Hundreds of police were deployed late last night to kettle a ‘mass sleep out’ against a proposed late amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to be voted on today. The amendment would criminalise squatting in residential buildings. Twelve people were arrested.
After a bike ride lead by campaign group Critical Mass protesters attempted to sleep out on Parliament Green but were surrounded and ordered to disperse under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. A number of arrests were made during a kettle which included journalists and legal observers.
The protests will continue today at a mass registration of homelessness at Westminster Housing Options Service. At 3pm, protesters will meet with their MPs in a Parliamentary room booked by Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH), which supports squatters, to lobby them on today’s vote.
Campaigners from SQUASH accused the government of “bypassing democracy” by “sneaking the amendment through parliament after 96% of consultation responses argue for no change in the existing law”.
“We don’t think criminalising squatting is the way forward at the time of a housing crisis” said Mark, 22, a history graduate, who has just begun squatting in London. “House and rent prices here are totally unaffordable – especially with a student debt to pay off”.
Bernard Goyden, 23, who has been squatting for three years, told ELL that: “squatting addresses market failure whereby houses are left empty. The proposed legislation is deeply flawed because there isn’t a big problem with squatting people’s homes as the government would like to believe.”
“Ironically, a lot of squatters do things that are beneficial to the community in a kind of ‘big society’ way – I wonder what David Cameron thinks about that?” Goyden continues.
The demonstration began outside the Evening Standard offices in Derry Street, Kensington, before traveling on the tube to the home of Conservative MP Crispin Blunt in Parsons Green. Protesters set up camp outside 35 Femhurst Road, occupying the street with music, food, pumpkins, and sleeping bags. Finding Blunt’s house empty, the camp moved to Parsons Green Common, before heading to Parliament Green.
Lauren Doherty, SQUASH spokesperson, said, “We’re just trying to get a little back; to find somewhere to live. The only people the Evening Standard is chasing are people who have got nowhere else to live, apart from abandoned buildings that are empty! That’s why we’re gathered outside the Evening Standard offices, because they’ve been leading a campaign against us!”
“We expected that they were going to protest outside Derry Street [Evening Standard HQ]. We’re expecting peaceful protests”, said Sgt. Baleman of the Met Police, during the occupation of Blunt’s road.
Crispin Blunt, Justice Minister, introduced the Bill to make squatting a criminal offence on July 13 2011. His plans involve the imprisonment of repeat offenders and the abolition of ‘squatter’s rights’. Blunt’s proposed legislation was challenged by a SQUASH consultation this summer, to which 96% of responses (2,100 people), including the Met Police, opposed today’s proposed legislation.
Janton and Tajay, both 10, from Kilburn, were the youngest people at the protest, but already have strong views on the latest government decisions. “It’s really important for homeless people. It’s really disgusting that the government are making people homeless before Christmas when there are places that are massive and could be homes for lots of people”, said Janton.
Blunt, in a MOJ press release, said, “Far too many people have to endure the misery, expense and incredible hassle of removing squatters from their property. Hard working home and business owners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first”.
SQUASH was founded in 1990, following the Conservative attempt to criminalise squatting. It has re-formed in 2011 in the face of recent criminalisation threats. ELL has covered a number of high-profile squat evictions in the East London area, including the Bedford House, Shoreditch eviction last week, and the St Mark’s Rise eviction in Dalston on October 7. More than half of the list of abandoned buildings offered by the ‘Squatting Estate Agency’, which operates from Shoreditch, are located in Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Camden is also a prime area for the squatting community.
In Manchester last night, 20 people slept outside the BBC on Oxford Road to oppose the new legislation.