How Residential Squatting Was Criminalised in England & Wales
2010 – Tory MP’s, particular Mike Weatherley, start pushing for the criminalisation of squatting, working with landlord lobby group Landlord Action. Political pressure to step up the campaign coincides with lots of negative articles in the right wing press, particularly the Evening Standard (See “Media Coverage, 2010-2012” below). David Cameron says in a speech he intends to criminalise squatting.
v MP Mike Weatherley’s links with Landlord Action v
Landlord Action claim to have started as a network of landlords who were frustrated at the cost of evictions and complexity of legal issues. Their aim was to support those struggling to evict “bad” tenants. In 1999 Paul Shamplina and Jonathan Chippeck decided to create a business to capitalise on the difficulties some landlords face with evictions. Paul was previously a private investigator and debt collector before becoming a certified bailiff and considers himself an expert in court proceedings. Jonathan is a businessman and landlord with a number of properties. Together they started a company, Landlord Action, to mediate, for a fee, between landlords, the courts, and tenants. They claim to deal with up to 40 evictions a week.
The business model is simple. A landlord pays a large sum of money to Landlord Action to carry out tasks that are time consuming, bureaucratic and require some knowledge of legal details to be efficient. Services include: evicting ‘bad’ tenants (residential and commercial), rent recovery, as well as Squatter evictions. A landlord looking to use their services to evict squatters could pay over £2000. The fee is for the swift removal of unwanted persons, involving all legal and court proceedings, and, physical removal by bailiffs – all done quickly and within the law. Landlord Action are keen to project their excellent legal knowledge and experience as their selling point because landlords often make mistakes in the legal process which costs them more. In this way, despite charging high fees, Landlord Action claim to save property owners cash. However, statements like “IMPORTANT: To have a squatter, in the legal sense, they must have broken in to the property and have not been let in by a previous tenant” suggest a different interpretation of law. [Landlord Action]
For their services to property owners they have won some recognition. Two years running 2009, 2010 they won a Legal Services award from the annual Landlord and Letting Awards. And in 2011 the Property Professional Awards (a dubious event with no information on website) awarded them winner in the Property Supplier category. Other than awards, Landlord Action have been successful at gaining a positive reputation and recognition as, both, experts and legitimate campaigners for landlords. Paul Shamplina in particular is becoming known as a leading expert with numerous appearances on television, radio and articles (about rather than by him) in papers. He was involved in the BBC’s ‘War at the Door’ and ITV’s ‘Tenants From Hell’. For the radio he takes phone-in’s from around the country answering questions from landlords and the success of Landlord Action has been documented by The Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail as well as local and industry newspapers.
Jonathan Chippeck too has been approached by media groups to give advice to landlords. This advice usually involves making obvious but aggressive demands to potential tenants such as thorough reference checks. “Bank statements. I would look at the past six months’ statements from your tenant. Bank references are not enough.” [Times] Both men also talk at conferences and have seminar or workshop days where they offer landlords a chance, for a price, to hear them speak.
On their website Landlord Action make few references to squatting as their main concern is evicting tenants. As an aside from charging for evictions, however, they also campaign on behalf of landlords. Their current campaigns include ‘Avoiding Bad Tenants,’ ‘Benefit Scam’ asking for housing benefit to be paid direct to landlords, and ‘Rebalancing the Law. The last one is concerned with making it much easier for landlords to evict tenants who avoid payments or are accused of anti-social behaviour. Landlord Action would like to make the case that landlords loose out to ‘bad’ tenants so courts can quickly make evictions without costing landlord’s time and money. With the support of Mike Weatherley MP, Southern Landlord’s Association and Residential Landlord’s Association, a petition is being circulated that will be presented by Mike Weatherley to parliament.The Petition reads: “We the undersigned wish to:
- (i) highlight the difficulties experienced by responsible landlords when faced with unscrupulous tenants,
- (ii) seek changes to the law to speed up the eviction process when a clear case of either non-payment of rent or anti-social behaviour exists,
- (iii) seek changes to the law to improve a landlord’s rights of access to their own property in the case of, again, non-payment of rent or anti-social behaviour,
- (iv) Seek commitment from the government that proposed closures of UK County Courts will not contribute towards any delays in landlords obtaining possession of their property.
Yogesh Chandarana, who works for Landlord Action as campaigns director although his name appears nowhere on their website, has given advice to landlord’s elsewhere that indicates their motivation to support this petition. He states, “With the continued challenging economic climate and caps on Local Housing Allowance rates coming into effect in 2011, we predict that many landlords will face a challenging 2011. We are, therefore, expecting to see a rise in possession actions. The Council for Mortgage Lenders (CML) has recently forecast that repossessions will rise to 40,000 in 2011. Currently, 175,000 home mortgages stand in arrears and the CML predict that this will increase slightly to 180,000 in 2011.” Paul Shamplina has said in the past he doesn’t feel bad about profiting from taking away people’s homes or campaigning for landlords because, “There’s already plenty of legislation protecting tenants, and if it looks like they’re going to end up homeless, the local authority will step in.” [Telegraph]
This petition is separate to another petition calling for support of Early Day Motion 1545 proposed by Mike Weatherley on 07/03/2011. EDM 1545 is the proposal that believes squatting should become criminal. It has been signed by 20 conservative MPs, 1 LibDem MP, 1 Labour MP and a Social Democratic and Labour party MP from Belfast South. Landlord Action collected 1,319 signatures that expressed support for the EDM and together with Weatherley, Yogesh Chandarana presented it to Downing Street.
With the two petitions combined it appears Mike Weatherley and Landlord Action are at the forefront of pressuring parliament to give full weight of the law to property owners, leaving tenants or occupiers with fewer rights. With support from MPs on the inside and a well networked campaign on the outside (landlord groups and similar associations) Landlord Action have been able to successfully influence what is put forward for consultation and for what reasons. The proposed changes are said to help home-owners who are victims of a lengthy and expensive legal procedure and exploited by informed squatters who use the law to their advantage. One website has said that Landlord Action were initially approached by Mike Weatherley, rather than the other way round. [Affinity]
However, insurance companies are already considering the implications of this law on their policies for empty Buy-to Let property [Rent Guard]. They say Buy-to-let insurance holders, often investors, are likely to welcome the proposals. Landlord Action are involved with Buy-to-let services and offer seminars aimed at property investors on how to keep costs down and understanding legal requirements. They also specialise in advice to landlord’s who risk repossession of buy-to-let properties when problems arise. It is not known whether there is a connection between Landlord Action’s interest in criminalising squatting, their concerns about speedy evictions of ‘bad’ tenants, and, their involvement in Buy-to-let schemes. Investors are continually being warned on their blog about the risks for their buy-to-let portfolio’s given the current economic climate, unemployment and likelihood of rent arrears leading to evictions. Landlord Action seem committed to supporting investors and developers who force the overvaluation of property.
– Research conducted by member of SQUASH Research team, 2011
March 2011 – Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announces Coalition government’s plans to criminalise squatting.
30 March 2011 – MP Mike Weatherley introduces the prospect of criminalising squatting in the House of Commons, and starts the Government’s consultation process.
v First Announced in House of Commons – 30 March 2011 v
Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Brady. I will start this debate with a quote: “This place isn’t nice enough for me. I want somewhere posher, with a swimming pool if possible.” Those are not the words of someone complaining about the gym facilities at the House of Commons. They are the words of one of London’s most prolific squatters about his latest free home in Hampstead, as reported in the Evening Standard last week. We are all covering his council tax contributions, his electricity bills and his gas bills, and we are all paying for the police to investigate each time a new break-in is reported.As my hon. Friend the Minister stated in a recent letter to me, squatting is “the unauthorised occupation of property belonging to another person and amounts to trespass on land”. Some forms of trespass are criminal, such as those that take place on licensed aerodromes and railways, but I am focusing today on all the other forms of squatting. They relate to offices, flats and houses; to empty and occupied buildings, and to private and public property. These forms of squatting are unlawful but not criminal.Squatting is a huge problem in Hove and Portslade and I have been campaigning on the issue since I was elected to Parliament. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister and our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government have made joint announcements on the issue. I am also grateful to the organisations, such as Landlord Action, that have helped me to raise awareness of this issue around the country.
The Ministers’ announcements will be widely welcomed by those who have been adversely affected by squatters. I will make the case today that time is of the essence. The problem is getting worse, not better. However, there are two sides to this story and getting to the crux of the matter is not just about cracking down on trespassers themselves.I wish to dispel the myth, once and for all, that squatters and homeless people are one and the same. My constituency has both wealth and deprivation. It is a Mecca for every character imaginable, which makes it such a wonderfully diverse place to live in. Homelessness is an issue locally, but we have a fantastic support network of local charities, including Emmaus, Brighton Housing Trust, Off The Fence and the YMCA, which look after a great number of vulnerable people. It is our duty to look after such people and I fully support the excellent work being carried out in this area. Tackling homelessness is also a high priority for Brighton and Hove city council. The council is working hard to reduce the number of empty properties in the city and last year alone 168 long-term empty properties were brought back into use. In 1997, 200 council-owned properties were long-term empty but that figure is now down to just 28.
However, putting considerable resources into removing squatters and paying for the damage that they inevitably cause places a strain on council services. In the past 18 months, there have been 10 instances of squatting in council-owned properties in Brighton and Hove, which has cost local people more than £30,000 in legal bills alone. The repair bill for one particular property was £40,000, which again had to be picked up by the residents of Brighton and Hove. Squatters are damaging buildings that are in the process of refurbishment, which only exacerbates the housing shortage.In my experience, squatters do not fit the profile of the kind of vulnerable people that we should be looking out for. I am generalising of course, but for the purpose of this discussion I want to make the point that serial squatters know the law. They submit freedom of information requests to councils to find out where there are empty buildings; they are “web-savvy” and highly resourceful; they run rings around the law, and what these professional squatters lack in respect for other people’s property they make up for in guile and tenacity. They are organised and frequently menacing.
Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Shelter website, which I was quite horrified to read? As he knows, my constituency has a persistent problem of squatters. But Shelter has a guide to squatting, about how to keep on the right side of the law, on its website. Does he agree that it is reprehensible to encourage people in this illegal activity?
Mike Weatherley: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I very much agree with him. I will go on to make some specific points about “The Squatters Handbook” shortly. I said that squatters know the law well but the absolute opposite is true when it comes to the public in general, who would be shocked if they knew just how powerless they are to take on squatters. Many members of the public do not find that out until it is too late. Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to use violence, or threats of violence, to gain access to premises when “there is someone present on those premises…who is opposed to the entry”.
That section is what is usually referred to as squatters’ rights, but I do not believe that it exists to assist squatting. It is in place to prevent unscrupulous landlords from using violence or intimidation to evict legitimate tenants. Squatters, therefore, have such rights only by accident. A local resident asked me a question in my local paper, The Argus: “If squatting is a practice that is socially unacceptable, how is leaving a property empty for more than a year any more acceptable?” My answer is simple—it is not acceptable at all. I have contacted my local council on a number of occasions about the issue of empty buildings belonging to exploitative developers. We should be careful, though, not to embrace squatting on the principle that “our enemy’s enemy is a friend”. We must get tough on bad landlords—and soon—but buildings can be temporarily empty for all sorts of reasons and many of those reasons are entirely acceptable.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): One reason why a house remains empty is the death of the occupier. Such a house can very often lie dormant for months, sometimes years, while the family and the executors sort out probate, and it can be very worrying and distressing if squatters move in during that time.
Mike Weatherley: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Squatting can be very distressing for those who are affected by it. Let us take the case of 40 Wilbury Villas in Hove. As I have said, Brighton and Hove city council is carrying out a huge refurbishment project on a number of properties. Those properties are public assets, which should be in use and let to those who have been deemed to be most in need of them. No. 40 Wilbury Villas is one such property and work on it was planned. However, when a particularly vigilant neighbour spotted the locks being changed, he knew that something was up. Straight away, a notice appeared on the door listing the rights of squatters. It was downhill from then on, as an endless stream of professional squatters turned up for their share of the spoils.
It is interesting that the notice on the door was selective about the laws that it mentioned. Many of the crimes that go hand in hand with squatting were conveniently left off that notice. There was nothing on the subject of breaking and entering; nothing on breach of the peace; nothing on the misuse of drugs; nothing on criminal damage; nothing on antisocial behaviour; nothing on non-payment of council tax; nothing on arson; nothing on robbery; nothing on unauthorised works to listed buildings; nothing on using utilities without contacting the suppliers, and there was certainly nothing on fly-tipping.
I have discussed the issue of squatting with Sussex police, and its powers are limited. There are not always witnesses in cases of squatting, so arrest is often difficult. Protected intended occupiers and displaced residential occupiers have some protection, but not enough. Incidentally, members of the same group of squatters that took over 40 Wilbury Villas then took over another property nearby, Park House. Once again, a historic building was damaged and as a result refurbishment of the property will now be more expensive.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is there any way that the local authority could cut off the services to a property occupied by squatters and not reinstate those services? I understand that, such is their knowledge of the law, squatters are able to phone up and have the services reconnected. Is there not a position within the law whereby the services can be cut off right away because a payment has to be made?
Mike Weatherley: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, I believe that local authorities cannot cut off services. If the squatters contact the electricity suppliers legally and use the electricity legally, the police are powerless to go and arrest them. There might be some other points about non-payment that could lead to services being disconnected, but I do not believe that services can be disconnected on other grounds. However, I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point.
Mr Brady, please forgive me when I say that I was sceptical when I read that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government had jointly released the guide, “Advice on dealing with squatters in your home”. The guide is actually very good and to the point, and I recommend it to anybody who owns a property that has been invaded by squatters, or to anybody who is a neighbour of a property with squatters. Squatters themselves will not need to read it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) mentioned earlier, they have their own guide, “The Squatters Handbook”. Like the notice on the door at 40 Wilbury Villas, that handbook is sadly very selective, both when it comes to rights in the law and in its morality.
As I alluded to earlier, I have little sympathy for landlords who use loopholes in the planning system to run down buildings or for landlords who simply do not care that their properties are in a poor state. Compared to other countries, however, the UK has very few empty buildings. In Spain and Italy, more than 20% of the sorts of properties that we are discussing today were empty in 2009; in Germany, the figure was 8.2% and in France 6.1%. The current UK figure is between 3% and 4%. Among comparable countries, only the Netherlands and Sweden had lower figures, at 2.2% and 1.7% respectively. We can do better, of course, but the problem is not one of empty buildings. Business rates, council tax enforcement and compulsory purchase are all deterrents to leaving properties empty, but there is some scope for improving the system.
My recent early-day motion 1545 calling for squatting to be criminalised has attracted cross-party support. Members of the public are getting tired of hearing that squatters are getting so much for free when they themselves are struggling to get by. They are also fed up with the antisocial behaviour of, and general mess caused by, squatters. High-profile campaigns run by The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard are certainly helping to highlight what is really going on.
The extent of the problem was highlighted in a parliamentary question that I recently asked to determine which Departments had been affected by squatting. A number of Departments have fallen foul of squatters, including the Ministry of Justice, one of whose buildings was occupied by squatters twice in one year, with interim possession orders being sought to remove the squatters on each occasion. If the Ministry of Justice has problems, what chance have the rest of us got?
Fortunately, we do not need to look far for a solution. In Scotland, this form of trespass is already a criminal offence. I am aware that the Government have the matter under review, but I am concerned that the proposals will not go far enough. I welcome the announcement that squatting is likely to be criminalised, but the devil will be in the detail. Properties can be destroyed very quickly, and it should be possible to remove squatters instantly, as any delay results in further damage and destruction. There should be tough penalties and a criminal record.
I will end, as I began, with a worrying quote from our friend in Hampstead who wants a free swimming pool: “Law changes will never stop us. The Government can say all they want but squatting will still go on…There is nothing they can do.” I hope that he is wrong.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) on securing this debate on a very serious issue. Like him, I have become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause to commercial property owners and home owners alike. In his excellent contribution, he identified the costs not only to individuals but to wider society, including the costs associated with enforcement by the police, and with all the public agencies that have to clean up after squatting incidents, either through the legal process or literally, when properties have been invaded. There should, therefore, be no doubt about the seriousness with which the issue is taken and the perniciousness of the crime.
I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s compliments about the guidance issued by the Minister for Housing and Local Government and me. My hon. Friend came to it with a proper degree of scepticism about whether it would be of any use. I am extremely grateful that, having examined it, he has referred to its utility. That is only the first stage of the process, so let me take Members through the further action that we are contemplating.
My hon. Friend has not been alone in raising the matter, both directly with me in questions and publicly, with this debate. He is joined by our hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) who came to see me before Christmas to discuss the damage that squatters caused to commercial buildings supervised by one of her constituents. The extent of the damage and the cost to her constituents are appalling. She was accompanied by Steve Cross, head of security for a development company, who made it clear that squatters were costing his company many thousands of pounds because of the direct damage to the buildings, the problems caused to neighbours with loud parties, litter and rubbish, and the amount of time it takes to sort things out—sometimes six to 12 weeks for a court order to be granted and then finally enforced. We all know that the legal process is tricky, particularly for someone coming to it for the first time, and it is almost inevitably expensive, with court costs to be borne as well.
Since Christmas, we have seen a succession of newspaper reports about squatters occupying high-value residential properties in London, and there have been reports on the consequences of squatting in local papers all around the country, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove has said, in his constituency. The situation is not confined to the capital, and I suspect that the picture is similar in other large towns, but we do not have a precise idea of how many squatters there are nationwide. We do know, however, that 360 applications for interim possession orders were made in the civil courts last year. An interim possession order is an accelerated process, specifically designed for evicting squatters. It provides an indicator of how many households are blighted by squatting each year, but that figure is probably only the tip of the iceberg.
It is because we are aware of the misery that squatters can cause that we intend to strengthen the law, and consider how to strengthen its enforcement. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me, however, because we are yet to complete the cross-departmental process of analysing our own Ministry of Justice internal suggestions before publishing a formal consultation. We are going through the internal agreement processes. Nevertheless, I would like to leave him with a clear steer on our approach.
Jim Shannon: Is there a role for the UK Border Agency here, alongside the police? I am not saying that this is always the case, but I am aware that in some cases squatters might be in the country illegally.
Mr Blunt: I certainly hope that if there were any reliable evidence that the people involved were in the country illegally, the UKBA would be engaged in initiating appropriate proceedings to remove them from the United Kingdom. I had not considered that angle in preparing my remarks for the debate, but the obvious answer is yes, one would expect the appropriate authorities—in this case the UKBA—to be properly engaged in exercising their responsibilities, in the same way as they would be in any other circumstance.
We will want to examine the existing squatting laws to see whether they can be appropriately strengthened because, having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, the issues that were raised at Justice questions yesterday, and the conduct of the whole public debate, it is pretty clear to me where the public are on this issue and I am confident that measures to strengthen the law would have significant support.
Mike Weatherley: Is the Minister considering full criminalisation of squatting as part of those measures? In my constituency and elsewhere, there are serial squatters who just move from one property to another when they are evicted. In one instance in my constituency, they kicked a hole in the wall and moved next door. The police are powerless to have any damages or continuing action taken out against the squatters. Without the criminal process, they are just moved on and then do it again.
Mr Blunt: That is, of course, one of the things that we are considering, and it has been pointed out that in Scotland squatting is a criminal offence. That offence, however, is extremely widely drawn and for that reason the tariff of punishment is extremely low. It is at the very bottom of the scale—a level 1 offence—with a fine not exceeding £200.
Mike Freer: Perhaps I could help the Minister on that point. I understand that squatting is a criminal offence under the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865, which states that the maximum penalty is a fine or 21 days’ imprisonment. That is a slightly firmer penalty than in the information the Minister has, and I urge the Government to adopt it.
Mr Blunt: That might have been the position in 1865, but I am afraid that the Criminal Justice Act 1982 restricted punishment to a fine not exceeding level 1, which is currently £200.
Mike Weatherley: It is important to establish that penalties in Scotland are too lenient. The fine is indeed £200 for an offence. The penalty for non-payment of that fine is 21 days.
Mr Blunt: I am grateful for that clarification. Squatting is almost inevitably accompanied by a series of criminal offences, such as criminal damage or breaking into the property in the first place. The improper use of utilities was discussed. Using someone else’s electricity is theft, subject to a maximum sentence of seven years. The unlawful abstraction of electricity is also a criminal offence, with a maximum sentence of five years. There are numerous avenues.
To lay out the picture in the time that I have left, the main criminal law provisions on squatting are set out in sections 6 and 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. I will deal with section 6 first, as it has given rise to the popular notion of squatters’ rights. Section 6 of the 1977 Act states that it is an offence for a person to use violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry. The offence was designed to stop unscrupulous landlords from using violence to evict legitimate tenants, but its existence has led some squatters to display so-called section 6 notices on the door of properties notifying the property owner that it would be an offence for him to break back in.
The offence does not apply to displaced residential occupiers who break back into their own homes, but it prevents commercial property owners from breaking back into their commercial premises when someone inside objects. One option that we have been considering, therefore, is whether section 6 could be amended to give non-residential property owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers to break back into their property. We think that that would effectively render section 6 notices meaningless. After my discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, I am strongly attracted to that option.
Section 7 of the Act includes an offence that is committed where a squatter refuses to leave a home when required to do so by a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier of the property. Under the current law, the squatter has a defence if they can prove either that they did not believe that the person requiring them to leave was, or was acting on behalf of, a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier, or that the premises were not used mainly for residential purposes and that they were not on any part of the premises used wholly or mainly for residential purposes.
Another option that we are considering is whether that offence could be strengthened to protect other types of property owner, so that owners of non-residential property would have the same protection as displaced residential occupiers. At present it is an offence, for example, for a squatter to refuse to leave somebody’s home, but it is not an offence for them to refuse to leave a person’s place of work. I appreciate that the actions of squatters may cause serious financial hardship in either scenario and am considering whether the law should apply equally to both.
We are examining internally the potential consequences of the available options to ensure that they do not overlap with other areas, such as landlord and tenant matters. The public consultation will give us another opportunity to ensure that our proposals work as we would all wish. The necessity of ensuring that we get it right and of engaging in a proper consultation process means that we will not be able to move as swiftly as I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Hove would like. We must also identify the appropriate legislative vehicle if legislation is required. No doubt we will hope for right hon. and hon. Friends’ assistance in getting any required legislative changes on to the statute book as soon as is practicable, but that is all for the future and depends on our conclusions.
Each option that I have described could have an impact on the criminal justice system. For example, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service might incur additional costs if asked to enforce new offences. The criminal courts might have to process a greater number of cases, although the impact might be partially offset by a reduction in civil claims. Depending on the penalty imposed for any new offence, there might also be an impact on the prison population. In the current economic climate, we must ensure that such impacts are carefully assessed and shown to be affordable. As I have said, a consultation would assist us in that process. We should be in a position to announce our plans in more detail soon.
Regardless of whatever changes we make to the law in future, we must work closely with enforcement authorities to ensure that existing offences are enforced as effectively as possible. In addition to the offences under the 1977 Act that I mentioned, the police can arrest squatters for offences such as criminal damage, burglary, theft or the unauthorised use of utilities if there is sufficient evidence of guilt. The offences all bear a maximum sentence of imprisonment. The offence of criminal damage has a maximum sentence of three months in less serious cases, rising to 10 years in the most serious cases. Burglary carries a maximum sentence of 14 years for dwellings and 10 years for other properties. For theft, the maximum sentence is seven years, and for the offence of abstracting electricity, the maximum sentence is five years’ imprisonment.
There is another offence that applies to squatters. It is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a property within 24 hours of being served with an interim possession order and to return to the property as a trespasser within one year of the order. Interim possession orders were introduced in 1995 to make the process of gaining possession of one’s property easier and quicker. They are civil orders, but as I said, they are backed up by a criminal sanction with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment. My officials are in discussions with the police to ascertain whether there are specific difficulties in enforcing those offences and how any potential barriers might be overcome.
We must also ensure that property owners have the information that they need to get squatters out of their properties as quickly and painlessly as possible. That is why we have published new guidance on the Directgov website outlining the circumstances in which squatters should be reported to the police. As my hon. Friend will have seen, the guidance also includes advice on how to apply for a possession order in the civil courts, a process that is alien to many people until they are confronted by the appalling situation of finding their property improperly occupied by squatters.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to our attention. This debate is only the latest emanation of concern about it. I have written to many hon. Members from all parties who have raised it with me in correspondence, a series of oral and written parliamentary questions have been asked and hon. Members have sought meetings with me about it, so I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate and to make it clear that the Justice Secretary and I are determined to tackle the issue and to bring relief to the victims of this particularly distressing and pernicious crime.
11.28 amSitting suspended.
May 2011 – SQUASH re-forms and launches with a report in the House of Commons entitled ‘Criminalising the Vulnerable’. The event is attended by some MP’s and homelessness organisations, including Crisis.
July 2011 – Government consultation begins; the Ministry of Justice puts out its consultation called: “Options for dealing with squatters”. Intended for landlords alone, SQUASH set about alerting people of the consultation, and encouraging responses.
5th October 2011 – Consultation ends with 96% of respondents opposed to any kind of criminalisation. There is opposition from homelessness charities, Liberty, The Metropolitan Police, The Law Society and The Criminal Bar Association. A good sample of responses can be found in the “Options…” booklet.26th October 2011 – Three days before The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) is to pass through the House of Commons at Final Reading, a clause (130) is added to criminalise squatting in residential properties. SQUASH send out a press release claiming the government is “bypassing democracy”, and organise a picnic outside Parliament, which results in 12 arrests. Three days later, the LASPO Bill is voted through the House of Commons, despite some opposition from John McDonnell MP.
v Second Mention in House of Commons – 31 October 2011 v
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I have been fascinated by the proceedings while I have been waiting to move the motion. I beg to move, That, notwithstanding that such provisions could not have been proposed in Committee without an Instruction from the House, amendments may be proposed on Consideration of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to—
- (a) provide for measures against the payment or receipt of referral fees in connection with the provision of legal services,
- (b) create a new offence relating to squatting, and
- (c) amend section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (reasonable force for purposes of self-defence etc).The motion seeks to widen the scope of the Bill in order to provide for measures to be introduced on the payment of referral fees, on the creation of a new criminal offence relating to squatting and to amend the law that governs the use of reasonable force for the purposes of self defence.
Finally, the Prime Minister also announced on 21 June that we would put beyond doubt that home owners and small shopkeepers who use reasonable force to defend themselves or their properties will not be prosecuted. We think that further action on self-defence is necessary to reassure members of the public that they are allowed to use reasonable force to defend themselves or their properties against intruders or others.[…]
Debate ends 4.35pm – very little more said on “squatting” clauses
September 2011 – Following an anti-squatting media storm, 160 Leading legal experts write to the Guardian explaining how the media and politicians are misleading the public on squatting.
v Second Reading in House of Lords – February 2012 v
Moved by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer188: Clause 130, page 111, line 39, at end insert- “( ) The offence is not committed where the building has been empty for 6 months or more and where there are no significant steps being taken to refurbish, let or sell the building at the time of the trespass.”
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I realise the hour, but I will need to detain the Committee for some time on this clause because it is very serious and seeks to criminalise a large group of people. It was not debated in Committee in the other place, so I feel that this House needs to give it its full scrutiny. I am very pleased that so many of your Lordships are still in their places at this time of night to debate this issue. I have tabled this amendment and given notice of my intention to oppose the Question that this clause stand part of the Bill because I think the Committee will need to question very deeply the Government’s claim that they need to criminalise the vulnerable homeless who are seeking shelter.
Let me say at the outset that I-like all noble Lords, I am sure-feel that a home should be sacrosanct and that any violation of it is totally unacceptable. An Englishman’s or Englishwoman’s home may not be a castle, but it should be so in law, and so it is. Despite the many misconceptions peddled by the press and others, it is already a criminal offence to squat in someone’s home. The instances of squatters trying to establish themselves in someone’s home are minuscule, but when it happens homeowners can be quite clear that they can ask the person or people to leave, and should that not happen immediately they should call the police. The police should remove the squatters and deal with the matter as a criminal offence. The same applies to a home that has been bought into which someone is intending to move. In both cases, the property owner is protected by Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which was updated by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It is already a criminal offence to refuse when asked to leave someone’s home or a house that they are about to move into, to cause criminal damage either to gain entry or once inside the property, and to use utilities without paying for them. The police have a clear duty to enforce that. That is just to be absolutely clear. When the Minister began to speak to this amendment, he implied that the law was not sufficient in this case, and my first question to him is: why do the Government think that?
My amendment is suggested by the charity Crisis. Its purpose is to probe whether it might be better to extend what is covered by Section 7. The amendment proposes that anyone squatting in a house that has been empty for more than six months-not anyone’s home, but a house that has been empty-and where there have been no material steps to bring it back into use would not be committing a criminal offence. What we need more clarity about are empty houses-not homes, but empty houses; for example, because they are going to be redeveloped or because someone has bought them and is waiting for the property market to pick up. It would be better to debate the link between homelessness and empty houses in the context of a housing Bill. I am sure the Minister has read the Crisis report of September 2011, Squatting: A Homelessness Issue, which urges that squatting should be discussed in the context of housing, homelessness and welfare.
Crisis commissioned independent research that shows that 41 per cent of homeless squatters report mental health needs; 34 per cent have been in care; 42 per cent suffer physical ill health or a disability; 47 per cent have experienced drug dependency; 21 per cent self-harm; and 15 per cent have a learning disability. On all these measures, homeless squatters are more vulnerable than the single homeless population as a whole, and 90 per cent of homeless squatters have also slept rough.
These are the people whom the Government are seeking to criminalise. I submit that criminalisation will not solve the problems faced by either these homeless individuals or by our society as a whole, which has a housing crisis, with over 600,000 people homeless and 350,000 empty properties-which is, as George Clarke graphically described in his Channel 4 series “The Great British Property Scandal”, equivalent to a city the size of Leeds. To have a rational debate about squatting and empty properties, we need to debunk some of the myths. The Crisis report makes plain that there are a lot of myths around squatting; for example, that of the eastern European squatting gangs invading people’s homes, which, according to the Met policeman responsible for squatting policy, does not happen. What we are dealing with are people who, for whatever reason, have lost their home and are on a route back to housing. Of course there are a few who choose to squat as a political statement, the so-called lifestyle squatters. As the historian Colin Ward says in his history of the subject:
“There has always been a distinction between squatting as a political demonstration and squatting as a personal solution to a housing problem. In the first instance the intention is for propagandist purposes, to be noticed. In the second the hope is to be inconspicuous and blend into the landscape”.
The Occupy squats are there to be seen and heard. Other squatters are trying in nearly all cases to be quiet neighbours and keep themselves to themselves. There are a number of reasons why I am challenging Clause 130. First, it is no way to deal with the vulnerable homeless. Secondly, alone in this Bill, which is all about cutting costs, it will pass substantial additional costs on to the Ministry of Justice and eventually the taxpayer. I know how anxious my noble friend is for the Government to reduce costs and for his department to reduce its budget. Thirdly, the Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association, the Metropolitan Police Service and Crisis all believe that it would be much more sensible for the Government to focus on ensuring that the current law, which is quite adequate, is enforced, rather than to create a new criminal offence.
Interestingly, that position has also been taken by Annington Holdings plc, one of the largest owners of private property in the UK, which describes enforcement as the crux of the problem. It is in empty premises unoccupied for months or years, intended at some time for redevelopment, where people are likely to squat. For the owners of those properties, the housing associations and so on, the recourse is of course civil remedy. I accept that large-scale landlords who have several, perhaps dozens, of empty homes that they intend to redevelop find it very annoying to have to have recourse to civil remedy if they find that one or more of their properties has been squatted.
As a former leader of the local authority in Somerset, I have seen this issue from the other side and I have some sympathy. Housing associations have been affected, as have many private sector developers, but the fact is that civil remedy is not difficult. It is tried, tested and backed up by a very experienced bailiff system, which is what the civil law is there for. One of the peculiarities of the proposed legislation is that it is likely to lengthen the time that it takes to evict squatters. Prosecuted under civil law, squatters can be removed with an interim possession order in just a couple of days but going through the CPS could take weeks or even months.
In March 2011, the Government made a very good move when they made the position clearer in a joint initiative between the MoJ and the Housing Minister, Grant Shapps. They issued updated guidance called Advice on Dealing with Squatters in your Home, which makes it clear that it is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a residential property when asked to do so. I would ask the Minister what advice to the Government changed after March 2011. It was not the advice from the police who, in their formal response to the MoJ consultation, said: “Criminalisation of squatting and subsequent enforcement would have an impact on policing, in terms of community relations, local policing objectives and cost”.
They are not in favour of the change before us tonight. It was not on the advice of the enforcement agencies. I do not know whether the Minister has had time to read the opinion of Claire Sandbrook, who is one of 60 authorised High Court enforcement officers and chair of Shergroup, which is a leading legal services company. She said:
“‘The options put forward in the paper also have one massive omission-the option of enhancing the civil enforcement route for dealing with squatters. Certainly, to my knowledge, there have been no complaints as to how effectively HCEOs deal with squatters once the cases are put in their hands. HCEOs deal with squatter evictions quickly, efficiently, safely and without cost to the public purse once they are in a position to take control of the situation … The trick would surely be to ensure that cases can be processed and actioned far more speedily through existing civil procedures”.
The fact is that the police are neither resourced nor trained to take on the duties that the bailiffs are undertaking. They could do so only at considerable cost and with other vital law and order priorities being downgraded as a result.What will happen if we leave Clause 130 as it is? I ask your Lordships to consider whether it would mean more empty homes are brought back into use quickly by housing associations and local authorities. No, it will not because the reason that those homes are not being renovated and brought back into use is almost always financial. Will it make it easier for private landlords to gain possession of empty properties? It will not make it any easier or simpler; it will just shift the financial burden from the civil procedure effectively to the taxpayer because the time spent on it will be time spent by the police instead of the bailiffs.
The Government’s regulatory impact assessment envisages spending something between £3 million and £10 million more per year to enforce this. That is a very conservative estimate. I have seen others which estimate the sum to be nearer £20 million a year. The impact assessment does not cover the added costs to local authorities that presentation of numbers of vulnerable homeless will present-somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000-nor of children who will need special care arrangements. I think that taxpayers will ask who has benefited from this change. It will not be home owners, who are already protected.
I must say that the Government have made an excellent start on tackling the empty homes problem. Only in December last year, for the first time a £20 million fund was announced to provide support for single homeless people. The Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, then announced a review of barriers to investment in rented homes, and the Government introduced their empty homes strategy, when my honourable friend the Minister Andrew Stunell said:
“The number of empty homes in this country is a national scandal … yet for every two families that need a home there is one standing empty. That is why I’ve made tackling the blight of empty homes a top priority for the Coalition … we’ve made £150 million available to help councils and charities take radical action”.
All the building blocks are in place to solve the empty homes issue and make squatting a thing of the past. That is the route I believe we should be taking. I do not think we should criminalise the vulnerable homeless and we should not be creating a worse housing crisis. I admit that we have to solve a knotty and difficult problem, but the period between now and Report is when your Lordships need to look in depth at these issues and not at Clause 130 as it is before us tonight. I beg to move.
Baroness Stern: My Lords, I rise briefly to speak in support of the amendment which has been moved so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I recall how encouraging it was to see the coalition Government, when they came into office, making it clear that new laws were not the answer. Speaking at the Liberal Democrat annual conference in September 2010, the Minister said:“Labour created thousands of new offences and used a steady stream of criminal justice and anti-terrorism laws to ratchet up the powers of the state and to diminish the rights of the citizen. This coalition comes into office to reverse that tidal flow of laws …Which is why my department, the Ministry of Justice, will now check each new criminal offence. And if we don’t need it, it will be blocked”.
In the light of that admirable sentiment, I wonder if I could ask the Minister why, having heard the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, he still feels that this would be a good new offence to introduce.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on having put this issue before the Committee. I am not sure that I see some of the points she made as quite as clear-cut as she suggests they are. There can be tremendous complexities and very real, painful stories behind houses that stand empty for longer than six months. There may indeed be social issues that in themselves need to be addressed. But what I think she is absolutely right about is that if a high percentage of the people who are squatting in the way described are particularly vulnerable with a disproportionate number of problems, for the life of me I cannot see how adding criminalisation to all the other complexities that they face so inadequately will help them to sort out their lives. It seems to be a cynical and cold-blooded approach. I have moments, when listening to the Minister, when I fear that he has got embarrassed about liberal principles and feels he must distance himself over and over again. I certainly do not recognise any liberal principles in this piece of legislation.
Prima facie, the new criminal offence will demonise the absolute poorest, those with mental health issues and those who, frankly, have no other option than to shelter in properties that are, for the most part, unfit for habitation. Of course, we take the view, as does everyone else of sensible mind, that lifestyle squatting is quite beyond the pale and absolutely unacceptable-we oppose it as a principle as much as anyone else.
However, there is a big difference, as the noble Baroness demonstrated, between those few who jump carelessly into properties owned by others with the intent of abusing-severely abusing in some cases-the rights of ownership and those who have no other option unless they want to live on the streets. Anyone who lives in central London, for example, knows that the number of people living on the streets is going up as we speak. A large number of those people have no doubt, from time to time, “squatted” in the terms of what will become this legislation.
Our media, of course, are quite happy to remind us of the instances of outrageous behaviour by lifestyle squatters, but they are curiously quiet when it comes to telling us about, for example, a veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder who is addicted to drugs and alcohol and shelters in a property riddled with asbestos. Is he the sort of squatter whom the Government are out to get?
Squatting for the main part is already illegal and, in most instances, criminal, too. The Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it a criminal offence for any person to leave premises when required to do so by “a displaced residential occupier” or “protected intended occupier” of the premises. Parts 55.1 and 55.3 of the Civil Procedure Rules allow for owners to evict someone in a residence they do not occupy. Moreover, an interim possession order, backed up by powers in Section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, means that a criminal offence is committed if an individual does not leave within 24 hours of such an expedited order being granted. So given that all homeowners are protected by the criminal law, unless their property has lain empty for a substantial period and no one is imminently moving in, where does this need for reform of the law lie?
Perhaps a hint came in the signature leaks to the media. A series of reports leading up to the unveiling of this government policy focused on the very sad case of Dr Oliver Cockerell and his pregnant wife who, the ministry briefed, were thrown out of their house by squatters. However, in that case, it emerged that the police, for once, had wrongly stated that the case of the doctor and his wife was a civil issue and not one for them. In fact, as Mr Cockerell and his wife were protected intended occupiers, it is more than arguable that the police should have intervened under the current law. Their failure to do so was not atypical and the position does not require the kind of legislative, heavy-boots intervention that the Government intend.
The Welfare Reform Bill and the legal aid Bill that we are debating tonight both deal in parts with impecunious and very vulnerable people. The two Bills together will increase the number of people who have to resort to living in condemned housing out of desperation. We know, thanks to social welfare researchers, that there is a significant prevalence of mental health problems, learning difficulties and substance addiction among those who are homeless. In fact, the Government’s own impact assessment, referred to in passing by the noble Baroness, tells us who is forced to squat. It said:
“Local authorities and homelessness … charities may face increased pressure on their services if more squatters are arrested/convicted and/or deterred from squatting. Local authorities may be required to provide alternative accommodation for these individuals and could also face costs related to increases in rough sleeping in their areas. An increase in demand for charities’ services”- food or shelter- “may negatively impact current charity service users”. It goes on: “There may also be a cost to society if this option is perceived to be unfair and/or leads to increases in rough sleeping”.
When the costs are identified, as the noble Baroness said, they are reasonably substantial. We do not believe that the Government have a clue how many people actually squat. The reason for bringing in this new piece of criminal legislation is pure populism. It is demonisation of the poor by another method. We had concerns and said so on Report in another place. Those have been reinforced, frankly, by the way in which the Welfare Reform Bill and the legal aid Bill have been carried through by the Government. We have heard much more about opposition to the plans as they now stand.
I am not saying that we agree precisely with the amendment of the noble Baroness. It may be that six months is too little. I hope that when she withdraws her amendment tonight and there is time between now and Report there will be some discussion as to what the right amount of time should be and whether the wording is appropriate. However, if the noble Baroness were to bring back her amendment in a different form, perhaps with a longer period of time, we would be sorely tempted to support it on Report. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, in her brief intervention. We were criticised incredibly strongly and sometimes with justification for bringing in too many new criminal offences by just those people who are bringing them in now. This debate and the previous one introduced two new criminal offences that are frankly not needed. What is the explanation for that? It is very telling that the Metropolitan Police, the Bar Council and the Law Society, none of which are natural friends of the squatting community, all think that bringing this particular legislation is completely unnecessary. We look forward to hearing the noble Lord’s justification for it.
Many residential property owners have described the anguish that they experience when discovering that squatters have occupied their properties. I say to my noble friend that local authorities too have expressed concern about this problem. The huge expense and incredible hassle of getting squatters evicted has been described.
The Government believe the harm that can be caused by squatters is unacceptable and must be stopped. The new offence would be committed where a person is in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered it as such, knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser and is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
The whole point of creating this offence is that the Government want to send a clear message to existing and would-be squatters that occupying someone else’s house without permission is unacceptable, whatever the circumstances of the rightful owner or the state of the building. It does not suddenly become acceptable to squat if the owner of a property happens to go away for six and a half months. Amendment 188 is designed to protect people who squat in residential buildings that have been empty for more than six months, where no significant steps are being taken to refurbish, sell or let the property.
The Government’s view is that the proposed new offence is entirely proportionate. There are many reasons why a residential building might be left empty for longer than six months without any steps being taken to sell, let or refurbish the property. As the noble Baroness has acknowledged, the Government are bringing more empty homes back into use and addressing the shortage of affordable housing as a top priority. Allowing squatters to occupy other people’s properties cannot be part of that answer. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I warmly thank those who have spoken in this debate tonight. I thought that the quote from the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, was incredibly apposite and absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that there are some very complex issues around houses that stand empty. However, I come back to the initial issue-someone’s home, or the home they intend to live in, is protected, as it is a criminal offence for a squatter to be in it. I still feel that the Minister’s reply did not sufficiently recognise that issue, but we will not get to the root of that this evening. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, gave us a real-life example, which pointed up exactly what we should be concerned about here.
Some of the things that I hope I will be able to discuss with the Minister and his department-which I know my noble friend is also concerned about-include the practicalities if the Government bring this in, such as the costs. Given the estimate of between 20,000 and 50,000 people squatting, what are the practicalities for local authorities being able to suddenly rehouse those sorts of numbers? The Minister said that this was about sending a clear message. I would just like to leave the Committee this evening with this thought; there are many ways of sending a message, and government guidance is a very good start. That is where the Government were in 2011, as I mentioned, and is something to build on. There is a lot to discuss between now and Report and I shall certainly bring this issue back. I welcome the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that we might discuss the wording of a more appealing amendment. I am sure we will debate this again, hopefully at a better hour of the day. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 188 withdrawn. Amendment 188A. Moved by Lord McNally.
188A: Clause 130, page 112, line 15, at end insert- “( ) In section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (entry for purpose of arrest etc)-
- (a) in subsection (1)(c), after sub-paragraph (v) insert- “(vi) section 130 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (squatting in a residential building);”;
- (b) in subsection (3), for “or (iv)” substitute “, (iv) or (vi)”. ( ) In Schedule 10 to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (consequential amendments), omit paragraph 53(b).”
Lord McNally: My Lords, these are consequential amendments to debates that we have already had. Clause 130 creates a new offence of squatting in residential buildings, and I will explain the consequential amendment needed there. Rather oddly in the same grouping, Amendment 188B contains the transitional provisions for Clause 131, which deals with reasonable force for the purpose of self-defence. Amendment 188A amends the provision in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to ensure that the police have the necessary powers to enter and search a residential building for the purpose of arresting someone for the new squatting offence.
Such an amendment is necessary because the offence that we are creating is summary only, which means that it can be tried only in the magistrates’ court. PACE does not normally provide the police with the powers to enter and search premises for a summary-only offence, unless a specific provision is included in Section 17(1)(c) of PACE. This amendment adds this specific provision to PACE. The amendment to Clause 131 regarding self-defence makes transitional provision in relation to the amendments made to Section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. The amendment will ensure that the amendments that we are making to that section can be applied retrospectively where appropriate, making matters simpler for the courts. The amendment to Clause 135 is minor and technical. I beg to move.
Amendment 188A agreed. Clause 130, as amended, agreed.
27th March 2012 – Despite good speeches and opposition from many members of the House of Lords, in particular Baroness Miller (Lib-Dem), the squatting clause makes it through the House of Lords, after being debated at midnight. A number of Lords read from SQUASH Campaign briefings during the debates and in the lead-up, SQUASH published its report “Can We Afford to Criminalise Squatting?” (SQUASH, March 2012), which estimated the cost of criminalisation to the public purse could reach £790 million over the next 5 years.
v Third Reading in House of Lords – 27 March 2012 v
Citation: HL Deb, 27 March 2012, c1353;Clause 145 : Offence of squatting in a residential building; Amendment 36; Moved by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer; 36: Clause 145, page 132, line 7, at end insert “or if the building has been empty twelve months or more and is not subject to a current planning application”
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, during the passage of this Bill we have learnt that there is no need for this clause because squatting in people’s homes is already criminal. We have learnt that there was a big need for guidance and we would not be where we are today unless there had been an abject failure of successive Governments to issue any guidance on the use of Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. If enforcement of those more reasonable measures in that Act had been properly understood, duplicating the legislation in this much harsher way would not have seemed necessary; nor is there a demand for it.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for our two meetings. She also wrote to me after the Report stage to say that the Government consultation was evidence of demand, so I looked again at the results of the consultation. In fact, out of the 2,217 people who responded, 96 per cent did not want to see any action taken to criminalise squatting, and even more surprisingly, only 10 people, 0.5 per cent of all the respondents, wrote in to say that they had been the victims of squatting. I do not feel that either need or demand has been demonstrated.
We have also learnt that this is going to cost a good deal. In a Bill that is all about cost cutting, even the Government’s own impact assessment suggests that the cost of this measure will be between £5 million and £10 million, which is a pretty wide estimate. However, those figures are probably optimistic. If the clause is enforced, it will cost the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office many tens of millions in enforcement, court time, rehabilitation, curfew monitoring and so on, and that is before we get to the costs of rehousing.
I am still against this clause in every way but, on the basis that the Government are determined to push it through, I must look at mitigating in any way I can the injustices being perpetrated against the homeless, and that is the purpose of the amendments I have tabled. My noble friend Lady Hamwee will go into greater detail on the definition of “residential”, which we feel is still inadequate. I will address my comments to the commencement of the clause. What will happen to those individuals who will be affected when the law is changed? I need to know about the practicalities of how individual homeless people who are currently squatting will get to know about the change in the law, or will they simply be criminalised overnight? Could there be a system of warning them and offering help to find alternatives? Are local authorities actually prepared to do that?
With nothing set out in the Bill, how will the Government ensure that appropriate help is offered? Evidence given to us by the charity Crisis, which has researched this issue, shows that when squatters who want to leave a squat present themselves to their local authority for help with housing, they are given a home-finder pack that at best contains a list of landlords, but since they have no money, the pack is of little help. They may be given a list of hostels, but some 2,000 hostel beds have been lost in the past year, so the hostels are likely to be full. Can my noble friend tell me what should happen then? There is nothing in the Bill to suggest even consultation with local authorities, let alone powers to make them act. Can squatters be deemed to be intentionally homeless, because then local authorities have no obligation at all to house them? They would automatically be denied help. Will the Government invite representatives of Crisis, a charity which does so much for the homeless, to work with officials on potential transitional measures? They might be able to offer some practical suggestions for measures that could be put in place to support homeless people who are squatting.
Finally, I should like to ask my noble friend about empty dwelling management orders. The number of empty homes is staggering, at over 720,000 across the UK. In London alone, there are some 74,500 empty homes. Some of them are owned by local authorities and housing associations, which is a bit of an irony since those bodies are meant to be in the business of housing people. However, by far the greatest number of empty homes are in private hands. If the Government think it is criminal to squat, they should also think it is criminal to leave properties empty, denying them to society year after year. What are the Government doing to ensure that the scandal of all those empty homes comes to an end? I challenge the fact that this clause is still needed, but it is before us. These modest amendments try to make the position clearer and a little more just. I beg to move.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I preface my remarks with the comment, “Better late than never”. I add my tributes to those made earlier to Lord Newton of Braintree. Back in the 1980s when I worked with the Child Poverty Action Group, I knew him to be a fair and open-minded Minister. On the day of my introduction to this House, he welcomed me from the Benches opposite in a very warm and generous way. Like so many other Members of your Lordships’ House, I thought of him as my noble friend. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, once again, for her perseverance in ensuring that we debate this important issue at not exactly a reasonable hour but at least a slightly less unreasonable hour than the last time. I am pleased to add my name in support of the amendment. As I made clear on Report, Clause 145 is wrong in principle. It is unfair because it treats what is a homelessness and welfare issue as a criminal justice issue, and it is unnecessary because residential home owners are already protected in law.On reading the previous debates, it feels that the two sides are talking past each other. On Report, the Minister talked about the misery caused by people squatting in other people’s homes. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said that we are talking mainly not about homes-about which, of course, we all feel protective-but simply about empty properties. Amendments 36 and 37 try to deal with this by exempting properties empty for 12 months and not subject to a current planning application. Surely this is the least we can do to ensure that homeless people, the main group who will be criminalised by the clause, will be protected.
On Report, the Minister likened squatting to stealing a car, a handbag or a phone-but there are no wider social consequences if such consumer items are left abandoned for a year. In contrast, the Government acknowledge in their housing strategy that a large number of empty homes most certainly does have wider implications for the available supply of housing. They accept that we must increase the number of empty homes brought back into use as a sustainable way of increasing the overall supply of housing. You could say that squatters are doing it for themselves, rather than waiting for the Government to get round to it.The Minister also said on Report that the definition of “residential” proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, would introduce confusion and complexity, but surely a more explicit definition in the Bill would clarify the matter and reduce the need to rely on the courts to interpret case law, as suggested in the Minister’s letter to the noble Baroness.
To the Minister’s credit, she did not pander to the kind of stereotype caricatures of squatters peddled in the right-wing media. She tacitly acknowledged that we are talking mainly about homeless people. I remind noble Lords of the figures supplied by Sheffield Hallam University for Crisis. These show that 41 per cent of homeless squatters report mental health needs; 34 per cent have been in care; 42 per cent have physical ill health or a disability; 47 per cent have experienced drug dependence; 21 per cent sometimes self-harm; and 15 per cent also have a learning disability.
The Minister pointed out that squatting is often dangerous and bad for health and ideally, she argued, people should be in mainstream services. I am sure that we all say amen to that. However, it is even more dangerous and worse for health to be out on the streets, and there is a growing number of people who are. Mainstream services let single homeless people down. Crisis has stated:
“Shockingly 78% of homeless people who squat have approached their local authority for help and have been turned away without a resolution to their housing need. Single homeless people are usually not entitled to housing and although local authorities do have a duty to offer advice and assistance we know that too often this does not happen”.
I know the Government will be working with local authorities and that they have allocated additional funds. Can the Minister assure the House that these funds will be ring-fenced? At a time when local authorities have cut back on the support they provide, for example, for women fleeing domestic violence, have cut back disproportionately on the Supporting People fund, and face having to deal with the responsibilities from the delegated Social Fund-all at a time of big cuts in the finances available to them-I do not feel optimistic. That is why Amendment 41 is so important.
Another reason why it is very important that we have a tighter definition for this clause is because it might not be the end. In the summary of responses to the consultation, the Minister, Crispin Blunt, says in his foreword that this provision is “a first step”. The document says that: “At this stage the Government will not seek to criminalise squatting in non-residential buildings”, and that they will,”continue to keep the law under review … to determine if any further action is needed”.
I find this very worrying. If we accept this clause unamended, we could be on a slippery slope to the criminalisation of all squatting in any kind of accommodation. At the very least, I hope the Minister can give an assurance that the Government will monitor the impact of this clause before they even start thinking about extending criminalisation to non-residential property. We have been asked to adjudicate on very different perceptions of what is fair. It is too late to remove what I believe is a very unfair clause but it is not too late to mitigate its impact. We have a responsibility to do so.
The civil law has catered for this situation-whether it be developed property or not-for a long time, since the early 1970s. Those of us who belong to the noble calling of the law will realise that Order 24 and Order 113 apply and provide a procedure that is swift, effective and cheap, provided it is competently carried out. There is no problem whatever so far as the civil law is concerned.
In 1977, with the Criminal Law Act that the noble Baroness has referred to, it was realised that there were situations where owner-occupiers were in fact trespassed upon in their own homes, normally when they were away for a day or two or where people were expecting to move into property but found that they could no longer occupy it. Section 7 of that Act said very clearly that it did not apply to non-residential property. A clear distinction was drawn and deliberately considered in detail by Parliament. That seems to have been a boundary of common sense, fairness and justice.Why is that boundary being transgressed now? What is the case in favour of changing that boundary? It is my submission that there is no case whatever for doing it. The civil law amply provides for civil sanctions. If those are not obeyed, then of course the courts can always act on the basis of contempt of court. The punishments are severe, as we know. The criminal law deals with those cases when it is right, proper and inevitable that there should be a strict criminal sanction. It does not apply to non-residential property because it was never thought necessary that it should do so. The Government of course have issued a consultation paper on this matter, to which a substantial number of people responded-96 per cent of whom said there is no need to change the law at all. This is not a case of softness towards people who defy the law but a case of looking in a mature, fair, just and proper way at a problem. The conclusion of so many people in an excellent position to judge is that there is no need whatever to do anything. A letter in the press signed by 163 distinguished petitioners, jurists and academics, supported that view. The Criminal Bar Association, the Law Society and the Metropolitan Police supported that view. In relation to the consultation, the Metropolitan Police said:
“The Metropolitan Police, responding on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, considered that the law was broadly in the right place and that the existing array of offences allowed them to tackle the worst cases of squatting (e.g. where squatters cause the rightful homeowner to be displaced) … They warned that new offences could have an impact on policing in terms of community relations, local policing objectives and cost”.
On the question of cost-and I have no doubt that other noble Lords will deal in some detail with this matter-it is abundantly clear that the Government’s own estimate of a cost of some £25 million to the public purse over a period of five years is woefully inadequate and entirely unrealistic. They have not taken into account the fact that tens of thousands of persons squatting do not apply for housing allowance. These cases, if people are ejected from their squats, will find their way into the courts. There will be massive expenses adherent to that situation. Again, there is little doubt that the figure of £25 million- I would not seek to try to set a specific figure-can probably be multiplied by 10 or 20, leading to a massive non-saving in a Bill that is dedicated to saving expense to the public purse.
I ask the House to consider one further matter. This is retrospective legislation. Clause 145(1) applies to a situation when a person, the defendant, has trespassed in the premises, knowing that he is trespassing. He may have entered 10 years before, when there was no such thing as a criminal sanction in relation to that type of trespass. That is retrospective legislation and that is what Parliament abhors and resorts to only in the most drastic of circumstances. It is the very thing that is condemned, as the House knows, by Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
All in all, this is a wholly unnecessary piece of legislation. It is utterly merciless, utterly unfeeling and utterly costly, and it is likely to be a heavy and unnecessary burden on the time and energies of the police. The next best thing to rejecting it would be to accept the amendments, which I support wholeheartedly.
My noble friend trailed, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, my reference to the definition of housing. I will not go into a lot of detail; I make the simple point that those who know housing law far better than I do advise that the terms used in this Bill are not ones normally found in legislation. To all lawyers, that raises a question-I can see nods coming from the Cross Benches. One term in particular is, “for use as a place to live”.
In ordinary, common-sense terms, one understands that but we are talking about quite precise terms in legislation. The amendment as drafted may not be the best way of dealing with this, but it was an attempt to address the point using current legislation. My noble friend also referred to empty dwelling management orders and, like her, I am concerned to know what the Government’s intentions may be on the future of those orders, which are much underused. However, it seems that the Government are not very enthusiastic about them; they are of course a matter for local authorities.
Because of the time, I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that others have made fully, some of which I alluded to last time. However, I would like to ask about guidance to be issued regarding the new offence. Section 7 of the 1977 Act is, as we know, in force and I do not think there is any guidance regarding that. It is wider than this clause, as I understand it, because it covers ancillary land, and that answers the point about the necessity for this clause. I will not go further into that now, but how are the police and the CPS to choose which route to go and which section to use? We have just heard about ACPO’s response and its views, and I understand that the Government always issue guidance about a new offence. The guidance this time would need to go further, because it needs to be retrospective.
Finally, there is the question of commencement. In her Amendment 41, my noble friend has proposed that the section should,”not come into force until”, there has been consultation with, “representatives of local authorities and”- using language to which we have become accustomed over the years-“such other persons as” are considered “appropriate”. The term consultation here really does mean consultation. It does not mean just a period of grace or formality, because the consultees proposed inAmendment 41 are those who know the position on the ground. They know about the availability of conventional housing. To come back to the point from which I started, this is about housing supply and homelessness.
We face a housing crisis in this country, and that crisis is deepening. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for the letter that she wrote to a number of us following a debate on Report on squatting. She herself has acknowledged that while the nature of the case means that it is difficult to know precisely how many people may be squatting in this country, the best estimate by academics, homelessness organisations and people who provide advice services to squatters is that there are no fewer than 10,000 people squatting and possibly as many as 50,000. Those are large numbers and those statistics, uncertain as they are, underline the gravity of the issue all the same.
What are the Government doing to respond to this problem? It so happens that today the Government have published the national planning policy framework. It is an important document with an extended two-page section in which the Government offer their thoughts on, “Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes”- words that may sound a little hollow to those who are homeless and those who are squatting. However, there are good intentions in the document. It is a vigorous exhortation to all concerned to act to increase the supply of housing in this country. There is a section at paragraph 51 that is very relevant to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness:
“Local planning authorities should identify and bring back into residential use empty housing and buildings in line with local housing and empty homes strategies and, where appropriate, acquire properties under compulsory purchase powers”.
If local authorities were to act on that exhortation, that would be helpful. I would be grateful if the Minister would say how much more the Government intend to do to translate that aspiration and exhortation into an effective and practical reality. I am concerned that even where local planning and housing authorities will wish, as I am sure they will, to increase the supply of housing available for people in desperate need and to follow the particular advice that I have just quoted, it may not be easy for them because their resources have been much reduced and we are now just entering a phase in which local authorities are having to face the first and biggest part of a reduction of some 30 per cent in available resources. If they decide that they would like to use compulsory purchase powers, it is not clear to me how they are going to be able to afford to do so.
The Government’s broader economic strategy has, unfortunately, squeezed both growth and confidence, as the Chancellor was driven to recognise last week. The upshot is that the housing market is pretty well dead in the water. People do not have the confidence to apply for mortgages and bankers do not have the confidence to offer them, so house builders cannot find a market. While the private sector of housing development is stagnant, the Government have seen it as appropriate drastically to reduce funding for social housing construction. In the face of a rising population and rising demand, particularly at the lower end of the market, we are seeing reduced supply. The consequence is that rents are rising, and in the face of rising rents the Government have also judged it right to cut housing benefit severely.
The Government have also introduced their new policy for council tax benefit-a fixed budget for each local authority to limit the total that it can spend on the benefit. Our late friend and colleague, Lord Newton of Braintree, whom we all miss so much, spoke on that very topic in our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill. He asked what the position would be if there was a fixed budget for council tax benefit in a local authority area but a factory closure meant that it had to be spread across a larger number of people. He said that it was mad-that was the word that he used-and I think it is.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is absolutely right to pull us up on this and to insist that, in the face of these circumstances and against the background of these other policies, now is not the time to criminalise people who may be driven by circumstances to fairly desperate actions, and to squatting in particular. It is not the time to criminalise them if they squat in a residential premise that has been unoccupied for 12 months and for which there is no planning application. She is also right to ask the Government, at the very least, to postpone implementation of this clause until they have conducted a thorough consultation with people across the country and on the ground who understand these issues. It is of course late. However, if the noble Baroness decides to test the opinion of the House, I will enthusiastically support her.
Lords as to why these provisions are unnecessary and harmful. However, keeping houses empty for more than a year is to be discouraged. People whose homes are occupied by squatters already have effective remedies. In the consultation, not only were 96 per cent of respondents against the clause, but that included the substantial opinions of such organisations as the Law Society, ACPO, the Criminal Bar Association, Liberty, Shelter and Crisis. There is also the fact that homelessness is increasing rapidly. For all these reasons, I hope that the Government will see reason and accept my noble friend’s amendment.
I would like the noble Baroness who is responding to the amendment to concentrate on how many premises remain empty when they could be inhabited by families. That is no doubt a factor that increases rents. I will leave it at that. However, I have certainly begun to think rather more seriously about the issue than I did when the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, first raised it.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for her determination to challenge what I still take to be the unintended consequences of Clause 145 regarding the further criminalisation of squatters, which is simply unnecessary. I do not want to repeat arguments that have already been made but this measure will have an impact on the care and support that the voluntary sector seeks to provide for the homeless in our cities. Like most cities, Leeds is seeing a steady rise in homelessness. The reasons for this are complex and the voluntary sector and the local authority are working hard to mitigate its effects, at least as regards providing mental health help for the homeless. However, we simply cannot provide accommodation for all street sleepers. Many homeless people are squatting in empty houses to avoid sleeping on the streets. This clause criminalises squatting, thereby affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I hope that these amendments can be accepted to provide context and support for those people as the voluntary sector and local authorities seek to provide them with help and encouragement for the rest of their lives.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I wish to intervene briefly in this debate. I have come into the Chamber for the scrap metal debate but it seems to me that we may be overlooking a major flaw in the amendment. Clause 145 states: “A person commits an offence if”, and then lists various conditions. However, the amendment seeks to add to the statement in the Bill that, “The offence is not committed by a person”, the phrase, “if the building has been empty twelve months or more and is not subject to a current planning application”. So what happens if a building has been empty for marginally longer than 12 months and is being improved? Perhaps it is being improved to meet building regulations, or the person improving the property might be awaiting a mortgage payment to fund improvements, which might mean that they go over the 12-month period.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: I will be corrected if I am wrong but I believe that that matter is adequately dealt with by Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which covers not only persons who are in occupation but persons who anticipate occupation. I think, therefore, that the category of persons listed by the noble Lord will be covered by that provision.
Lord Campbell-Savours: That is the noble Lord’s judgment, but perhaps I may finish my contribution. Perhaps the Government intend to comment on the interpretation that he has just given. They might also take into account my further point that a planned improvement which has not taken place over a 12-month period could be the subject of an argument with neighbours, who may well be preventing the completion of the improvement to the property. All I am saying, basically, is that to introduce a current planning application as a way of stopping it could lead to unfair treatment of those carrying out improvement programmes. Let us hear what the Minister has to say.
This clause was added late to the Bill, which might explain why it is a rather clumsy and blunt instrument. I am not sure who this new offence is aimed at. Is it aimed at squatters in vacant properties, who are not currently committing a criminal offence, or is it aimed at squatters in occupied properties that might be temporarily empty while the occupiers are on holiday, or even shopping? As we have heard, squatting such as that is already a criminal offence. I am not sure which situation this clause is intended to address. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten me.
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. The amendment deals with that by limiting the period of that protection. This clause is a cuckoo in the nest because such a provision has no place in the Bill and has no connection with any other part of it. Squatting should not be considered in isolation, as we have heard, but should be considered in the context of housing and homelessness.
If the noble Baroness were to test the opinion of the House, we, the official Opposition, would support her because she is clearly right. Everyone who has spoken on the substance of these amendments has said that the current clause is unsatisfactory, wrong and completely unnecessary. Why is it there? There is no need for it to be there in terms of criminal offence. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and others that legislation already exists that covers the point completely. The clause is there to placate the right-wing press and right-wing prejudice. That is something that the House should bear very much in mind when considering this issue.
The Law Society, the Bar Council, ACPO, the Metropolitan Police-all those groups who have had the courage to speak out, as has the noble Baroness-against the clause are not exactly groups associated with squatters. They are independent, able groups that have come to a view about a brand-new criminal offence that is planned. Unless we do something about it this evening, it will almost certainly become law comparatively shortly. The irony of our proceedings is that if the noble Baroness were to test the opinion of the House this evening, it would very likely be her own side who made sure that she did not win.
The noble Lord is quite right to say that there is protection for a level of squatting, but, as I explained at Report and put in a letter, so I will not go into it again, the provision covers a number of additional areas where it is difficult to deal with squatters. I know that many noble Lords, especially my noble friend Lady Miller, are concerned about the impact that a new offence might have on vulnerable people who squat. I thank my noble friend for meeting me last week, and my noble friend and my noble friend Lady Hamwee for meeting my honourable friend Crispin Blunt, my noble friend Lord McNally and me earlier today. Then and at the earlier meeting, my noble friend Lady Miller expressed concern about the possibility of a rise in demand for local authority homelessness services when the new offence comes into force.
We have already given assurances on the Floor of the House that we will work closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to liaise with local authorities and the enforcement agencies prior to commencement to ensure that they are aware of the new offence. That is extremely important. We take very seriously mitigating any problems and we share my noble friend’s concern about the welfare of vulnerable people. However, allowing squatting to continue, sometimes in dangerous and unhealthy premises, cannot be the answer. Instead, we intend to continue to work with other departments, local authorities and homelessness services to ensure that vulnerable people are given the help and support they need to find alternative forms of accommodation.
Of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, emphasised, a number of those in that situation are suffering from mental or other problems. We have an obligation to them, as vulnerable members of society, to be properly housed. In squats, they have no protection. That cannot be right. The Government have already demonstrated our commitment to preventing homelessness by maintaining investment, with £400 million available over the next four years. We recognise the issues that single homeless people, in particular, face, and we are prioritising improvements in the help that they receive. The ministerial working group on homelessness has for the first time pledged that no one should spend more than one night out on our streets, supported by the new £20 million homelessness transition fund. The working group will publish its second report on preventing homelessness more broadly later in the spring.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: Will the Minister answer my question? Will the transition fund be ring-fenced?
Baroness Northover: Most of the money that goes to local authorities is not ring-fenced. The emphasis is on devolving to local authorities the responsibility for the people in the area. Given the lateness of the hour, I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness more specifically on that point if I have not got it right. I do not think that the money would be ring-fenced but, if I am wrong about that, I shall correct it in a minute or write to her. Nevertheless, that money has been identified to provide funding to address homelessness.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: If this money is not ring-fenced, how can the Minister know that it will be spent on single homeless people?
Baroness Northover: There is an ongoing debate about what you ring-fence and what you leave as the responsibility of local authorities. If you give them a responsibility to house their vulnerable local residents-or non-residents-they have to fulfil that obligation. It seems that a bit of clarity of thought is needed here. It is not appropriate to place the responsibility for a squatter on the shoulders of an individual who happens to have an empty property. If that person is well off, he should be paying his taxes, those taxes should go to society and society should look after its vulnerable people. Squatting is not the answer; nor is placing such a responsibility on the shoulders of an individual in that way. That is why it is important that we address squatting but, when a problem such as this is picked up, it is also important that we address the transition issues that my noble friend rightly identified. It is important to see what the implications are and that is why we have placed the emphasis on tackling homelessness. As I said, we have announced the first ever £20 million-
Lord Strasburger: I thank the Minister for giving way. Did I hear her argue earlier that one motivation for this clause is to improve the health and safety of squatters?
Baroness Northover: Yes, I would say so. I do not think it is right that people should live unprotected. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, flags up monitors for heating systems and the dangers involved there. How can anybody be protected or have tenants’ rights if they are squatting? I think we owe it to our citizens to make sure that they are housed properly and that they do not live without that kind of protection, as is the case with squatting. Perhaps I may continue. On preparing local authorities for commencement, we plan to do a range of things, including working with the National Homelessness Advice Service to provide training for local authorities, raising awareness through regional seminars and websites, and working with Citizens Advice to ensure that home owners and squatters are informed of the changes.
One or two noble Lords asked about the consultation. The vast majority of responses-1,990 out of 2,216-were received via the website of the campaign group Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes. That is fair enough. However, the remainder came from landlords’ associations, local government associations, law firms and so on. We also received responses from individual property owners who had first-hand experience of squatters in their buildings. I have just mentioned the letter that I received yesterday from the deputy leader of Redbridge Council which referred to a couple of cases and the impact on the areas involved.
I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, whether squatters who vacate their squats will be considered intentionally homeless. That is obviously a very important point. Section 191 of the Housing Act 1996 provides that a person becomes homeless intentionally if it is a consequence of something that he or she has deliberately done or failed to do. The accommodation that he or she has left must have been available for their occupation and reasonable for them to continue to occupy. Therefore, it is unlikely that a squat being occupied illegally could be considered as accommodation that is available to be occupied. I hope that the noble Baroness is reassured on that point.
I was also asked about whether we could commit to working with Crisis, and we certainly will. We will involve Crisis when we are liaising with the local government department and local authorities on the implementation of the offence. It is very important that that is taken forward. I was asked about the empty dwelling management orders. In January 2011 the Government announced that we would be making changes to those orders. These proposals will limit the authorisation of interim EDMOs to those properties that have been wholly empty for at least two years. They will require local housing authorities to give property owners a minimum notice period of three months before applying to a residential property tribunal for an interim EDMO. They also require the local housing authority to provide all the information that it has on the empty property that is causing a nuisance to the community, and that the community supports the proposal for the local housing authority to take control.
I was asked by my noble friend Lady Hamwee about guidance for the police and the CPS. We will liaise with ACPO prior to commencement on the provision of appropriate guidance, including how the new offence will interact with existing offences in Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. There were various other points but I shall move on to Amendment 36 and the point about occupying buildings that have been left empty for a year or so.
As I explained, this amendment is problematic for a number of reasons. I explained this on Report and in my letter. There are many reasons why a residential building might be left empty for a year or more, and I have just referred to the letter from Redbridge. Clearly, if a property is inherited following a death or probate is taking a while to sort out, those kinds of issues may mean that a property is empty. Reference was made by my noble friends Lady Miller and Lady Hamwee to the definition of a building. I note that my noble friend has proposed a definition that would sit alongside the current definition in the Bill. We are concerned that that would introduce unnecessary confusion and complexity. We talked about this at our meeting this morning. I am happy to expand on that if required but it is five minutes to 11, so unless noble Lords want to come back to that, I urge them to accept the simplicity of what is there at the moment, which is the right way to go.
I commend my noble friend for her concern for a very vulnerable group of people. As I have just said, it is important to look at this with some clarity in terms of the social responsibility to individuals and how society should ensure that the vulnerable are cared for and housed properly, and that squatting is not the answer. I understand why my noble friend has tabled the amendments and her concerns about unintended consequences of legislation. I hope that she is reassured that we have looked very carefully at the issues that she has raised and that we have sought to address them, in terms of assisting vulnerable people. I therefore hope that she will be willing to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am tremendously grateful to all Members of the House who spoke in this debate-which finally had the airing that it deserved, even though it was late-and to all Members of the House who stayed to hear it. It was an incredibly important debate about whether we should choose to criminalise a section of society. Many extremely good points were made and I will not rehearse them all at this hour. One theme that ran through all the speeches was that of unintended consequences.
I entirely agree with my noble friend that it is society’s responsibility to look after the vulnerable-and, I would add, the homeless. That responsibility does not include criminalising them; that is where we part company. However, I see that Amendment 36 is problematic, and I accept the criticisms around the definition of “residential”. We were trying to offer something that was slightly better than what was in the Bill.
Noble Lords concentrated on the issue of what people will do. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, the housing is not there and cannot be created in an instant. Therefore, there will be a group of people who will face very difficult decisions about whether to stay in a squat and be criminalised, to sleep rough or to present themselves to their local authority. We keep coming back to the issue of local authorities and consultation. I think that the Minister accepted that consultation with local authorities was the key. The House would feel very reassured if that were put in the Bill.
While accepting that my other amendments are faulty, I will seek in due course to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 41. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 36.
Amendment 36 withdrawn. Amendment 37 not moved.
May 2012 – The LASPO Bill receives Royal Assent.
1st September 2012 – Squatting in residential properties becomes a criminal offence, under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (s144 LASPOA).
v Media Coverage, 2010 to 2012 v
- This interesting story about a landlord who rented out her property to go on holiday, but when she returned, she could not get rid of the tenant immediately. Therefore, the landlord complained that her house was “squatted” and claimed she had to live outside in a tent. This appears to be one of the first examples of an unsubstantiated anti-squatting stories making the mainstream press; many more were to follow. From the Landlord Law blog: “Tessa on the BBC – and a problem with a tenant who won’t move out” [11/08/10] and “More on landlord living in tent case” [17/08/10]
- “Squatters: We’ve rescued Camden Town building plagued with rats” [Camden New Journal, 03/06/2010]
- “Hotelier leaves home for a week so it can be decorated . . . then 15 jobless Italian squatters move in” [Daily Mail, 21/10/10]
- “Illegal rave in Enfield stopped by police” [BBC, 3/12/2010]
- “When Strangers Take Over Your Home” [Bristol Post, 25/01/2011]
- “Call for more power to tackle squatter problem” [Enfield Independent, 27/01/2011]
- “Squatters move into Guy Ritchie’s £6million London mansion” [Metro, 14/02/11]
- “Guy Ritchie’s £6million London mansion invaded by squatters… who plan to set up a new school” [Daily Mail, 15/2/2011]
- “Really Free School Squat Guy Ritchie’s Fitzrovia Pad” [Londonist, 15/2/2011]
- “Lock, stock and squatters” [The Telegraph, 16/2/2011]
- “Guy’s Holmes a squat” [The Sun, 18/2/2011]
- “Order means ‘squat’” [Daily Star, 19/2/2011]
- “Neighbours pitched against neighbours in ‘free school’ clash – Angry exchanges as squatters take over Black Horse pub” [Camden New Journal, 24/2/2011]
- “Squatting is to be a crime: Police will be able to turf out intruders” [Daily Mail, 18/03/2011]
- “Squatting to be made illegal, vows Clarke” [The Telegraph, 18/03/2011]
- “Squatting to become a criminal offence” [The Economic Voice, 18/03/2011]
- “British law would criminalize squatting” [UPI, 18/03/2011]
- “Grant Shapps: why the Government will outlaw squatting ‘once and for all’” [The Telegraph, 20/3/11]
- “Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer secures meeting to push for law change on squatting” [Times, 01/04/2011]
- “The Tesco riot” [The Sun, 22/4/2011]
- “Violent scenes in Bristol as squatters arrested over petrol bomb plot” [Metro, 22/4/2011]
- “Riots erupt in Bristol as police raid property used by squatters (videos)” [thejournal.ie, 22/4/2011]
- “Bristol squatters deny Tesco attack and petrol bomb claims” [Guardian, 23/4/2011]
- “Home truths: ‘Squatting is the perfect example of the Big Society’” [The Independent, 29/05/2011]
- “Squatters should not be occupying legal aid arguments” [Guardian, 22/06/11]
- “Criminalising squatting would threaten our rights” [Guardian, 22/06/11]
- “Criminalising squatting will hit homeless, charities warn” [Guardian, 24/06/11]
- “Laurie Penny: This spiteful new law against squatting must be stopped” [Independent, 27/06/11]
- “Campaigner dubs new bid to criminalise squatting as ‘appalling’” [Bournemouth Echo, 30/06/11]
- “Leave squatters alone!” [New Internationalist blog, 01/07/11]
- “Criminalising squatting will merely make the problem worse” [Guardian, 04/07/11]
- “Squatters, Gypsies, the homeless: let them be!” [Guardian, 07/07/11]
- “Unthinkable? Encouraging squatting” [Guardian, 15/07/11]
- “Hackney GP backs squatters fighting eviction from abandoned school” [Hackney Gazette, 22/07/11]
- “Ignore headlines about squatters, government proposals target Gypsies and travellers” [Guardian, 27/07/11]
- “‘Friendly’ squatters forced to leave” [Oxford Mail, 26/08/11]
- “Positive occupation” [Guardian, 27/08/11] – 491 Gallery, Leytonstone
- “Plans to tackle squatting could criminalise homelessness” [Guardian, 02/09/11]
- “Immigration officer comes home to find family of Romanian gypsies squatting in her house, wearing her clothes and drinking her wine (after telling neighbours she’d died)” [Daily Mail, 17/08/11]
- “Squatters ruin east London woman’s home during holiday” [BBC, 17/08/11]
- “Disgrace not to treat squatters as criminals” [Express, 27/08/11]
- “Squatters ‘put doctor’s unborn child in danger’” [Metro, 5/09/11]
- “Victory over the squatters: Doctor and his heavily pregnant wife celebrate after spongers are ordered out of their home” [Daily Mail, 7/09/11]
- “Squatters evicted from home of doctor and pregnant wife invade plush new property just 300 yards away” [Daily Mail, 8/09/11]
- “Squatters quit…to invade £1m home 300 yards away” [Express, 8/09/11]
- “Where my wife comes from, they SHOOT squatters: Doctor whose £1m home was taken over by spongers hits out at the law” [Daily Mail, 9/09/11]
- “London council ordered to disclose details of empty properties” [BBC, 6/09/11]
- “Empty homes requests” [Inside Housing, 23/09/11]
- “Legal ruling could double squatting, says minister” [Inside Housing, 6/09/11]
- “Squatting is no solution to UK’s empty properties” [Express, 6/09/11]
- “Squatters are ‘not criminals’ says judge” [The Economic Voice, 6/09/11]
- “’Squatters aren’t criminals and can be GOOD for society': Judge orders council to publish list of empty homes in its area” [Daily Mail, 6/09/11]
- “Squatters could be good for us all, says judge in empty homes ruling” [The Telegraph, 6/09/11]
- “Make squatters criminals and let an Englishman’s home become his castle again” [Daily Mail, 7/09/11] – Mike Weatherly MP demonises squatters in The Daily Mail
- “Squatting is a mean and wicked crime” [Express, 7/09/11]
- “Government pledges to end squatters’ rights” [Enfield Independent, 8/09/11]
- “Squatting laws are ‘charter for anarchy’, says doctor shut out of new home” [24dash.com, 8/09/11]
- “Shut the door on squatters” [Express, 9/09/11]
- “Ken Clarke’s London home targeted by squatters’ rights protesters” [The Guardian, 15/09/11]
- “Squatting protests – as they happened” [Guardian, 15/09/11]
- “Campaign against criminalising squatting taken straight to Ken Clarke’s doorstep by protesters” [Daily Mail, 16/09/11]
- “Squat Protests Target Ken Clarke’s Home” [Londonist, 16/09/11]
- “Squatters serve Ken Clarke eviction notice at London home” [24dash.com, 16/09/11]
- “Debunking the myths about squatting “ [Guardian, 16/09/11]
- “Dale Farm eviction: Travellers ‘remain unpopular cause’” [BBC, 15/09/11]
- “Media and politicians are misleading about law on squatters” [Guardian, 25/09/11]
- “Squatting law is being misrepresented to aid ministers’ reforms, claim lawyers” [Guardian, 25/09/11]
- “Students fear plans to reform law on squatting may outlaw sit-ins” [Guardian, 2/10/11]
- “What to do if squatters take over your property” [Guardian, 6/10/11]
- “Govt releases plans to criminalise squatting” [Inside Housing, 26/10/11]
- “Kenneth Clarke reveals plans to toughen sentencing bill” [Guardian, 26/10/11]
- “Now you CAN fight back against burglars: Law change protects anyone using violence to defend home”[Daily Mail, 27/10/11]
- “Squatters to be charged as criminals under new rules” [Metro, 27/10/11]
- “Squatting? It’s a choice between homelessness and a criminal record, says Laurie Penny” [New Statesman, 02/11/11]
- “Bankers can wait. Targeting protesters is much more Cameron’s cup of tea” [Guardian, 09/01/12] – George Monbiot
- “It won’t be long before an Englishman’s home becomes somebody else’s castle” [Daily Mail, 19/01/12]
- “’My childhood home has been invaded by squatters': Woman’s anguish as eight Eastern Europeans break in days before she is due to sell” [Daily Mail, 30/1/12]
- “WALTHAMSTOW: Couple face wait to evict squatters” [Walthamstow Guardian, 6/02/12]
- “Squatters move into £3m home” [Telegraph, 14/2/12]
- “The ‘squatter’ living in a €1m house with his wife… and the other woman” [Daily Mail, 26/2/12]
- “Inside Britain’s very middle-class squat: Sent to meet the graduates who’ve taken over a £3m stately home, Robert Hardman was surprised by what he found” [Daily Mail, 20/2/12]
- Blog Archive of “Squatting in the News” – Jan to Feb 2012 (4x articles)
- “Squatting law will only criminalise the homeless. Let’s demolish clause 130” [Guardian, 20/2/12]
- “A response to Tanya Gold on squatting” [The Commentator, 23/2/12]
- “Backing for squatters from neighbours who say: Buy back school” [Islington Tribune, 24/2/12]
- “Hackney evicts squatters to prepare house sale” [Loving Dalston, 03/03/12]
- “Squatting: criminal offence or housing solution?” [Channel 4, 09/03/12]
v What Has Happened Since September 2012? v
2nd September 2012 – Alex Haigh (21) becomes the first victim of section 144 LASPOA, arrested and sentenced for squatting in an empty residential building. He is just one of the 140+ people arrested in the last four months of 2012, all young and/or homeless.
November 2012 – Mike Weatherley and other Tories start to call for squatting criminalisation to be extended to cover commercial properties. They call squatting in commercial properties a “loophole in the law”.
February 2013 – Daniel Guantlett (35), a homeless man, dies of hypothermia sleeping outside an empty bungalow in Kent.
March 2013 – SQUASH launch a report, “The Case Against section 144”, and campaign called ‘Repeal Section 144’ in the House of Commons which is attended by Crisis, John McDonnell MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP and some members of the House of Lords. This is followed by a letter in the Guardian, signed by 40 lawyers, calling for a repeal of s144 LASPOA.June 2013 – Some big trade unions such as the PCS, CWU & NUT and many large student campaigning organisations sign a letter, published in The Guardian, concerned that criminalising squatting in commercial properties would impact on workplace & student occupations. Guardian Letter: “Government attack on squatting” [18 June 2013]
September 2013 – Labour MP’s Chuka Umunna & Tessa Jowell sign a letter written by the leader of Lambeth Councillor Lib Peck urging the government to ban squatting in commercial properties. SQUASH write an open letter in response.
November 2013 – Park Street Occupation, Southwark, is the first “political occupation” of a residential property in London. The occupiers demand that the council stop selling off publically-owned homes to private developers.
May 2014 – Tory backbenchers attempt to amend the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to include the criminalisation of squatting in commercial premises and on land. The attempt fails to gather steam. (12 May 2014)
September 2014 – Focus E15 Mums occupation of decanted Carpenter’s Estate, London, and squatting action of the Aylesbury Estate, Elephant & Castle (January 2015), sets off a wave of community and squatting occupations across the country. They all demand an end to the victimisation of the homeless, social cleansing, and the privatisation of housing.
April 2015 –SQUASH launches its report “Homes, Not Jails”, which shows the there were at least 588 arrests, 200 prosecutions and 51 convictions under section 144 since September 2012. The report finds the law is open to abuse, misunderstood by magistrates and police, and is actively criminalising the young.
May 2016 – SQUASH & Streets Kitchen launch report “Squatting Statics 2015”, which finds that at there have been at least 738 arrests, 326 prosecutions, 260 convictions and 11 people imprisoned under section 144 LASPOA since 2012.
v SQUASH NewsRounds – 2012 to 2015 v
- SQUASH NewsRound – September 2012
- SQUASH NewsRound – Mid-October 2012
- SQUASH NewsRound – January 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – Mid January 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – February – March 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – April – June 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – June – July 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – July – August 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – August – September 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – September – October 2013
- SQUASH NewsRound – December 2013 – January 2014
- SQUASH NewsRound – February 2014
- SQUASH NewsRound – March – May 2014
- SQUASH NewsRound – June – November 2014
- SQUASH NewsRound – December 2014 – January 2015
- SQUASH NewsRound – January – February 2015
- SQUASH NewsRound – February – July (Squatting Spring) 2015
- SQUASH NewsRound – July – August 2015 (Mini-update)
- SQUASH NewsRound – September – December 2015 (Xmas Special)