saying:

We're tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.

That crystal clarity may have been responsible for Daniel Gauntlett taking the risk that ultimately cost him his life.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation