Squatting is where a person knowingly enters a residential building as a trespasser, with the intention to live there. Dependant on circumstances, squatters may also be considered homeless.
Squatting in a residential property is now a criminal offence…
Under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, squatting in a residential property is now a criminal offence. If a person commits this offence, they may have to pay a maximum fine of £5,000 and spend up to a year in prison. Prior to the criminalisation of squatting in a residential property, it was only an offence to commit criminal damage whilst squatting.
The reason for this change in the law was that MPs came under pressure to protect homeowners from squatting incidents. If a homeowner wanted to remove a squatter from their property, they would have to go to a civil court and prove the squatter had trespassed. Homeowners felt they had to jump through hoops to acquire their property back.
Pressure to extend the law
Now, Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary, is under pressure to extend the law to include commercial property as well as residential. Conservative MPs are the instigators for the suggestion, though three senior Labour figures have also approved of the idea. Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary, is pressing for the change along with former Labour minister Dame Tessa Jowell and Lib Peck, who is the leader of Lambeth Council.
The letter went on to highlight two significant cases in Lambeth:
Chris Grayling…is under pressure to extend the law to include commercial property as well as residential.
- First, squatters trespassed into 111 Westminster Bridge Road and caused £100,000 worth of damage. They stripped the building, allegedly raped a woman, assaulted several people and there was an attempted suicide. The squatters were removed after eight weeks by the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group.
- Second, squatters moved into Patmos Lodge which was formerly a housing shelter. The costs of security and eviction rose to £150,000 after they squatted there for two years.
It is apparent from these cases that squatting in commercial properties is a costly situation. Although these are the only major cases in Lambeth, smaller cases have a frequent occurrence not only in Lambeth, but the whole of the UK. It is estimated that the government spends £400 million on homelessness per year, with a high percentage of that figure going towards squatting costs.
As well as soaring costs, commercial property owners also have to go through the courts if they want to get their property back. They must apply for an interim possession order as well as putting in an application for possession. If proper procedures are followed, the average time it takes for an owner to get their property back is approximately two weeks. However, dependant on the seriousness of the case, this could take a lot longer.
This has been described by various commercial property owners as an outrage because the property is theirs and they should not have to do anything to gain access. Owners are questioning why residential properties are protected by the law, but commercial properties are not.
Why shouldn’t it be criminalised?
However, national homelessness charity, Crisis, believes that if commercial properties are left unoccupied, there is no reason homeless people should be punished for trying to put a roof over their heads.
According to research carried out by Crisis, it has been identified that a large majority of homeless people are vulnerable. 37% of squatters suffer from mental health problems and 20% are alcohol dependant.
Crisis believes that the government should be spending money on targeting these issues before they criminalise homeless people who squat. They believe the government should make more affordable housing and ensure squatters have a roof over their heads. This would mean money is spent more effectively rather than having to pay to remove squatters and repair the damage they have caused as a direct result of their illnesses and addictions.
Crisis…believe the government should make more affordable housing and ensure squatters have a roof over their heads.
Crisis feels that the government is being discriminatory towards squatters, especially since squatting in residential properties has now criminalised. It is being argued that if squatting in commercial properties is also criminalised, the government are truly letting down squatters as they are giving them no other alternative but to sleep on the streets.
This is turn could lead to increased levels of crime on the streets, such as theft and assault. This may not always be the fault of the homeless person, but perhaps the general public who see vulnerability and choose to take advantage.
Therefore if the government opt to criminalise squatting in commercial properties, there could be disadvantageous and undesirable consequences.
On the other hand, the alleged rape and assaults that occurred at 111 Westminster Bridge prove that crime does not only happen on the streets. A squat can evolve into a highly dangerous place to live so it must be considered which would cause more harm: crime on the streets or crime in the squats.
Is it going to change?
Grayling is said to be weighing up the pros and cons of extending the law as he is ‘sympathetic’ towards the issue. A spokesperson has said Grayling will write to MPs to attempt to gain a better perspective of the situation and to identify the wants and needs of each constituency.
The spokesperson has said that it is understood how squatters can impact commercial property owners, as the fees to remove squatters and court costs are extortionate in many instances. As well as this, property owners are expected to continue to pay full business rates in their unoccupied properties in this harsh economic climate.
Intelligence from high court enforcement officers tells us that they believe squatting in commercial properties will be criminalised as the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Protecting the hard-working tax-payer is a higher priority than protecting the homeless squatter in the eyes of the government, as can be seen from the criminalisation of squatting in residential properties.
The government must take into consideration public interest when creating new law. In this case, the factors to be debated are cost, a potential new wave of crime on the streets and protecting property owners and the public.