The National Union of Students (NUS) fears that government proposals to criminalise trespassing will see student sit-ins outlawed.
The legislative changes, which appeared in a Ministry of Justice consultation paper, are allegedly intended to speed up the eviction of squatters. But, the NUS, along with trade unionists and lawyers, have expressed concern that the unspecific wording will make it difficult to distinguish between squatting and political occupations.
“It will be a fundamental affront to the right of students to protest if occupation was criminalised,” said Michael Chessum, an NUS national executive member, told the Guardian. ‘I have no doubt that if the government tries to criminalise occupations … we would mount a campaign to make it politically impossible to stop student occupiers occupying.’
Trespass is currently a civil offence, meaning that property owners have to take offenders through the civil courts, a lengthy process which has little or no bearing on short-term occupation-protests. If it becomes a criminal offence, however, sit-ins could potentially become a matter for immediate police intervention.
The Ministry of Justice has denied any intent to criminalise occupations, arguing that the proposed changes are aimed specifically at squatting. Yet while the consultation does consider whether student/worker sit-down protests should be covered under the changes, it remains quite open-ended: ‘Some may argue that the disruption [a sit-down] causes to the property owner may justify criminal sanctions while others may argue that certain types of squatters should be exempt.’
“The potential for grey areas is huge,” said Giles Peaker, a housing solicitor. “The consultation suggests that certain kinds of occupation might possibly be excluded, including things like students occupying university property, it doesn’t say that they will be, and the suggestion appears to be you would have Ministry of Justice licensed protests – permitted and not permitted.”