Squatting in an empty house (in legalese, an "unoccupied residential property") was not a criminal offence in England and Wales when I left my little grey home in the North to run away to London. In the capital, the graffiti from the hippy squat of 1969 was still visible at 144 Piccadilly.
Even though it had been a year since troops of police had hurled the hippy heroes out into the street, "We are the writing on your wall" still dripped in vast, blood-red letters above boarded-up windows. The phrase thrilled me (a law-abiding Lancastrian) mightily. And bang opposite the Ritz, too. Where the Queen Mother had tea with Noël Coward, fancy.
Squatting was not made an offence under the Criminal Law Act of 1977. So three prime ministers (Wilson, Heath and Callaghan) never found it necessary to criminalise squatting, even though there was a lot of it about during their premierships. Squatting, rioting, tying yourself to Swampy's trees, lying down in front of bulldozers on Twyford Down - all this kind of scofflaw direct action really narks governments. Makes them look as if they can't keep order, like a bad teacher.
Now, however, squatting is a criminal, rather than a civil offence (in England and Wales, though not in Scotland). And I have read as much as I can about what justice minister Crispin Blunt thinks his Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is for, but I don't understand why he bothered because it seems a bonkers waste of effort for no great result.
The minister says the Act is for "hard-working homeowners" who have been caused "untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs" because of squatting. I can remember one or two interesting cases (either because they were near my patch or because I knew one of the victims), but "untold misery" seems totally over-egged.
Grant Shapps (I never know what he is minister of) says the Act will tip "the scales of justice" back in favour of the home-owner. "No longer will there be so-called squatters' rights." But I don't think anybody really believed that there ever were squatters' rights, just as nobody really believes in "common-law wives".
The law as it stood (from the memory of my own brief squat) was that moving into an unoccupied residential property was not illegal. However, moving into a house whose householder had merely gone away for the weekend (leaving his "occupied residential property with nobody home right now") and subsequently keeping him out of it by changing the locks was just as illegal then as it is now.
In 1973 I was living in a flat where mice danced along the kitchen shelves in broad daylight, so when I met up with a university friend for a drink and he said to come and join his squat in north London, I did. It was occupied by three or four men and half a dozen women.
Some of the men were in a kind of roving Squat Start-Up squad for virgin squatters that would go down manholes and tap into the mains water-pipe and the main electricity cable.
Once your water was on (and notwithstanding how, why or by whom it had been turned on) the water company would be told that it could start sending bills. All these companies want is money, the plumbers and sparks told me. They don't mind squatters because they can get more money. They didn't tap the gas main, thank heaven. Once the water was on, they simply asked the gas company to send bills, too. But do squatters actually pay bills? "Some do, yeah. Once you're in, they have to turn on basic services if you ask them, especially if anyone's pregnant or there's children." One of the girls had a two-year-old boy. Voilà.
Now I think back, it wasn't even a "residential building" - it was a shop. Nobody lived in the downstairs front room because the wall that faced the street was the shop window. So squatting it was perfectly legal then. It was still legal after the 1977 Act and would be legal today.