Conservative plans to criminalise trespass have wider repercussions than outlawing squatting. Whether it's an unintended side-effect or a deliberate fringe benefit, imagine the future of protest without occupations.
By now, you may have seen the Conservative housing minister, Grant Shapps MP, on Question Time, talking about social housing. No-one asked him for his thoughts on trespass, but some apt questions might have included: how does criminalising squatting help with a housing crisis? Are the 160 property lawyers who signed a letter accusing you of deliberately misleading the public telling fibs, or are you? Can't we do better than a situation where 1.7 million families are on council housing waiting lists, when homelessness is up 17 percent, while 737, 491 properties lie empty and abandoned?
What you may not have heard about are some of the more pernicious effects that the criminalisation of trespass will have; unless you've been looking closely, you may not have seen mention of the t-word at all. Headlines about squatters – unwashed, beer-swilling cuckoos in the nest – invading the homes of the Hampstead good and great abound. But, regardless of whether these salacious, home-invasion horror-stories hold any weight, it's not squatting per se that's being outlawed: it's the act of occupation.
Historically, occupations have been the cornerstone of student activism, and over the past 12 months there has been a huge, resurgent wave against the cuts to education funding and the rise in fees. If the government succeeds in criminalising trespass, the act of occupying would become an illegal one. Rather than a civil matter, to be dealt with by the university and the courts, the police could be given powers to enter an occupation and arrest the newly criminalised protesters. Indeed, if occupations were criminalised, they'd be compelled to.
It was one of those rare moments where the mask slips and we get a glance at what’s really going on underneath when Conservative councilor for Hammersmith and Fulham, Harry Phibbs, appeared on a Guardian podcast to discuss the issues. While the presenter was talking to another guest about the lack of thought being put into the proposed changes to the law, and what appears to be an almost accidental criminalisation of student occupations, he broke in – all bluff and bluster – with this:
“It sounds to me like a thoroughly, thoroughly, good idea… the idea that students should be allowed to occupy buildings and cause disruption of that kind, using property that doesn’t belong to them, is completely unreasonable.”
Presumably Mr. Phibbs is perfectly happy with sending in the TSG, cracking heads and breaking up occupations. The question is: are you?
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