‘As the Metropolitan Police say, and this brilliant publication reveals, most buildings that squatters live in have been abandoned or are otherwise empty. When peoples’ only choice is criminalized, the legality of the law itself is discredited.’ – Danny Dorling (All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster)
Almost everyone was against the criminalization of squatting. When the Ministry of Justice put out their consultation – Options for Dealing with Squatting – in July 2011, it’s safe to assume they had not anticipated that 96 per cent of respondents would ask them not to change the law; they must have been surprised to discover that included people like the Metropolitan Police Force, the Law Society, their own Liberal Democrat partners in government, and various homeless charities, including Crisis and Shelter. Despite overwhelming opposition, the government ploughed ahead with their property protection plan; what was previously a private matter between property owners and occupiers is now a matter for the police – and can be punished by up to six months in prison or a $6,760.00 fine.
Take a closer look and it’s not difficult to see why most were against criminalization. At the time squatting was criminalized in England and Wales, there were 1.2 million families on housing waiting-lists, while over 750,000 properties stood empty for six months or more. Despite Ministers and the media laying the groundwork for legislative change bycarpet bombing public opinion with mistruths, the reality is that squatting is a relatively minor problem; however, one of the major causes of the UK housing crisis is property being kept deliberately unavailable and unused by wealthy speculators – often as a way of avoiding tax. It is speculation, not squatting, that causes most insecurity in the housing market.
And as the consultation responses revealed, not everyone sees squatting as a problem: most respondents to the consultation wrote in support of its many positives. One such response pointed out that squatting is only a problem for those who own multiple properties, and that it has traditionally been a solution for those who can’t call themselves owners:
‘The number of Interim Possession Orders indicates that this really is quite a small problem for society (although it can be a large problem for a small number of individuals). The “tradition” of squatting, traced back to the Diggers, has undoubtedly had benefits for society.’
All this begs the question: why would the government spend vast sums of public money to protect those who perpetuate the problems caused by empty properties? And why would it do so by criminalizing homeless people in the midst of a housing crisis? Many respondents to the consultation questioned the government’s priorities: property protection for the rich and prison for the poor seemed an unfair proposition of almost Dickensian proportion. In their consultation response, Liberal Democrat think-tank Alterpointed out that those who benefit from criminalization – wealthy tax-avoiders – have the ear of government:
‘This change is contrary to the interests of UK taxpayers. It would provide a valuable state funded benefit to wealthy tax avoiders. This influential lobby has the ear of Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt. If he were concerned about ordinary property owners who actually pay tax in the UK, there are far cheaper ways of protecting them from squatters.’
During what little debate there was on criminalization, John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor) reminded the House of Commons that it should ask of all legislation: ‘Will it cause more problems than it seeks to prevent?’ After six months, not a single person arrested under Section 144 was found to be displacing a home-owner. The first person to be jailed under the new law was Alex Haigh, a 21-year-old brick layer who, struggling to find work during a housing crisis, was living in a property in Pimlico, London that had been otherwise empty for over a year at the time of his arrest, and was owned by property developers.
There is some hope that this obviously unjust law could be binned. These days, there’s significantly shorter shrift for wealthy tax-avoiders ploughing their ill-gotten gains into London property and leaving it empty, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis. Nobody could have predicted that John McDonnell – who campaigned against the criminalization of squatting both before and after the introduction of Section 144 – would one day become Shadow Chancellor. If a new-look Labour gain power, a repeal could well be on the cards – because, as McDonnell said six months after criminalization:
‘People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse.’
Options for dealing with squatting is a short collection of responses to the consultation, published by Dog Section Press. You can read it online or pick up a print copy.
Despite the British government criminalising residential squatting in 2012, the squat community is still active and squatting remains a defiant protest against inadequate housing and inequality.
In July 2011, the Ministry of Justice launched its euphemistically titled consultation, ‘Options for dealing with squatting’. Successive administrations had attempted to deal with squatting, and from the outset it appeared that the new Conservative government was determined to continue the crusade. It would do this not by addressing supply and demand in the housing market, but by seeking to criminalise trespass; what was a civil matter between owners and occupiers, the government intended to make a matter for the police.
It came as a surprise to the Ministry of Justice when 96% of respondents to their consultation were against criminalisation. They must have been fairly aghast to find that included not just squatters and their supporters, but also people like the Metropolitan Police, their own Liberal Democrat partners in government, and an array of homeless charities including Crisis and Shelter. Only ten private landlords responded to the consultation to say that they had been negatively affected by squatting.
Although the government and its media cheerleaders paved the way for criminalisation by carpet bombing public opinion with obfuscation about Eastern Europeans squatting your home as soon as you nip out for a pint of milk, the truth is that squatting has historically been a relatively minor problem. In their response, the Law Society told the government that the civil law relating to squatting was “not often used, because squatting happens infrequently, but where it is, our members report that it is extremely effective.” The Met told the MoJ, with uncharacteristic clarity, that the majority of buildings that are squatted are “either empty of abandoned”.
And of course, not everyone sees squatting as a problem: most respondents to the consultation wrote in support of its many positives. One such response pointed out that squatting is only a problem for those who own multiple properties, and that it has traditionally been a solution for those who can’t call themselves owners: “The number of Interim Possession Orders indicates that this really is quite a small problem for society (although it can be a large problem for a small number of individuals). The ‘tradition’ of squatting, traced back to the Diggers has undoubtedly had benefits for society.”
Despite overwhelming opposition, the government ploughed ahead with their property protection wet-dream and it became law in 2012. The act of seeking shelter in abandoned residential properties – squatting – has been dealt with: anyone found putting a roof over their head in this way can now be punished by up to six months in prison or a £5,000 fine. The first person to be jailed under the new law was Alex Haigh, a 21 year old brick-layer who, struggling to find work in the midst of a housing crisis, was living in a property in Pimlico, London that had been otherwise empty for over a year at the time of his arrest.
During what little debate there was on criminalisation, John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor) reminded the House of Commons that it should ask of all legislation: “Will it cause more problems than it seeks to prevent?” After six months, not a single person arrested under the new law was found to be displacing a home-owner; at the time squatting in residential buildings was criminalised, there were over 750,000 properties in the UK that stood empty for six months or more.
Options for dealing with squatting is a short, anonymously and collectively authored book of responses to the consultation: a platform for opinions that have otherwise been ignored. It’s a modest rallying cry, as well as an attempt to call-out a deficit of democracy in the parliamentary process – a folio in the door of history. As the old chant goes: whatever they say, squatting will stay.
One of the victories of the campaign against criminalisation was that only squatting in residential buildings was outlawed: squatting in commercial buildings is still a private matter between owner and occupier. So while it’s not easy, there is still a squatting scene in London and other big cities in England and Wales. And that scene is still important, both for those that have no better housing options and for those that use squatting as a protest.
There is some hope that this unjust law could be binned. These days, there’s significantly shorter shrift for wealthy tax-avoiders ploughing their ill-gotten gains into London property and leaving it empty, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis. Nobody could have predicted that John McDonnell – who campaigned against the criminalisation of squatting both before and after the introduction of Section 144 – would one day become Shadow Chancellor. If a new-look Labour gain power, activists hope a repeal could well be on the cards – because, as McDonnell said six months after criminalisation: “People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse.”
Infamous street-artist Banksy made headlines again this week with his latest illicit artwork. The piece, which was painted opposite the French Embassy in London, features a crying Cosette from Les Miserables, her tears the result of a cloud of CS gas that engulfs her. Like his recent pieces on the edge of The Jungle camp and around Calais, it’s another comment on the refugee crisis. This piece takes a pop at the French government’s handling of the situation – and, in particular, their use of public order weaponry against the people that live in the makeshift encampment.
In a first for the elusive street artist, his piece featured a QR code. By scanning the code with a QR reader, viewers were linked to a Youtube video of CS, rubber bullets and concussion grenades being fired indiscriminately into the camp, which is situated on dunes on the outskirts of the Port au Calais. Despite video evidence, just last week police spokesman Steve Barbet issued a denial against such tactics: ‘It’s not in our interest to use teargas unless it’s absolutely necessary to restore public order, and it is never used in the camp itself,’ he told the Guardian.
Banksy has another link to The Jungle: when his Dismaland exhibition was dismantled after its five week summer run, the artist sent leftover materials to the camp to be turned into shelters. The materials were accompanied by Dismaland crew members, who have so far constructed 12 dwellings, a community centre and a children’s play area, in a project that has become known as ‘Dismalaid’.
When the crew visited, they found evidence everywhere of weapons being used inside the camp. An anonymous member of the of the Dismalaid crew told us: ‘It’s impossible to walk from one end of the camp to the other without stumbling upon various bits of depleted weaponry – from CS canisters to rubber bullet casings to spent cartridges, they’re all over the place. And everyone you speak to has stories of the Gendarmes firing them indiscriminately into the camp – seemingly with little reason, very often.’
And when crew members used Riot ID, a civic forensics project designed to help civilians identify riot control weapons, they found out that the weapons being used were not designed for shooting at people at close range or in confined spaces likes tents, lorries, tunnels and fenced in border zones. Impact munitions like rubber bullets have strict guidelines on distance and angles for firing. Likewise, how ‘safe’ or harmful tear gas is depends on the amount of chemicals released, how close you are to where it is discharged, as well as on how much air is moving through the area. Because refugee camps like The Jungle are overcrowded and heavily secured with fencing, razor wire and guards, when tear gas is set off, no one can escape very far.
Being trapped by tear gas can lead to serious injuries and even to death, as the killing of a 20-year-old Eritrean woman in Calais last July made clear. The young woman was hit by a car while fleeing from tear gas fired at close range by the police into the back of a lorry.
Not only are the French security forces shooting people with riot control weapons at close range, almost all the tear gas casings the Dismalaid crew found were identified as out-of-date. Like other chemical products, tear gas expires, becoming dangerous for a number of reasons. For one, the mechanism that sets off the canister or grenade can become faulty. This can lead to injury for anyone handling them. It can also make the devices more likely to cause fires – especially when lodged into enclosed spaces like tents or lorries. This dangerous police behaviour can be deadly.
In addition, the chemical compound contained in expired weapons may no longer be approved according to the most recent safety tests and certificates. But perhaps most ominously, expired riot control casings are very difficult to trace back to the point of sale – allowing both weapons manufacturers and governments to evade blame.
One can imagine the thinking behind using out-of-date, potentially illegal weaponry on people with no legal status: has someone in a police station somewhere in Calais taken the decision to use up old stock on those with no right to complain? Perhaps they gambled no one will find out and, even if they did, that no-one will care anyway. But more and more people are becoming sympathetic to the plight of the refugees perched on that small patch of land in the Port au Calais. And by using Riot ID, the crew in Calais were able to identify tear gas casing as products of French manufacturers SAE Alsetex, Nobel Sport Securite and Verney-Carron, as well as US-based Combined Tactical Systems. These companies are industry leaders that export around the world – in the Port au Calais they’re profiting from the repression of refugees.
Riot ID is a project from Omega Research Foundation, Bahrain Watch and Bournemouth University with Minute Works graphic design. The RiotID pocket guide is available to freely download in Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish and Turkish . Dismalaid is an impromptu anarcho-aid project run by recycled crew from Banksy’s Dismaland.
Anna Feigenbaum is a Lecturer in Media and Politics at Bournemouth University
“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
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"[...] he continues his appeal for the cessation of the slaughter. He pleads for the changing of the system. He advocates co-operation instead of competition..."