Squall 4, April/May 1993, pg. 16.
“I’m afraid there are some words in our new housing policy statement that you might not like,”
said Nigel Jones, the Liberal Democrat housing spokesperson. “It does say that we are not in favour of the evils of squatting, although we think something more should be done to tackle homelessness first.”
“Where does the phrase ‘the evils of squatting’ come from,” I asked, keen to know whether I too had been born from the bowels of beelzebub.
“Tabloid news journalism,” he replied before realising, with noticeable embarrassment, that his party had consequently adopted tabloid phraseology in its official policy statement.
The truth is, that politics is often played out through the media and phrases like this may have come from either the mouth of a politician or from a tabloid newspaper. Each uses the other. (Count Norman Tebbit himself described the Maastricht Treaty as a “foul abomination” no less!)
Nigel Jones, to his credit, was willing to acknowledge that the Liberal Democrat policy on squatting had been formulated without direct contact with the issue. After receiving a representation from the Squatters’ Campaign for Secure Homes (SQUASH), he invited the organisation to speak at a fringe meeting during their party conference. He also asked that they should liaise with the Lib Dem policy writers to ensure a more informed statement.
Roger Gale (Conservative MP, Isle of Thanet) further confirmed that what is seriously missing in the political arena is contact between politicians and the people against whom they may legislate. Mr Gale was still under the impression that it was possible for a home owner to come back from holiday and find that squatters had dispossessed them of their home. This situation however, has been illegal since 1977 and yet newspapers to this day run misinformed news stories perpetuating the false myth. Again, after a meeting with SQUASH in the lobby of the House of Commons that lasted only ten minutes, Mr Gale had shifted his position to acknowledge: “Although I am not in favour of squatting, perhaps there is a case to be made for the view that it should not be criminalised until there is more official provision for using idle property for housing.”
It seems that in the absence of direct contact, many people are prepared to go along with official vampirical stereotypes and it is alarming to discover that this is not only true of voters but also of the elected legislators.
After SQUASH had attended another meeting with Alice Mahon (Labour MP, Halifax), she too listened to the squatters’ case and wrote to Michael Jack (Minister of State at the Home Office) asking what the Government’s knowledge of squatting is based upon and what they intended to do regarding legislation. Jack replied:
“Cases of squatting do not necessarily come to official notice and no central records are kept of the number and characteristics of squatters, or of which properties are squatted in. This absence of statistical information, combined with the shifting nature of the squatting population, means that it is difficult to make an accurate assessment of squatters’ numbers, average age, their criminal behaviour or of the type of properties occupied.” (Written No.s 163,171,172 - 13/1/ 93)
Despite this admission that the Government knows very little about squatters, Michael Jack concluded the letter: “The Government is in any case committed to strengthening the law against those who squat in a range of different premises.”
Perhaps John Major’s statement in the Mail on Sunday (21/2/93) that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”, is in fact a naked exposure of the Governments’ political philosophy. Fortunately, at grass roots level, a small number of MPs of all parties have shown an interest in meeting SQUASH and a willingness to understand before condemning. All those who have done so have expressed surprise that the squatters they have consequently met have proved not to be the sentinels of satan after all.