Mike Weatherley, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Hove and Portslade, has finally delivered his speech to a group of Sussex University Conservative Society students, after he was prevented from speaking by a group of violent squatter thugs on campus in November.
Mike has been campaigning for squatting to be criminalised since his election to Parliament in 2010 and has been supported by the Prime Minister. Squatting is a huge problem in Brighton & Hove, with numerous instances of this organised and frequently menacing behaviour blighting the lives of ordinary people. Irate squatters have dubbed the new law “Weatherley’s Law” following Mike’s campaign to introduce the new legislation. Mike is now campaigning for the law to be extended to commercial properties.
Commenting, Mike said: “I am pleased that I have finally been able to safely deliver the speech that I intended to give at the debate at Sussex University. Sadly that event was violently disrupted by a bunch of pro-squatting thugs who assaulted two female members of my staff, which meant that a large number of students were not able to hear what I had to say. However, last night the students really appreciated hearing what I was going to say and having a proper debate on the issue – something that the thugs wanted to stop taking place.“
MIKE WEATHERLEY SQUATTING SPEECH
Sussex University – 13th November 2012
Thank you to Matt and the rest of the Conservative Society, and also to Kelly and Ian, and everybody else, who has been involved with organising the event today. Thanks too to those in the audience who have come today to listen to our talks, and engage in a debate, on the emotive issue of squatting.
Over the next hour, I will listen to what your thoughts are on the subject – and I hope to give you some idea as to my own thinking behind the campaign which I have run to get the law changed.
I am going to start by finding out what those here today think about the subject generally by asking for a show of hands on a few different questions.
First, should the Government or Local Authorities be doing more to help those who genuinely find themselves homeless?
Should the Government be doing more to get disused properties back into use?
I assume that we all want to see new buildings go up, but who feels that it is wrong for a developer to leave an old building empty in the run-up to works?
If somebody is in the process of inheriting a loved one’s property, that is empty because a relative has died, does anybody here feel that the owner is behaving badly?
If somebody was studying abroad or, say, doing charity work abroad, are they doing anything wrong in leaving their property empty?
So on the basis that a number of quite legitimate reasons exist for a property being empty, who here feels that the owners of such properties should have to pay thousands of pounds, and potentially wait weeks, and then pay more for damage, to remove the very people who have broken in?
The principal reason for me picking squatting as a subject to tackle is that, quite simply, I have been contacted by owners of properties who have done absolutely nothing wrong, who have found themselves in the dreadful position of having to pay out cash that they don’t necessarily have to remove often aggressive invaders from their own properties. Regardless of the size of our homelessness problem – which I will come onto in a minute – this is just wrong. It had to be stopped.
There are myths which need to be dispelled on both sides of the debate and I am happy to start with a couple on the anti-squatting side. The first is that people’s actual homes – where they live every day – are getting invaded. Sure, there was the case of Dr Oliver Cockerell and his heavily pregnant wife whose actual home was broken into, squatted and smashed up when they were living there. Such stories are rare and are not illustrative of the wider problem but they do happen.
Secondly, to set the record straight, I would not begrudge a genuinely homeless individual from sleeping inside a forgotten and derelict property to escape the cold of winter. If it were possible to draw up a simple law that was workable, along these lines, then I would probably support it. This is not what my proposal was all about.
It didn’t start out as a way of stopping squatting entirely, it began as a way of stopping the injustice of property owners having to pay, with both money and time, to recover their properties. It is only when I delved further that I saw some worrying patterns emerge.
So, on the other side of the debate, and related to my last point, I don’t believe that there is any sort of link whatsoever between the genuine homeless of my constituency – such as the rough sleepers on Church Road – and a typical squatter.
Some squatters may have heard about today’s event on Facebook or Twitter. Some may be in the room now. Some have jobs. The idea that these individuals – talented, web-savvy, legally-minded – have anything whatsoever in common with the rough-sleeping troubled souls who need real help is highly insulting to vulnerable addicts. Rough sleepers do not have the resources to print out squatters’ rights notices from the internet and stick them on front doors.
In fact, I would go as far as saying that any public resources – whether it be police action, parliamentary time or council cash – that is having to be spent on squatters who don’t need our help is money wasted. I want to see this cash ploughed into helping those who really need assistance, such as the homeless on Church Road who have never used Facebook or Twitter, never been to university, and never been able to work.
On this point exactly, we have seen resources taken away locally from those on Brighton & Hove City Council’s housing waiting list where £30,000 has had to be spent on legal bills alone over the past few years. £40,000 of damage was caused to one property alone. This means delays for those on the housing list and less cash to spend on getting new properties ready. This illustrates how squatters are hindering the homeless problem – the opposite to helping it.
So the single myth, the most important to me, that I would like to dispel today is this idea that there is anything other than a passing link between the drug and alcohol addicts that sleep rough who need our support, and the talented, web-savvy, legally-minded squatters. Sure, some genuinely homeless people may have slept in an empty building before without permission but this obviously doesn’t make them squatters. As I said, they aren’t the ones putting notices up.
The background to so-called squatters’ rights is simply that we have laws in place, such as the Criminal Law Act 1977, to protect tenants of properties from unscrupulous landlords. Landlords have to go to court to evict tenants who don’t pay the rent. The court bit stops legitimate tenants being thrown onto the streets. It is this delay, and this cost, which has been hijacked by the squatting movement and called “squatters’ rights”. It was just a loophole and it was being abused.
I don’t see why people are surprised that this loophole is now being shut down. I won’t ask for a show of hands of how many struggle to pay their rent, because the answer is clearly that many do. There is an injustice in the idea of squatting generally that is guaranteed to annoy anybody who has had to scrimp, or work extra hard, to pay their own rent or buy their own property – which I imagine applies to almost everybody here today.
How can it be fair that contemporaries with similar skills and abilities don’t have to pay rent when we have to pay rent or a mortgage?
Now does the new law target the vulnerable? Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act does not victimise the vulnerable. It is laughable that such a thing is even suggested.
It could be argued that its side-effects might affect the few genuinely homeless people who have squatted. Even then though, I would say that the long-term benefit of exposing the true problem of homelessness that exists, along with the Government’s work to help the homeless generally, massively outweighs any short-term problems.
The Government now gives ring-fenced grants of up to £250,000 through the No Second Night Out pilot scheme. The initiative was described by York University as ‘highly successful’ and is now being extended across the country.
We are spending £42.5 million on 1,400 new and improved bed spaces in hostels for rough sleepers and are introducing a “payment-by-results” scheme for charities who successfully reduce the number of rough sleepers and get them into employment. We are preventing house repossessions through the Mortgage Rescue programme and helping those in need with interest payments and debt advice services.
We are making sure that rough sleepers with drug and alcohol problems are rehabilitated in order to improve their health and their chances of getting back onto their feet. And we are intervening in the most troubled families, as many homeless people start their lives on the streets after running away from home at a young age. Each of these is real and not vague in the slightest. This is how we help the homeless.
Now how would advocates of squatting help the homeless? They would like to give them the right to crawl into usually dangerous, often disgusting squats, sometimes with no electricity, water or sanitation. This is shocking. It is not a way to help the vulnerable.
Where are the squatters when it comes to proposing real solutions to homelessness? I have only heard squatters talk about homelessness in the context of squatting. Why did I not hear from them before I started talking about a change in the squatting law? Where were the squatters then?
Before I hand over, I would like to let you know before anybody else what the future holds for squatting, and to emphasise that the answer is very much in the hands of squatters themselves.
There are many injustices in our country today and there will never be enough Parliamentary time to debate and tackle them all. Yet squatters played into the hands of people who felt that they had just gone too far. Society was simply fed up with the way in which a loophole in our old laws was being exploited for the personal gain of a few – a few who are perfectly capable of paying their way. My constituents were overwhelmingly in favour of this change. I can’t begin to describe just how many people were not willing to put up with squatters any more. I have received hundreds of letters and e-mails on the topic.
The layers of stories, from the highly exaggerated home invasions in the national papers, to local stories on the bus and in the pub about squatting conferences and friends-of-friends who had been affected, built up an inevitability in a change in law for residential properties. The same is now happening with commercial squatting.
If the situation on the ground does not improve, and we continue to find squatters abusing our laws, in commercial properties and in residential premises, by protesting in Brighton when people just want to enjoy their weekends, and disrupting trade when shopkeepers just want to sell their products when times are already tough. If all of these things continue, then it is absolutely inevitable that squatting in commercial properties will be a criminal offence by next Christmas.
I would prefer not to have to direct resources away from other issues, but I can’t stand by when my constituents are still having to shell out thousands of pounds, often when they are in a vulnerable position themselves – like when they have lost a relative or their business has gone under – so that they can subsidise the lives of squatters who don’t need any help whatsoever.
So you have heard what I have to say about homelessness and empty properties. You have heard what I have to say about public opinion. And you have heard what I have to say about what the future holds.
Thank you everybody for listening.