Year's imprisonment for vulnerable squatters to be forced through next week
26 October 2011
The Government has announced this morning that it will push through measures on Monday to criminalise squatting, leaving vulnerable homeless people facing up to a year's imprisonment.
The amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will make it a criminal offence to squat in any residential property, including those that are empty and abandoned. Punishment could be up to a year's imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine, the Ministry of Justice announced.
The change comes despite independent research1 that found homeless people are often forced to resort to squatting, with 40% of single homeless people have squatted at some point. The research also found that homeless squatters are some of the most vulnerable of all homeless people, suffering from a range of disadvantages from mental and physical ill health to learning disabilities and drug and alcohol dependency.
The new measures will apply to residential properties, despite the fact that it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave someone's home or a house people are about to move in to2. The Government should have focussed on enforcing these existing laws rather than bringing in this amendment which offers in practice little additional protection for homeowners yet will criminalise anyone squatting in an abandoned or empty property, of which there are over 700,000 in England alone3.
Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: "A year's imprisonment for some of society's most vulnerable and desperate people is draconian and utterly counterproductive.
"Independent research is clear that 40% of single homeless people have resorted to squatting. Homeless squatters have extremely high incidences of mental and physical ill health, learning disabilities, drug and alcohol dependency and a raft of other disadvantages. They squat out of necessity, not choice, in atrocious conditions where they are least likely to be disturbed. These are people that need help - not a year behind bars and a £5,000 fine."
On 5 October a three month Government consultation into criminalisation of squatting came to an end. The Government is proceeding with this amendment despite strong concerns raised by Crisis and other expert organisations and without having issued its own response to the consultation.
Notes to editor
For further media information or to request an interview with a Crisis spokesperson, please contact Garry Lemon, Media Communications Manager at Crisis, on 020 7426 3880 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1Detailed research findings:
Squatting: a homelessness issue was undertaken by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University on behalf of homelessness charity Crisis. The report draws on analysis from a range of previous research into homelessness and squatting.
Full research can be found here: http://www.crisis.org.uk/publications-search.php?fullitem=327
- 40% of single homeless people have squatted at some point, with 6% at any one time. 21% of single homeless women and 46% of single homeless people with complex needs have all squatted at some point
- People with mental ill health were consistently proven to be more likely to resort to squatting. Most recent (2011) findings are 46% of single homeless people with mental ill health have squatted, compared to 36% of those without
- Other factors which were more prevalent in single homeless squatters were: physical ill health (42%); a history of care (34%); drug dependency (47%); learning disability (15%); childhood homelessness (15%); self harm (21%)
Why do people squat?
- The evidence consistently points to squatting as a response to housing need
- Most homeless people who squat (78%) have approached a local authority for help and most of these are recognised as homeless but not considered a priority for housing
- Most homeless people try other avenues before moving into a squat but are thwarted by scarcity or expense of provision, such as hostels, B&Bs and shelters
- Squatting is often the last resort to avoid rough sleeping. 90% of squatters had slept rough
Where do people squat?
- Squatters occupy empty buildings, including flats awaiting demolition, derelict abandoned residential and commercial properties
- A key concern for squatters was that they do not attract attention to themselves
- None of the squatters interviewed in any of the research reports had squatted properties occupied by an owner or tenant
- Squats are often in poor condition with broken windows, lack of running water, heat and electricity, vermin, damp and fire risks common
- Conditions are so poor squatters' physical health can be damaged
- Squatters are often disengaged from services and welfare benefits
2Squatting, media coverage and the law
Recent media coverage misrepresenting the law around squatting provoked a letter from over 160 legal professionals to the Guardian newspaper. It is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave someone's home or a house that they are about to move in to. Owners of properties which are not their home can seek a possession order through the civil courts. They can also apply for an Interim Possession Order, which normally takes a few days to be made and served. Squatters are committing a criminal offence if they then do not leave within 24 hours. Squatters can also be prosecuted for related offences including criminal damage or using utilities such as gas and water without paying for them.
Find out more about what Crisis is doing to campaign against the criminalisation of squatters.
Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) is one of the UK's leading academic research centres specialising in social and economic regeneration, housing and labour market analysis. For more information, go to www.shu.ac.uk/cresr
3 Info from the Empty Homes campaign
Background on CrisisCrisis is the national charity for single homeless people. We are dedicated to ending homelessness by delivering life-changing services and campaigning for change. Our innovative education, employment, housing and well-being services address individual needs and help people to transform their lives. We are determined campaigners, working to prevent people from becoming homeless and advocating solutions informed by research and our direct experience. We have ambitious plans for the future and are committed to help more people in more places across the UK. We know we won't end homelessness overnight or on our own. But we take a lead, collaborate with others and, together, make change happen.