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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.