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.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.