New Clause 26 — Offence of squatting in a residential building

Part of Education and Training (Young People with Autism) – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 1st November 2011.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:15 pm, 1st November 2011

I believe that it will damage a large number people’s lives, some of whom are squatting at the moment for no other reason than that they are homeless. They will be criminalised by this retrospective legislation, which is something that I thought Members of all political parties across the House had rejected.

What will be the effect of the new law on squatters’ lives? We know that many, although not all, vulnerable people live chaotic lives. They will be fined up to £5,000 or face up to a year in prison. Not many will have the resources to pay the fine, so prison will be a reality for a significant number of them. I have heard no estimate from the Government of the extent to which this will swell prison numbers. I fear that people will be drawn into a cycle of squatting and going to prison. One third of people coming out of prison have no home to go to, so they will get back into the squatting cycle.

I hope that the House will not pass the new clause into law, but if it is determined to do so, I have tabled amendments to ameliorate its impact. Amendment (a) would provide that squatting remains a civil matter in all residential buildings that had been left empty long term and were not being brought back into use. This would ensure that residential buildings that had been lived in recently or that were being brought back into use would be covered by the criminal law. That includes the question of refurbishment that was raised earlier.

I have looked at the statistics cycle over the past five years and found that, on average, between 650,000 and 700,000 residential properties stood empty during that time. Most are private properties, and 300,000 have been empty for more than six months. When there are 40,000 homeless families, 4,000 people sleeping rough in the capital, and 1.7 million households on waiting lists, desperate for decent accommodation, it is immoral that private owners should be allowed to let their properties stand empty for so long. My amendment could force those irresponsible owners to bring their properties back into use. More importantly, it would mean that desperate people who need a roof over their heads would not be criminalised for resorting to occupying a property that was being wasted by its owner.

It is not for me to criticise the Speaker, of course, but I regret that my amendment (b) was not selected. I had hoped to try to persuade the House to protect the most vulnerable people in our society from being dragged into the courts, but I am sure that there were good reasons for not selecting it, and perhaps it will be debated in another place.

My amendment (c) would address the fact that the present wording of the new clause criminalises those who are currently squatting in a residential building. It is one of the principles of good government that retrospective legislation is unjust. I should like to quote from article 11, subsection 2, of the universal declaration of human rights:

“No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time it was committed.”

There is a basic injustice about retrospective legislation, and I hope that the House will accept that and address it at some stage in this Bill’s consideration.

Finally, there is a mounting housing crisis. I criticised the last Government as much as this one for their failure to address the supply of decent housing. We have got the return of appalling housing conditions in my constituency—overcrowding, high rents and the return of Rachmanite landlords. People are desperate and will resort at times to any means to put a decent roof over their and their family’s heads. Squatting is sometimes the only way. People should not be criminalised for wanting a decent home.

The new clause is being rushed through Parliament. The Secretary of State launched in July a consultation on a range of proposals to criminalise squatting. The consultation ended in October. More than 2,000 responses were received, 90% of them opposed to the Government’s proposals. Clearly, there has been no serious consideration of the consultation responses because the clause was brought forward only three weeks after the consultation closed. This is rushed legislation, and rushed legislation, as I have said, is generally poor or bad legislation. The consultation, if it had been properly taken into account, made it clear that the current laws were sufficient to deal with any abuse. Professionals, police and others have told us so. My fear is that we now risk putting people on the streets and possibly into prison because our society has failed to provide them with a decent home. If this clause goes through tonight, I believe that many will regret it.

I give notice that I wish to press amendment (a) to a vote.