Bob Baker, Director of the Simon Community, was invited to speak at the launch of the SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) report on the impact of the criminalisation of squatting, in the House of Commons on 4th March 2013. The meeting was chaired by Joe Blake of SQUASH. Other speakers were Alex Kennedy, CRISIS; John McDonnell MP; Sophie Priestley, Tuckers Solicitors and Hannah Wilcox, SQUASH.
The report is on the SQUASH website: http://www.squashcampaign.org/
Here is an edited version of his speech.
Good evening. My name is Bob Baker. I was a squatter in the early and mid eighties – some 30 years ago.
And housing has been a problem for most of my life. Apart from squatting I have experienced almost every form of housing I have heard of - including: private renting, staying with friends, owner occupation, short life community housing, renting from friends, shared ownership housing association and living in a commune.
Squatting for me, and for many people, in the absence of any other viable option, was seen as a practical solution to the lack of housing, and a morally correct course of action.
For the past couple of years I have been the Director of the Simon Community - a radical charity founded 50 years ago.
The Simon Community is a community of ex-homeless people and volunteers living and working together and providing support for others experiencing homelessness.
We reject government funding so that we can remain independent. We have our own approach which is not always in line with government thinking. Our motivation is love and we offer kindness to people. These are words rarely found in government policy. We also campaign.
We try to deal mainly with the hard end of street homelessness – people who have been rejected by other services, or people who have rejected other services themselves – people with complex needs – mental health, alcohol and drugs and a variety of other serious problems.
We have actively supported the SQUASH campaign against the criminalisation of squatting in residential properties. Including having four letters published in the Guardian. Unfortunately that didn’t do the trick. So we welcome this report. As there has been no impact report this document provides the only evidence we have.
I have been asked to say a few words about the effects on homeless people, of the change in the law.
First of all, it seems to me, that in any discussion of this issue, it’s important to be clear that this is a law protecting people who are keeping property empty – against people who need somewhere to live.
Predictably since the Bill there has been a decline in new occupations of residential property. What we have observed, also predictably, is an increase in the occupation of commercial premises – pubs in particular. This is popular with larger groups, and often politically motivated younger people.
Less predictably perhaps we have also observed an increase in the occupation of derelict buildings.
These are places which are not fit for human habitation. This brings to mind the time when the Simon Community was founded in 1963. Still in the aftermath of the Second World War – when many people were living in derelict buildings and on bomb sites.
It is appalling that we are returning to such conditions.
This is a time of spectacular, some would say, criminal economic mismanagement. Our government has decided we should experience austerity: welfare cuts, bedroom tax, increase in council tax, cuts in Housing Benefit.
And of course this is happening at a time of well-known and growing housing crisis – with an acknowledged fundamental lack of “affordable housing” or “housing” as it could be termed.
As a result of this austerity approach, increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in a seriously precarious condition. Insecure employment and housing and now even the threat of removal and dislocation from their familiar environment.
Among the measures to deal with the crisis there has been a dramatic increase in the use of Bed & Breakfast accommodation by Local Authorities to house homeless families – up an astonishing 800% since the coalition government came in.
These will be so-called “priority cases” of course – families, women with children, or old people. They will not be single people or couples.
The recent CRISIS report reminds us that some 40% of single homeless people squat. The link between homelessness and squatting is clear.
And for them squatting is a direct response to homelessness, rather than a lifestyle choice by people with access to accommodation
Poor people – unemployed, disabled or the new working poor – are being moved to cheaper areas – towards the edges of London and then outside London – away from their friends, their families, their schools and their social networks.
Of course this is happening at a time when there are some 710 thousand empty properties in the country. These are the latest figures from November 2012. Of these, 259 thousand are long- term empty – meaning they have been empty for more than six months.
Apart from bringing these empty properties back into use, it is self evident that what we urgently need is a huge and relentless programme of house building. This is not a radical suggestion – it is the only way forward. And I am talking about homes that people can afford to live in – and for many this means social housing. This does not appear to be on this government’s agenda.
So, clearly it is important to sign the petition to repeal Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and to campaign against the plan to extend this pernicious law to cover commercial properties.
And I think it is important to broaden out the campaign to attract people who may not be natural supporters of squatting but who are appalled by the rise in poverty and homelessness.
People who are appalled by the coalition government scape-goating the poor, while continuing to provide financial incentives for property owners to treat their houses as investments rather than homes.
Until there is sufficient accommodation for all, for many people squatting remains the only solution and a morally correct course of action.
I look forward to a time when Article 31 of the European Social Charter is adopted by the 27 countries of the European Union.
It states: “Everyone has the right to housing”.
We call for Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which criminalises squatting in residential properties to be repealed. The law is not working:
• Homeless people are being penalised. Many are finding themselves on the streets who would otherwise have found shelter in abandoned residential properties
• Some have ultimately gone to jail for using empty buildings to put a roof over their head
• Contrary to government propaganda, the law is doing nothing more to protect people in their homes, who were already protected by the existing Criminal Law Act 1977
• It is encouraging property speculators and unscrupulous landlords to keep buildings empty
• It is increasing the burden on taxpayers as squatters move into the housing benefit system on top of the prosecution costs
Despite an overwhelming 96% rejection in the governments consultation, the law was rushed through parliament without sufficient scrutiny and therefore lacks any legitimacy
Placed by Admin on 05 Mar 2013