Yesterday saw a new law come into force that criminalises squatting. Up to 20,000 people in England and Wales will face eviction, with notices already being reported in London. Those squatting in residential buildings could face six months in jail and fines of up to £5,000.
In many cases people have been forced to use buildings that would otherwise be empty in order to find shelter. For many, squatting is the last resort and it’s something that the Government is right to try to prevent but criminalising homeless people is not the answer.
This is yet another example of the Government resorting to knee-jerk policies for short term political gain, which simply fail to address the root causes of the problem.
Around 80,000 young people already experience homelessness each year and a quarter of the people who are seen by services admit to sleeping rough. This is an issue that the ruthless coalition Government is not only sweeping under the carpet, but is in fact determined to make worse. With youth unemployment at staggeringly high levels, David Cameron has proposed stripping young people of their right to housing benefit and introducing new curbs on Jobseeker’s Allowance for the under-25s.
The Labour Party must stand up for young people and lead the way by proposing practical measures to reduce youth homelessness, including building more houses, regulating the private rented sector and pledging to protect housing benefit for under-25s. On a local level we must ensure that all young homeless people receive the advice and assistance they need and that there is strengthened support for those with disabilities, mental health problems and addictions.
Youth homelessness is now Young Labour’s priority campaign and I’m looking forward to working with hundreds of young party members across the country to help raise awareness of the key issues. The campaign will seek to ensure that the next Labour Party manifesto addresses these issues, while working with councils now on a local level to improve the service provided to young homeless people.
The last Labour government did many good things but we have to accept that we were woefully inadequate when it came to replenishing the housing stock.
In the middle of a housing crisis, it’s astounding that this Government’s priority is to criminalise squatters rather than building more homes to address the situation. We should be seeking to end squatting but this is not the way to do it. A large-scale house-building programme would not only ease the housing crisis but would also give a boost to the construction sector, which was hit hard by the recession.
Measures need to be taken now to reduce the number of people without homes. Criminalising squatting without providing an alternative is wrong and this Government should think again before forcing more people onto the streets, as part of their wider attacks on young people.