[If you want to contact a Lord about the antisquatting amendment to the Legal Aid Bill, go here]
Dear Lord Bassam,
I am writing to you as someone involved with both the Squatters Network of Brighton (SNOB) and Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH). Together we are campaigning against the government’s plans to criminalise squatting.
As you know, the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders (LAPSO) Bill, which has reached the Committee Stage in the House of Lords, includes a late amendment (clause 130) which would make squatting in ‘residential’ buildings a criminal offence.
I believe that this law is unnecessary as existing criminal law is
fully adequate – it already protects residents and soon-to-be residents.
Furthermore, I am extremely concerned that it will exacerbate and
criminalise homelessness in a worsening housing crisis and will put
greater strain on the public purse in a time of severe cutbacks. The SQUASH briefing (here) covers this in more detail.
You are a former squatter yourself and were no doubt involved in CACTL, the Campaign Against the Criminal Trespass Law, back in the 1970s. I hope it is clear to you that just as it was a terrible idea to criminalise squatting then, it still is today.
When we asked you on Twitter how you felt about the bill, you said you would be making your feelings known. I hope you have! You may not be able to speak, being Chief Whip, but of course you can still voice your opinion. In response to the government’s consultation entitled ‘Options For Dealing with Squatting’, the Metropolitan Police, the Law Society and the Magistrates Association were amongst the 96% of respondents who do not want to see any action taken on squatting, along with homelessness charities and concerned members of the public.
Liberty, which also opposes bill, said:
“We are concerned that the proposed new offence will largely affect
empty or abandoned homes and will expose vulnerable homeless people to the criminal law. If passed, clause 130 could leave individuals with no choice but to sleep on the streets”.
I ask that you consider opposing Clause 130 for all the reasons
mentioned above. At second best, I would encourage you to support one of the alternative amendments, such as that proposed by homeless charity Crisis which would exclude properties left empty for more than 6 months from the scope of the law.
Squatting in Brighton took an interesting turn last week – there was a whole seven days of mayhem, ranging from the authorities and their thugs coordinating eviction waves, to estate agents and their hired heavies acting as if the law doesn’t apply to them. There have been at least five evictions this week and plenty of other stuff too. At a time when homelessness figures are rising in Brighton and Hove, it seems like the Council just doesn’t want to recognise that some people want homes without languishing on the seven year long waiting list.
The photo shows Brookmead, a Council property evicted over a year ago and still empty.
Friday 20th January kicked off the attack on homelessness, with three Brighton squats being taken to court on the same day. Ditchling Cottage, a council-owned property, Ditchling Road, a privately-owned flat, and an old PDSA shop, all lost. Court resumed on Monday with another squat in court – this time for an interim possession order (which usually implies the building is about to be put to immediate use or is currently in use). The order was granted – despite the fact the building has been empty for months, has no carpet, light bulbs, or even pipes in certain rooms.
Monday quickly got worse – a new squat got a knock on the door from an suited estate agent. When the occupiers refused to open to door, the other men took to kicking it open. Swearing and brandishing planks of wood, the thugs dragged everyone outside, then hurled their possessions out the window, including metal radiators. Police arrived after three phone calls, only to say that they didn’t think any crimes had taken place, then quickly made their escape, ignoring the video footage of the radiator being thrown from a first floor window at the squatters.
As the law stands, squatting is still legal – section six means that if a building is squatted, the squatters are the legal occupiers and therefore ‘any entry or attempt to enter into this property without our permission is a criminal offence as any one of us who is in physical possession is opposed to entry without our permission.’. The estate agent clearly broke the law, but the police paid no attention.
With the looming threat of evictions, another group of squatters went to go find some place new, only to be apprehended by the police – who stood on the other side of a large garden wall and threatened to release the dogs if they didn’t comply. The squatters were then arrested for vagrancy (under a law dating from 1824), which actually refers to rough sleeping and begging. They were then released without charge a whopping eighteen hours later.
Thursday didn’t go much better, when a newly squatted building with plans for social project had a visit from some angry hired goons – no estate agent in site. They acted in generally thuggish manner – smashing the window and threatening the occupiers. The police arrived, announcing that the thugs were known to them and had a long list of convictions. With more and more squatters turning up (we had about thirty people inside and another fifty outside!) the police decided to take our side for once, in accordance with the law. They then left, leaving the heavies to drink in a nearby pub – they threatened to come back and finish smashing stuff later, but of course it was all talk.
In amongst the chaos – two people knocked on a door on London Road, trying to find a squat, only to be crept up on by some more police, accused of criminal damage and cuffed – their only crime to apparently be recognised outside a squat. The two were stopped and searched but released after the realisation that they were, actually, just knocking on a door.
Then on Friday, exactly a week after the court hearings, the bailiffs and police paid visits to the squats that were in court. First, Ditchling Cottage had a early morning wake-up call in the form of metal poles being driven through the windows by Council workers, whilst helmeted bailiffs and police stood by and watched. A woman standing next to one window was showered with broken glass. Police officers then promptly arrested … four squatters, rather than the people using violence without licence. Two were immediately released, the other two were held for fourteen hours up at Hollingbury copshop and charged with “assaulting the police” (pff!)
Next, the bailiffs marched to the other Ditchling Road squat, where people left peacefully (not wanting to have poles thrust at them no doubt). The bailiffs smashed up all the sinks and toilets, then booted everyone out. We’re guessing that means no-one due to start renting it anytime soon. PDSA was also evicted. The residents took their belongings and left.
These events leave us pondering increased attacks on those seeking shelter in Brighton. Not only are evictions becoming more violent; evictions also seem to be coordinated, and squatters are branded criminals. Tactically coordinated evictions leave numerous groups of squatters simultaneously homeless, unable to rely on each other for help and support. Although squatting is still legal, it appears that both police and estate agents believe and act otherwise.
So all in all it was a pretty crazy week, but worry not, we can end this report with some good news…
All the squatters are now rehoused in new squats. And no dogs were harmed in the making of this article.
Completely ignoring the press release we sent them yesterday, the Brighton Argus instead published a “sensational” piece called ‘Squatters use law to find empty homes’ in which it is alleged that because squatters are using FOI requests to search for empty properties the Council will not release a list.
This is not a good article on a number of levels:
1 Jason Kitcat, owner of a great name and also a Green councillor is quoted as saying: “They are trying to get a list of empty properties to use as a list to squat.” We spoke to him about that and he said to us:
“Unfortunately what I said to The Argus is not what they printed! I categorically said there was NO suggestion this list was about squatting, but that’s what some people on twitter were suggesting.”
2 Also misrepresented was someone from SNOB who spoke to the dashing Ben Parsons from the Argus and said he wasn’t sure where the FOI requests are available.
3 ANYONE can access FOI requests! Many people are interested in the scandal of empty properties, such as academics, housing rights campaigners, journalists and the people who have to live near blighted houses, to name just four examples. Most squatters we know go out and look around for empties. On a quick google we found the request in question, in amongst requests to many other councils by the same person.
4 There isn’t actually any evidence to support the claim in the title!
5 Doesn’t the journalist find it interesting that Brighton Council refused the request but Worthing and Lewes complied? Is that not the real story here?
Unfortunately, unlike Jason Kitcat who responded quickly, the Argus is currently ignoring our requets to either pull the article or give us a right to reply.