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Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sitting suspended.