Squatters' Rights?

Friday 20 April 2012

It could potentially criminalise swathes of homeless people and cost over £700 million to implement. A controversial clause that will outlaw squatting in empty residential properties for the first time in England and Wales was given the green light in the House of Lords late last month. The government argues the change is essential to protect distressed property owners. Amid rising unemployment and the worst housing crisis in a generation, however, there are concerns that it might further marginalise some of society’s most vulnerable.

Under existing law, if squatters move in to an occupied home (for example when the residents are on holiday) police already have the powers to immediately remove them. The new law will broaden the scope of these powers, and will extend to residential properties that are empty and not being lived in. It will allow property owners to get police to, without applying for an eviction notice, arrest and remove squatters, who will be made to face a maximum one year jail sentence or £5000 fine.

“Ultimately the best way to end squatting will not be through fines and criminal sanction but by ensuring all homeless people, not just those deemed a ‘priority’, get the help they need,” says Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy and external affairs at homeless charity Crisis.

“We are obviously disappointed that the government is going ahead with its plans to criminalise squatting in residential buildings given the concerns that Crisis, with the support of Baroness Miller and other parliamentarians, have consistently raised as the likely impact on homeless people.”

The reform will represent a fundamental shift in how squatting is dealt with across the country, bringing an end to the long-held principles of “squatters’ rights”.

Historically in England and Wales, squatting in empty residential properties has been considered a civil dispute between the squatters and the landlord. As long as a squatter has not broken in and remains in the house, they can’t be forcibly removed and property owners have to get a court order to get people out. Within months that will no longer be the case.

“I have been contacted time and time again by MPs and constituents about the appalling impact that squatting can have on their homes, businesses and local communities,” said Conservative justice minister Crispin Blunt in a statement last year. “This is not media hype. It can and does really happen, and when it does it can be highly stressful for the owner or lawful occupier of the property concerned.

“It is not only the cost and length of time it takes to evict squatters that angers property owners, it is also the cost of the cleaning and repair bill which follows eviction. While the property owner might literally be left picking up the pieces, the squatters have gone on their way, possibly to squat in somebody else’s property.”

But a number of groups have expressed serious concerns about the ramifications of criminalising squatting, the provision for which is contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. A survey conducted by Crisis last year showed 39% of homeless people had resorted to squatting at some point, a factor that prompted organisations including the Law Society, The Criminal Bar Association and housing charity Shelter to argue against criminalisation.

“A new criminal offence of squatting is unnecessary,” says John Wotton, president of the Law Society of England and Wales. “Squatting is not a major problem and where it does occur, there are a range of laws both civil and criminal that are adequate to deal with it.”

While the Criminal Prosecution Service has backed the new law, opposition has come from a number of unexpected quarters. In a speech made before the House of Lords on 27 March, Lord Paul Strasburger – formerly the director of Safe Estates, a security firm tasked with keeping squatters out of empty properties – launched an attack on the part of the Bill dealing with squatting.

He said: “This clause is a blunt instrument because its unintended consequence – and I sincerely hope that it is an unintended consequence – is to protect unscrupulous property owners who keep properties vacant for years for purely speculative reasons and, in the process, prevent homeless people having somewhere to live.”

Though squatting is set to be criminalised in empty residential properties, campaigners have claimed a small victory in that the government is not pursing the criminalisation of squatting in commercial properties (such as, for instance, disused warehouses). Assurances have been given by ministers that those who occupy abandoned or dilapidated non-residential buildings will not be committing the new offence, and will be dealt with through the civil eviction-order process. The government has also pledged that students who occupy academic buildings or workers who stage sit-ins to protest against an employer will not be committing any crime.

“That was quite a big concession to win along the way,” says Joseph Blake, a spokesperson for squatters’ campaign group Squash. “But it was a struggle to get what is a serious piece of legislation heard properly – it was debated late at night and never properly scrutinised.

“I think it fundamentally comes to a lack of democracy in this country. Now what we may see is thousands of people becoming criminals at some point, in the middle of what is one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen.”

There are currently over 700,000 empty homes in England, 279,000 of which have been vacant for over six months. In March new official statistics revealed that the number of people classed as homeless has jumped by 14%, with 48,510 households accepted as homeless by local authorities in 2011. The increase is the biggest in nine years and was described by Shelter as “a shocking reminder of the divide between the housing haves and have nots in this country."

The government has vowed to “tackle the root causes of homelessness, to provide affordable homes and to bring more empty homes back into use” to counteract any negative impact that there may be on homeless people through the implementation of the squatting crackdown. Until it meets its words with actions, however, the chances are squatting will continue unabated well into the future – regardless of the consequences.

“Squatting is a response to the housing crisis that we’re in – properties remain empty and our homelessness rates are rising,” Blake says, resolutely. “The two things go together. People will continue squatting if that’s the desperate last resort for them.”

Police Meetings and Trojan Surveillance

Saturday 7 April 2012

Infecting a computer with spyware in order to secretly siphon data is a tactic most commonly associated with criminals. But explosive new revelations in Germany suggest international law enforcement agencies are adopting similar methods as a form of intrusive suspect surveillance, raising fresh civil liberties concerns.

Information released last month by the German government shows that between 2008-2011, representatives from the FBI; the U.K.’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA); and France’s secret service, the DCRI, were among those to have held meetings with German federal police about deploying “monitoring software” used to covertly infiltrate computers.

The disclosure was made in response to a series of questions tabled by Left Party Member of Parliament Andrej Hunko and reported by German-language media. It comes on the heels of an exposé by the Chaos Computer Club, a Berlin-based hacker collective, which revealed in October that German police forces had been using a so-called "Bundestrojaner” (federal Trojan) to spy on suspects.

The Bundestrojaner technology could be sent disguised as a legitimate software update and was capable of recording Skype calls, monitoring Internet use, and logging messenger chats and keystrokes. It could also activate computer hardware such as microphones or webcams and secretly take snapshots or record audio before sending it back to the authorities.

German federal authorities initially denied deploying any Bundestrojaner, but it soon transpired that courts had in fact approved requests from officials to employ such Trojan horse programs more than 50 times. Following a public outcry over the use of the technology, which many believe breached the country’s strict privacy laws, further details have surfaced.

Inquiries by Green Party MP Konstantin von Notz revealed in January that, in addition to the Bundestrojaner discovered by the CCC, German authorities had also acquired a license in early 2011 to test a similar Trojan technology called “FinSpy,”manufactured by England-based firm Gamma Group. FinSpy enables clandestine access to a targeted computer, and was reportedly used for five months by Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian state security forces in 2010 to monitor personal Skype accounts and record voice and video conversations over the Internet.

But it is the German government’s response to a series of questions recently submitted by Hunko that is perhaps the most revealing to date. In a letter from Secretary of State Ole Schröder on March 6, which I have translated, Hunko was informed that German federal police force, the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), met to discuss the use of monitoring software with counterparts from the U.S., Britain, Israel, Luxemburg, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Austria. The meetings took place separately between Feb. 19, 2008, and Feb. 1, 2012. While this story has been covered in the German media, it hasn’t received the English-language attention it deserves.

Both the FBI and Britain’s SOCA are said to have discussed with the Germans the “basic legal requirements” of using computer-monitoring software. The meeting with SOCA also covered the “technical and tactical aspects” of deploying computer infiltration technology, according to Schröder’s letter. France’s secret service and police from Switzerland, Austria, Luxemburg, and Liechtenstein were separately briefed by the BKA on its experiences using Trojan computer infiltration.

Interestingly, at a meeting in October 2010 attended by police from Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, representatives from the Gamma Group were present and apparently showcased their shadowy products. It is possible that the Germans decided at this meeting to proceed with the FinSpy trial we now know took place in early 2011.

If nothing else, these revelations confirm that police internationally are increasingly looking to deploy ethically contentious computer intrusion techniques that exist in a legal gray area. The combination of the rapid development of Internet technologies and persistent fears about national security seem to have led to a paradigm shift in police tactics—one that appears, worryingly, to be taking place almost entirely behind closed doors and under cover of state secrecy.

The use of highly intrusive surveillance technologies in any context demands some level of democratic scrutiny. How many police and government agencies are sanctioned to use hacking and Trojans as a means to surveil their citizens, how frequently does it happen, on what grounds, and with what oversight? The fallout from Germany’s Bundestrojaner scandal may have shed some much-needed light on this murky world, but still we are left with many more questions than answers.

This article first appeared at: slate.com

Elected Mayors

Friday 6 April 2012

It has been billed by some as the most significant constitutional change England has faced in generations. Next month, a referendum will be held in ten cities across the country to determine whether council leaders will replaced by elected mayors. It could mean that, rather than councils picking who is in charge, more people than ever before will have the chance to directly decide who their local leader is. Advocates of the reform say it will bring about greater democracy and more regional control – but not everyone is convinced.

Come 3 May voters in Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester, Sheffield and Bradford will be among those to go to the polls. Birmingham, Nottingham, Coventry, Bristol and Newcastle will also vote, while Liverpool and Leicester have already chosen to switch to the new system without holding a referendum. The government is keen for cities to adopt elected mayors, which it says will lead to more power devolved locally. However, critics claim they are being pressured into making a change that is not necessarily a good thing.

“I’m sceptical about mayors,” says professor Alan Harding, director of the University of Manchester’s Institute for Political and Economic Governance. “I think it would be a complete and utter waste of time for Manchester, which has been run perfectly effectively for donkey’s years.

“There are certain places in the world which have directly elected mayors, and I don’t think you could say hand on heart it makes a decisive difference to how those places function. At the end of the day it’s not the position that makes the difference – it’s the quality of the people who occupy the position and how they make use of the opportunities that they’ve got.”

Since the Local Government Act was introduced by New Labour in 2000, 16 English towns have adopted elected mayors, ranging from London to Bedford, Middlesbrough and Watford. But the current government, as part of its 2011 Localism Act, wants to expand the system across all of the country’s major cities, with May’s mandatory referendums an integral part of that process.

“I’m really enthusiastic about this because I profoundly believe we should be moving our country to having more directly elected mayors in our big cities,” prime minister David Cameron said in a speech at 10 Downing Street last week. “I know it is a big cultural change for Britain, it is a big move for us, and it is absolutely going to be up to the people of those cities to make that decision, but I very much hope we will get some yes votes across our country.”

Thinktank the Institute for Government (IFG) has also backed the push towards having more elected mayors. It believes the change will lead to more funding and independence handed over to cities, with increased stability and better leadership.

“Mayors are likely to bring significant benefits – in terms of visibility, stability and responsiveness to the electorate,” says Tom Gash, programme director at the IFG. “Mayors are elected every four years by tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of voters. Council leaders are chosen by other councillors and can be ousted at virtually any point if they can’t keep these councillors happy.”

Statistics produced by the IFG show that 38% of people questioned nationally want a directly elected mayor rather than a council leader. But a separate poll earlier in March revealed 62% were unaware of the May referendums, with 90% saying they had been given little or no information about it. As a likely result of this, during an elected mayors referendum in Salford in January, just 18.1% of the 171,000 eligible voters took part.

According to Steve Connor, chief executive of Manchester PR firm Creative Concern, there is little appetite for the change in his home city because it would not offer any tangible benefit. Connor recently authored a letter, published in the Manchester Evening News and signed by academics, artists and businessmen, calling elected mayors a “bad deal”.

“For Manchester it’s a really bad option,” Connor says, “because we’ve got ten local authorities, not one, and we’ve got Greater Manchester, which is the scale at which our city works.

“If it was one elected mayor for the whole of Manchester – that would be a different issue. But this referendum is about a mayor just for the Manchester city council area, and it’s crackers.”

In London Boris Johnson is mayor of Greater London, which puts him in charge of all 32 of the capital’s boroughs. But Manchester is being offered an elected mayor who would only be responsible for the City of Manchester (one borough), as opposed to Greater Manchester in its entirety (ten boroughs).

“Elected mayors should be for larger areas – like London – they shouldn’t be for smaller areas,” Connor says. “There’s no demand for it, we haven’t asked for it, and yet it’s been forced on us.”

Last week the BBC quoted an unnamed Downing Street adviser saying Manchester would be at a competitive disavantage if its citizens didn’t vote yes on 3 May. In Wakefield council leader Peter Box has accused central government of engaging in “Alice in Wonderland politics” for asking people to vote on something that they are not fully informed about. Meanwhile, an anti-mayors campaign group called “Vote No to a Power Freak” has been founded by politicians in Birmingham who claim elected mayors will lead to corruption and a form of dictatorship.

“Concentrating power into the hands of one individual makes it easy for them to do things that mean other people aren’t consulted – unless they are wealthy people or high up in the bureaucracy of the council,” says John Hemming MP, a Liberal Democrat involved with the Vote No to a Power Freak campaign. “It leads towards corruption, because power corrupts – the more power you give people the more corruption there is.

“If you think politics should be a celebrity contest once every four years and otherwise people do what they feel like, then great – vote for it. But if you think politics is about policies and trying to make a society where everybody is taken into account – then oppose it.”

In Liverpool the prevailing attitude is more positive. The city’s council decided to adopt an elected mayor without holding a referendum after being promised a £130m funding package from Whitehall in return, including a £75m economic development grant and a low tax enterprise zone in the north of the city.

“It’s time to embrace mayoral politics,” says Liam Fogarty, a former BBC journalist running as an independent candidate for Liverpool mayor. “It will be different to the sort of politics that we’re used to, I think and I hope. A mayoral figure provides clear visible leadership – there’s no hiding place for a mayor – and I think that makes for a stronger democracy.”

Among the other candidates who will be running for mayor of Liverpool are Herbert Howe, a celebrity hairdresser, and Tony Mulhearn, the former Militant leader who has pledged to reverse all council cuts should he get elected. Phil Redmond, the creator of TV series Brookside, Grange Hill and Hollyoaks, finally ruled himself out of the race last week, after much speculation that he would stand.

“At the moment we have this whole kind of alphabet soup of people taking important decisions that are not visible or held to account – quangos, joint boards, partnerships, multi agency agreements,” Fogarty says. “If the price of accountability is the odd eccentric, I think that’s a fair price to pay.”