Criminalise squatting in commercial premises, say Tory MPs
Criminalise squatting in commercial premises, say Tory MPs
Justice minister urged to extend recent change in law beyond residential properties to prevent targeting of closed businesses
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent - The Guardian, Friday 30 November 2012 16.00 GMT
It could soon be chucking out time at the Black Bull. The disused inn, around the corner from Chelsea's football ground in south-west London, has been occupied by squatters for two weeks. The landlord wants his property back.
The confrontation comes as Conservative MPs are pressing for the criminalisation of squatting to be extended to commercial premises to prevent abandoned pubs, empty offices and warehouses being targeted.
The demands are an attempt to prevent an influx of those who fear being driven out of houses and flats by changes in the law that came into effect on 1 September.
Making the occupation of residential properties with permission a criminal offence has coincided with a crisis in the pub trade. An average of 18 pubs a week are closing down. Shifting drinking patterns, competition from supermarkets and a rise in beer tax have been blamed.
Abandoned pubs have been selected as squatters swap sites to avoid risking a criminal record. Among them have been the Cross Keys in Chelsea, the Tournament in Earls Court, both in London, the Upper Bell Inn near Chatham, Kent, and the Bute Dock Hotel in Cardiff. Bar areas are classified as commercial, but any upstairs landlord's flat may be deemed residential.
In the first floor bar of the Old Bull, Alessandra De Luca, 21, and her boyfriend, David, 26, explained how they are only using the commercial parts of the pub. Around a dozen young people, and two dogs, are in residence. On Fridaythey received a county court summons for eviction.
"We hope to stay here for a few months," said Alessandra, who is from Italy. "The people here are homeless.
"We survive by doing a lot of 'skipping' - finding food thrown out by supermarkets. We are looking for work." The Ministry of Justice says it is considering whether to criminalise the squatting of commercial properties.
The justice minister, Damian Green, said: "The [new] offence covers squatting in residential buildings because that is what the public were most concerned about. We recognise that squatting can also have a serious impact on commercial property owners and we will continue to monitor this situation closely."
Tory MP Mike Weatherley, who represents Hove and Portslade in East Sussex, has met the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to press him on the matter.
"Of the pubs targeted that I have spoken to, the owners want to bring them back into use. I have spoken to a lot of squatters, too.
"One suggested that where people know a building is going to be empty for some time, it should be used as a temporary accommodation for the homeless. I would certainly put that forward to government."
But most squatting, he said, was not about homelessness, as it was carried out by "web-savvy and educated" young people. Guidance provided to the police already warned they should be careful charging people if "there are genuinely homeless people involved".
The MP's views are not popular. In mid-November, when he turned up at Sussex University to debate with students about squatting laws, he was attacked and had to be driven to safety in a police van.
The Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, Tracey Crouch, became involved in the campaign to extend criminalisation after a local pub, the Upper Bell Inn, was squatted. "When [residential squatting] was being debated, it was said that 50% of squatters were in commercial properties. That seems to be increasing," she said.
"Owners of warehouses and commercial enterprises come to me to say they are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds clearing squatters. I have written to the justice secretary calling for squatting in commercial property to be a criminal offence."
She added: "There are people from wealthy or middle-class families who are squatting through ideological reasons. It's not fair to suggest that everyone who squats is homeless."
Under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, squatting in residential homes in England and Wales is punishable by up to six months' jail and fines of up to £5,000.
Shortly after the law came into effect, Alex Haigh, originally from Plymouth, was arrested at a flat in Pimlico, central London. The 21-year-old, who was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison, became the first person to be jailed under the anti-squatting legislation. Homeless charities say there is no evidence so far the new law has led to a rise in rough sleeping. There are estimated to be around 20,000 people in squats.
In Cardiff, a group calling themselves the Gremlins, wearing black masks, have taken over the Bute Dock Hotel, another abandoned pub. South Wales police, whose officers have been to the building, confirmed that no offence has been committed because it is a commercial building.
Catherine Brogan, of the squatters' rights campaign group Squash, says: "There are so many other things [the government] should be worrying about, rather than criminalising homeless people."
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