Squatting in residential properties became a criminal offence today under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, with a penalty of 6 months' imprisonment or a £5,000 fine. The new offence applies where a person knowingly trespasses in residential premises with the intention of living there. Potentially it could happen to any of us who own or rent a house or flat. Some people even fall prey to squatters when they simply leave the country for an annual holiday.
Justice minister Crispin Blunt told parliament that the new law ‘will bring relief to those whose lives are blighted by having their homes occupied.’ This comment demonstrates two fundamental problems at the heart of Whitehall.
The first is that the government has failed to understand the law. For 35 years it has been a crime to ‘displace an occupier’ (i.e. squat a home to the exclusion of the householder) – as 150 lawyers pointed out in a letter to the Guardian in September last year. If asked, any one of them could have advised the government.
Second, the police seem relatively disinterested in enforcing the law. The few arrests of residential squatters under the existing law say more about police priorities than the value of the criminal law. Ministry of Justice figures show that between 2001-10 there were only 37 prosecutions for squatting. The assumption is that there are many more unprosecuted cases.
It may be an unpalatable truth that the police simply don’t enforce the law in relation to residential squatters in any consistent or effective manner. This sort of problem would normally be solved by persuading the Association of Chief Police Officers to issue guidance at a strategic level, or by the Home Office issuing a circular to clarify police powers and the government’s expected use thereof. The latter option is most charitable to the police – it assumes that officers have to remember a lot of different legislation and policy, and sometimes need a reminder about their seldom used powers.
Either of those options would have had the effect of nudging the police to use the law more effectively. Everyone – police, squatters, householders, and law centres – would know where they stood. Instead, parliament has legislated, and has given police a power of entry to premises effect an arrest. A sledgehammer to crack a nut, when the metaphorical nut crackers were within easy reach of the Home Office.
As a postscript, squatting an office block or disused magistrates’ court building may still be an offence under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, but parliament has declined to re-landscape the whole of the law, and give businesses the same protection as householders. In effect, it has done the legislative equivalent of laying wooden decking over part of a perfectly good (but little used) back garden patio.
Jon Mack is a barrister specialising in criminal law at Blackfriars Chambers.