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Labour faces both ways on the criminalisation of squatting

Since yesterday, squatting in a residential building in England and Wales has been a criminal offence. Thus the law has caught up with Scotland where this has been the case since 1865. This is an important achievement for the Government and is a particular point of pride for Conservatives with our belief in the legitimacy of private property.

It is not just a theoretical matter. In 2010 there were 747 interim possession orders or ordinary possession orders issued by the civil courts to evict trespassers from property. It was certainly a real problem a year ago for Dr Oliver Cockerell and his wife Kaltun who was heavily pregnant at the time.

Far from being a solution to homelessness, the decision to become a squatter disrupts the housing supply, including the supply of social housing. The number of empty council homes is certainly a scandal. But squatting in them is not the answer.  Why should middle class squatters engaging in their anti establishment lifestyle jump the queue ahead of those on the waiting list who are in genuine housing need?

The claim that squatters don't damage property is often false, but even when it is true it is hardly a justification. If someone stole your car but you eventually got it back undamaged would that be all right?

So it is to the credit of the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke that this reform has been brought in. However, it is curious that so little has been made of it.  The Labour Party has also been able to get away with facing both ways on the legal change. The Shadow Justice Minister Andrew Slaughter claims to welcome the change. Yet the Labour MPs voted against the legislation which brought it in - the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Indeed those voting against included Scottish Labour MPs.

They might, of course, claim that their objection was so strong to other bits of the Bill that their sincere enthusiasm for criminalising squatting was cancelled out. Yet that would not explain their response to an amendment from the Labour MP John McDonnell. It proposed that squatting should not be a criminal offence if it concerned a property which, for whatever reason, had been empty for six months.

The Justice Minister Crispin Blunt gave the example that "somebody might decide to do charitable work in another country for a year, or they might visit their second home during the summer months only." Should their home have been squatted, Mr McDonnell's amendment would have meant the police could do nothing to help. No good deed goes unpunished.  The amendment would in other cases have given the squatters the chance to string the process out by claiming the property had been empty for six months even when it hadn't.

So the amendment was an attack on the whole notion of property rights. Yet a dozen Labour MPs voted for it, including Jon Cruddas who was promptly promoted to the Shadow Cabinet and put in charge of Labour's policy review. But even the official Labour line was merely to abstain rather than oppose the amendment.

It is also quite wrong that Crisis has seen fit to campaign against squatting being made a criminal offence. This organisation is supposedly a charity which provides assistance to the homeless, especially at Christmas. It has £3.3 million of lottery and taxpayers money given to it a year. Yet it has increasingly switched its focus from practical help to politics as it has transmuted into a leftwing lobby group.

The complaint from the Police Federation that the change in the law will mean "more work" for them is also disappointing. It reflects completely the wrong attitude. Delays in dealing with squatting often means storing up more trouble in terms of crime and anti social behaviour. If the police prefer to spend their time arresting those who tell jokes on Twitter then it is to be hoped that the elected Police and Crime Commissioners will ensure that proper priorities are maintained in future.

The Government should be proud of what it has done. It is clear that it is on the side of the home owner against the squatter. The Labour Party has just dodged the issue. It has passed by on the other side.

Full credit to Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove, whose Early Day Motion in March last year was crucial in prompting the Government to get on with this.


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