HC Deb 13 July 1977 vol 935 cc581-604

'(1) Without prejudice to the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, section 1, it shall be an offence to deprive any person who continues to reside in any premises after the termination of a lawful occupancy of their occupation of those premises or any part of them otherwise than by proceedings in the court.

(2) For the purposes of this section "lawful occupancy" shall include the occupation of premises by a person whose tenancy was granted by a person who—

  1. (a) had a right to occupy the premises but
  2. (b) was restricted by a condition of that right to occupy (however framed or worded) from creating such a tenancy.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable—

  1. (a) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding £400 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both; or
  2. (b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both.

(4) Nothing in this section shall be taken to prejudice any liability or remedy to which a person guilty of an offence thereunder may be subject to in civil proceedings.

(5) Where an offence under this section committed by a body corporate is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of, any director, manager or secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate or any person who was purporting to act in any such capacity, he as well as the body corporate shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.

(6) For the purposes of this section the court shall be—

  1. (a) the county court, in relation to premises with respect to which the county court has for the time being jurisdiction in actions for the recovery of land; and
  2. (b) the High Court in relation to other premises.

(7) Nothing in subsection (6) above shall affect the jursdiction of the High Court in proceedings to enforce a lessor's right of re-entry or forfeiture or to enforce a mortgagee's right of possession in a case where the former tenancy was not binding on the mortgagee.'.—[Mr. Lee.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Lee

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. New Clause 24—Enforcement of rights over property— which has been selected for discussion, is about the same issue as New Clause 17. It might be for the convenience of the House if we debated them together.

Mr. Speaker

Is there any objection from the Minister?

Mr. Merlyn Rees


Mr. Speaker

Is it convenient for these two new clauses to be discussed together? I gather that the House agrees. We may also discuss the following:

Amendment No. 37, in Clause 7, page 7, line 9, at end insert— '(1A) Subject to the following provisions of this section, any person who is on any premises used wholly for residential purposes as a trespasser is guilty of an offence if he fails to leave those premises on being required to do so by or on behalf of a person who, not being a displaced residential occupier, is nevertheless entitled to occupy the premises and who, at the time when the requirement to leave the premises is made, both intends within six weeks either to occupy the premises himself or (while remaining so entitled) to secure their occupation by some other person and informs the trespasser or causes him to be informed accordingly. The provisions of this subsection shall not make guilty of an offence any person holding over after the expiry of a tenancy or licence.'.

Amendment No. 40, in Clause 7, page 7, line 14, at end insert—

'or, as the case may be, a person within the description provided in. subsection (1A)'.
Mr. Lee

The purpose of the new clause is to extend the scope of protection and unlawful eviction other than by means of a court. One extension of the law in recent years has been the prevention of harassment of people from their homes. I want to extend that protection.

The Bill extinguishes the ancient but admirable provisions of the Forcible Entry Act of 1381. That Act may be a little out of date but the principle behind it—that no one should be removed from his home without due process of law—should commend itself to everyone.

As things stand, any tenant who is protected under the Rent Acts has the advantages of that provision, which itself is in process of being re-enacted in the Protection From Eviction Bill, which the new clause prematurely refers to as an Act. I seek to extend that protection to three categories of people who fall midway between the tenants and illegal squatters.

The first category is sub-tenants who are not lawfully so. In a perfect world, these people should not exist, but they do. They may be unaware that the head lease from which their tenancy derives at second remove, so to speak, prohibits further leasing. This comes to light when the original tenancy ends and they are deprived of protection. Under a normal sub-tenancy, they would step up one rung and become a tenant of the head lessor. But an irregular sub-tenant does not enjoy the protection from dispossession without due process of law.

The second category is similar—those who are tenants of mortgagors. Many insurance companies and building societies include in their mortgage agreements as a matter of course a clause against letting. Those clauses are frequently dis- regarded, often to no one's detriment. The mortgagee, the building society, knows nothing about it, and it benefits both the mortgagor as landlord and the sub-renant But strictly speaking, it is often illegal.

If, for instance, the mortgagor defaults on his payments and ultimately foreclosure proceedings are taken, not only will the unfortunate sub-tenant have no title but he will be liable to be thrown out on his ear, with none of the delaying processes which court procedures would normally provide. Even more objectionable, he may be liable to be put out in circumstances which may lead to a breach of the peace or assaults.

11.15 p.m.

The third category of person is the licensee—the person who has the right to occupy, but not under any tenancy agreement. For example, there is bed and breakfast accommodation, or shared accommodation in which a number of young people gather together and share a tenancy. In the latter case only one of them is the tenant, the others are in an informal relationship with him or her. The others are licensees, and have no status with the landlord.

If the official tenant falls by the wayside, the others may be thrown out without due ceremony or process of law. I hope to extend the principle of protection to enable more people to be spared from being in the position of being physically thrown out of their property, or having advantage taken of them if they are absent for a period and return to find their belongings out on the street.

That was one of the first things the Labour Government of 1964–70 did, on the initiative of Dick Crossman, in the Protection from Eviction Act. This was re-enacted more extensively in the 1965 Rent Act and is about to be consolidated in the Protection from Eviction Bill that is proceeding in parallel with this legislation.

I propose to extend the scope of that to various other categories of persons who, although their position is perhaps unlawful, are in a different category from those who enter premises without any title at all. I want to establish the distinction between the squatters on the one hand—and I shall not go into the moral and economic circumstances giving rise to this now—and persons, on the other hand, who have some kind of lawful right to be on premises. These are people who, in good faith, become licensees. It is right to extend to them the measure of protection enjoyed by protected tenants.

I do not think I need to say anything now about the penalties. These are very much in line with the penalties for tenants as a whole.

In the final subsection there is a provision to preserve the position of the lessor's right of re-entry or forfeiture in the event of default on a mortgage. I am not sure, on reflection, whether this was necessary.

I hope that the Minister, who has had a not exactly unruffled evening, will look at this new clause with sympathy.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

New Clause 24, which is being dealt with at the same time as New Clause 17, seeks to meet a loophole which has been disclosed by the Law Commission but which is not entirely closed by New Clause 17. It is a loophole which I believe was not intended to be left by the Government or by the Law Commission.

The Law Commission said that we should abolish conspiracy to trespass and put in its place five new offences covering the total area that was thought to be necessary in criminal law, leaving the rest of the area involving conspiracy to trespass to be dealt with in the civil law. For that purpose it proposed five new criminal offences in Part II of the Bill and moved to abolish the statute of forcible entry on which reliance had been placed in establishing a case of illegal squatting.

It is important to examine how the illegal squatting movement came about It now has a good deal of moral support, and to some extent illegal backing. The movement got under way when some keen social workers discovered that by using the statute of forcible entry one could prevent a landlord from re-entering his premises by force to regain premises which were lawfully his and replacing somebody who had no tenancy or legal right in those premises. Before he could establish his legal right, he had to go to court, and there was a certain delay involved in that process. The situation of delay that then arose took on a certain moral status which has now been proved by almost all the social organisations as a way of dealing with homelessness

The Law Commission was careful in its report to try to hold the balance between an unacceptable form of behaviour which ought to be criminal and cases of squatting which they wished to leave to civil remedy and to be dealt with through the civil courts. I fear that by seeking to abolish the statute of forcible entry, the Law Commission has taken away the basis on what the squatting movement rests. Unless a situation in which the owner wishes to reclaim his property is covered by Clause 6 of the Bill, there is nothing to stop the owner from exercising his power to return to his property.

We now have the absurd situation in which the owner is forbidden to use violence to get back on to his property—"violence" being rather more restrictive than the "use of force"—but can use force if the situation is not covered by Clause 6 relating to anybody on the premises who is trying to resist the entry of the owner. In those circumstances an illegal squat could give rise to certain difficulties in this respect. If the squatters were there on the premises and it was known by the owner that they were there, he could not enter by violence because he would be committing an offence under Clause 6, unless he were a "displaced residential occupier" under Clause 6(3), but he could enter by force. He could not knock down the door, but if he used a jemmy to force open the door, he could go in and exercise his right under common law to go back on his premises by force. He could not be prevented from doing that under the statute of forcible entry because that is repealed by Clause 13.

I doubt that the Law Commission or the Government intended that that should take place. Both thought that illegal squatting should be a matter for dispute between the squatters and the owner in the civil courts and not in the criminal courts. It should certainly not be decided by strong-arm methods such as those used by Rachman. None of us wants to go back to that. Except in the circumstances covered by Clause 6, we shall leave that loophole open.

The unscrupulous owner of property who wishes to exercise force to get back may use force, short of violence. when there is somebody on the premises or force and violence if for some reason the premises are empty because the squatters have gone to work or something of that kind. That was never intended by the Law Commission and I am sure that it is a lacuna in the Bill.

I hope that the Government will look at the matter. I am sorry that when I put the new clause down in Committee I was not able to move it at the appropriate time, and I recognise that the new clause is defective as a means of dealing with the problem. I put it forward merely for consideration by the Government and the House, but I am sure that if the Government agree that there is a lacuna they could remedy the matter in the Lords and bring it back here in due course. It may be that if the Government agree that the lacuna exists, we could accept the new clause, recognising that it would need amendment in the Lords. If that is the only way in which the matter can be dealt with, I hope that this opportunity, late though it is—and I accept that it is not a happy method—will be accepted as a way of dealing with the problem.

I am sure that if the Bill goes through in its present state it will cut away the ground from beneath the squatting movement, and I doubt that many hon. Members on this side of the House would want to do that.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew

The case that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) has just dealt with may or may not be a lacuna in the Bill and represent something that the Law Commission overlooked. We want to hear what the Government have to say on that. We take the view that the really offensive element in the use of force for the purpose of regaining occupation of premises lies in someone using the premises being put in fear or being likely to be put in fear by the use of force. That is what Clause 6 seeks to control.

We should not, on present advice, want to go along with the hon. Member for York on the lines that he suggested. We want to hear what the Minister has to say.

I now turn to New Clause 17 and the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee). It seems that the class of occupier with which the hon. Member dealt in his speech is certainly in need of a remedy. However, we do not think that the criminal law needs or ought properly to be imported to support occupiers in such circumstances.

I now turn to the proposals contained in Amendment No. 37, which we tabled. I wish that we should take a vote upon those proposals in due course. They seek to amend Clause 7, that being one of the most important clauses in the Bill. It is the clause that would make it a criminal offence to refuse to leave someone's home when required to do so by the displaced residential occupier, as defined in Clause 12 of the Bill, having entered those premises as a trespasser.

11.30 p.m.

Within these narrow confines, Clause 7 applies criminal law to squatting in other people's homes. The reason upon which Ministers have founded this departure in criminal law has been the sense of outrage that refusal to leave someone else's home causes. As far as it goes, we welcome the innovation. The Government have correctly identified the sense of outrage as a factor that properly gives this conduct a criminal quality. But they have not gone far enough. They have grasped the nettle, but they have not pulled hard enough.

The Government have left outside the amibit of criminal law squatting in other residential premises where a refusal to leave will cause no less injustice and will give rise to no less hardship or outrage. The purpose of our amendment is not to alter the principle in Clause 7 but rather to extend the ambit of its application, to apply it consistently and not to leave it limited to the displaced residential occupier who is so narrowly defined in Clause 12(2).

We want to give the same protection of the law to prospective council tenants. If a person has waited patiently on a council housing list for many years—as have many of our constituents—and his turn finally comes up, his outrage is no less if, having chosen his decorations and laid a carpet, he finds that squatters have taken over his new home, yet the clause excludes such cases. It is no good saying that these are fanciful or imaginary circumstances. We have all read of such cases.

We want to give the same protection to families wishing to resume possession of their homes. They may have returned from working abroad, they may be the families of Service men or of retiring police officers. They may have complied with the requirements of the Rent Acts and obtained a right to possession by lawful means and then find that squatters have moved in before they can repossess their property. All that separates them from being displaced residential occupiers is the fact that they have not spent one night under their own roof. Not many people would immediately see that this made much difference to the moral quality of the action of the squatters in refusing to leave when required to do so.

We want to give the same protection to, for example, agricultural workers and employers. A herdsman may be changing jobs and propose to move from one service house to another—which is still possible despite recent legislation. His furniture may be packed and his replacement ready to move in when squatters take over the home that he is about to occupy. Such a case would be exempt from the provisions of Cluase 7.

These cases are not only real-life instances, but are the sort of cases that are giving rise to exactly the same degree of outrage that is the main justification for the innovation represented by Clause 7 and upon which Ministers founded the legislation. It will not be any less marked than in the case of a residential occupier. Each of those ought to be embraced within the provisions of Clause 7. The criminal law and the sanction that it gives ought to be available to them.

I hope it will be seen at the outset that our amendment applies only to residential premises. I understand the fear that it might be taken to apply to industrial premises, to have a bearing upon trades disputes, and perhaps to apply to academic disputes—the occupation of universities or schools—but it does not. Neither Clause 7 nor the amendment apply to industrial premises or to any of those that I have indicated, or to any premises not intended to be used for residential purposes.

Next, the amendment does not apply to premises which, although residential in character, are intended to be kept empty. Here again I can understand the fear that an amendment along these lines might catch the owner of premises who wishes to keep them empty for a long time to capitalise on the increasing value, but it does not. That would be a different state of affairs, and not one to which we should wish the criminal law to apply.

In the terms of our amendment there has to be an intention to occupy the premises for residential purposes oneself within six weeks—a very short time—or an intention to secure such occupation by someone else within that period. An example is the service tenancy situation —the herdsman moving his job—that I have indicated.

Moreover, under the terms of the amendment that intention has, in either case, to be expressly communicated to the squatter at the time when he is required to leave. It would have to be made plain to the squatter that it was the intention of the person entitled to occupy that house either to occupy it himself within the next six weeks, or to secure its occupation within that period by somebody else. If he were a council housing manager, it would be somebody on the housing list, and if he were a farmer, the herdsman could occupy the service house.

Lastly, the provisions of the amendment shall not apply to any person whose occupation is a holding-over after the expiry of a tenancy or a licence because that, again, is a different situation and one giving rise to difficult questions of law and of fact.

I am fortified in asking the House to accept the amendment not only by the fact that it conforms so desirably to the principle of Clause 7 but by the fact that on Second Reading the Home Secretary was plainly aware that it was far from self-evident that the scope of Clause 7 as drafted was sufficient. The right hon. Gentleman said: The Government will be giving further consideration to the possible extension of Clause 7, bearing in mind the views expressed in both Houses and the possibilities of improvements in civil procedures."—[Official Report, 3rd May 1977; Vol. 931, c. 239.] In the event the Government have not made any change, and the reason is set out in a letter that the Minister of State was kind enough to send me recently. He founded that decision upon new rules of court, which have recently come into force, the effect of which, he said has been to relieve the plaintiff of some of the burden of taking reasonable steps to identify the major difficulties experienced by those, such as local authorities, who have used the procedure regularly. The effect should be to speed up the procedure considerably. We have to remember that the Law Commission reported that under the expedited procedure—but before this recent amendment—possession commonly takes two months. It said: The new rules will diminish the burden on, for example, local authorities to take all reasonable steps to identify the trespassers. The new rules provide that it may be stated by affidavit that the names of the trespassers are not known.

However, even before the amendment was introduced it was held in a case before the Court of Appeal that where there is a fluctuating occupation of property it is not necessary to try to get the names. The relaxation, although it is welcome and will have some speeding-up effect, is not likely to make much difference to the time that it takes a local authority, for example, to get possession of its premises from squatters.

It must be noted that every final order may be taken to appeal, even under the expedited procedure. I believe that there are many squatters who would wish to avail themselves of that right. Leave to appeal is not necessary. Even now the time involved is substantial. Even if the new rules were to halve the delay and reduce it to a month, we believe that a month excluded from possession of one's own premises, or council premises by squatters who refuse to leave when told to do so is an intolerable injustice.

It is in these circumstances that we think it necessary to add the sanction of the criminal law to the imperfect civil remedies that now exist. The Law Commission said in its report at paragraph 244: The unlawful occupation can and does on occasions cause considerable hardship to individuals, to property-owning bodies and local authorities In the next paragraph it stated: It has become a common way of obtaining precedence over those who have been waiting for accommodation for a considerable time. I hope that by referring to the basis upon which the Commission made its recom- mendation, albeit too narrowly as we believe, the true reason for the amendment will be seen—namely, to extend the application of the principle of Clause 7 to cases of injustice when squatters refuse to leave when asked to do so by somebody who is entitled to occupy the premises and needs them himself within six weeks, or to put someone else into them within six weeks, in circumstances in which the outrage, if the squatters are permitted to get away with it, will be no less than in the circumstances that are covered by Clause 7.

Mr. Fairbairn

It is important to understand that there are grave principles at stake if we allow the concept that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) advanced, which he called the illegal squatting movement, a moral status. That would be to allow the concept that persons who have no right or title to enter premises have some moral right illegally so to do. If, as he argued in Committee, the squatting movement has done a great deal to cajole local authorities to provide houses, we might as well say that the bombing movement has done a great deal to improve security in the Palace of Westminster, or that the illegal hijacking movement has done a great deal to promote the searching of those who carry bombs on aeroplanes. It is a dangerous principle.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)


Mr. Fairbairn

If you wish to intervene, I shall be delight to give way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not wish to intervene.

Mr. Fairbairn

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that I said "you", Mr. Speaker, when I meant "it".

That argument is an indication of the danger that we may lose our principles if it is regarded, if I heard the word that was uttered from a sedentary position correctly, as "rubbish" that such illegal activity should be regarded as dangerous. I do not suggest for a moment that the Home Secretary said such a thing, but I think I heard it said from a place not far removed in metric distance from where the right hon. Gentleman sits, although divided, thank God, by a mighty gulf. It is important that in this House it should not be considered moral conduct deliberately to engage in illegal activity. That, as I understand it, was what was being argued by the hon. Member for York. In Committee, he did not, thank God, talk of the illegal squatting movement. At least then it was only the squatting movement to which he attached a halo. Now he thinks that it has benfited by being the illegal squatting movement.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman should think that there is a difference. All that I was indicating by that adjective was that a squatter had no lawful right to occupy someone else's property. I hoped that I was meeting the point made in Committee by the hon. and learned Gentleman. Whatever the rights and wrongs of squatting in law, there can be few hon. Members who do not have some sympathy with the many homeless people who have found roofs over their heads in premises that would otherwise have remained empty for commercial exploitation. For that reason many people who support law and order feel that some kind of squatting is morally acceptable.

Mr. Fairbairn

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not make much distinction between legality and illegality. Therefore, for him to use the word "illegal" is just a triviality. However, it is important to remember that it cannot be classified by saying that, because some premises might be used for industrial or development exploitation, therefore inevitably the invasion of other people's property to their disturbance and without remedy is necessarily a good thing.

I am extremely worried about the concept that people should be entitled to occupy at will the premises of what is loosely described and undefined in any proper way as a "displaced residential occupier". I asked in Committee what that meant, and I got no proper answer.

What is a displaced residential occupier? It it a person who has two homes? Is it, for instance, a Member of Parliament who lives for five days in this city and two days in his own home, which is otherwise empty? When he goes home at the weekend, is he a displaced residential occupier or is he not?

If he happens to have been to Bulgaria or to Russia for a four-week visit at the request of the Supreme Soviet and comes back to his house, which he has not occupied and to which he has an alternative, is he a displaced residential occupier?

I cannot find these definitions in the Bill. There is plenty of protection for squatters and trespassers as displaced residential occupiers, but there does not seem to be any protection for the genuine owner or tenant. That is what I find immensely difficult about the Bill. There is no proper definition. Clause 12 refers merely to those who are displaced residential occupiers as the result of squatting by others. But nowhere does the Bill define the rights of a person who owns property and who may want to live in it for a certain period.

What I find difficult and dangerous is the concept that an owner or tenant who vacates premises for whatever reason or time should essentially be given no right against the person who invades that property at will and at choice, for whatever reasons, and who decides that that is the property that he will occupy, whether it be your house, Mr. Speaker, or anyone else's house. I imagine that since you spend so much time here, Mr. Speaker, your house would never qualify. You will always be a displaced residential occupier. But, assuming, Mr. Speaker, that you come to my constituency for the recess—which, with luck, will last for the next five years—how will you ever get back into Mr. Speaker's house? The Act does not provide that you can. Essentially the Act provides for the invader and not for the person against whom invasion is carried out.

It may be felt that morally a person who does not have a house has a right superior to the person who owns one but does not happen to be in it. That is a moral judgment, but as a matter of law it is important that the person who has the right to be in it should have a right superior to that of the person who decides at random to occupy whatever house he chooses.

It is similar to the situation in which a person decides to drive away a car on the ground that he does not have enough money for the bus and anyway the car is in the street and no one is using it at the time. That is a dangerous principle. It may be a good principle against lethargic local authorities or slothful development organisations which leave premises empty, but it is a bad principle if it extends arbitrary occupation and theft against the desires, interests and rights of the owner or the tenant.

It is important that we should pass Amendment No. 37 because it strikes a very sensible balance between the concern for those who merely wish to shelter in accommodation which is unused and the rights of those who do not wish their property or premises to be invaded. It is important that the House should not throw away principles of law and morality merely in order to see whether it can conserve what the hon. Member for York called illegal rights of an illegal movement.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I shall deal first with New Clause 17. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) is concerned that illegal subtenants may not be evicted except through court proceedings. I do not dispute that there is a problem that needs to be looked at here. We know that there have been cases where people who thought that they were legitimate tenants have found that they were liable to eviction because their landlords were prohibited from letting to them by terms in their own leases or mortgage deeds. But I wish to be helpful and my advice is that the Bill is not the place to try to deal with the problem.

The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is currently conducting a review of the Rent Acts. This review includes the basic provisions on protection from eviction without court proceedings which are being consolidated in the Protection from Eviction Bill which is now before the House and to which the new clause in anticipation refers. The consultation paper which my right hon. Friend issued earlier this year specifically referred to the problem of illegal subtenants and canvassed views on how the conflict of interest between them and the head landlords and mortgagees might best be resolved. The Law Commission has also been looking at the problem as part of its work.

I ask my hon. Friend to accept that this is a problem which needs to be dealt with, but not in this legislation. It needs to be dealt with as part of the law of landlord and tenant and not in a criminal law Bill. It raises some technical and difficult aspects of the law of landlord and tenant, but my strong advice to my hon. Friend is that it is not appropriate to proceed with it in this way, although the Government share his concern about the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr Lyon) raised an aspect which is closely allied to the matter argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth. My concern is that there may be a genuine problem lying behind the new clause. Looking at the new clause and the amendments, I can see what my hon. Friend means when he says that he wishes it had been possible to debate them in Committee.

The precise purpose and effect of the clause are in doubt. The clause appears to be declaratory. It does not say that the use of force shall be a criminal offence, and it does not provide for penalties in the event of force being used or authorised. Nor is it clear on what might amount to the assertion of one's right over property. It must be intended to imply a right as against someone else's rights. But it does not seem satisfactory to have on the statute book a provision the meaning of which is in serious doubt.

It would have been very much better if the matter had been discussed at an earlier stage. Listening to my hon. Friend the Member for York, I wanted to be helpful. But I cannot be, in view of the weakness of his clause.

Three matters arise on Amendments Nos. 37 and 40. The first is to extend the benefits of a displaced residential occupier in Clause 7. The hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), who has two homes, will be glad to hear that he is a displaced residential occupier on the basis of the definition in Clause 12.

As I say, the amendments make three extensions of the benefits of a displaced residential occupier. Those are to a person who is entitled to occupy the premises, to a person who intends within six weeks to occupy them himself or to secure their occupation by some other person, and to a person who makes this known to a trespasser on the premises in question.

There are differing views about squatting, and squatters are of differing types. Generically, the word has a meaning, but in practice all kinds of people are involved.

I was not present at the Fifth Sitting of the Standing Committee, but I read the debate with interest. As the House knows, the Government have kept an open mind on the difficult question of the proper extent of Clause 7 right up to this stage of the Bill. I said on Second Reading that we were anxious to hear views of the House about the scope of Clause 7. There was an extensive and extremely useful debate in Committee. In addition to debates in Parliament, we have had a large volume of correspondence on the Bill, much of it concentrating on Clause 7. The Government have also initiated a series of discussions on Clause 7 over the last few months with the police, the local authority associations and the Greater London Council. As usual in the case of consultation on a complicated issue, the result has not been a single clear message suggesting that one particular decision would be best. But consultation and debate have brought to the surface many points, which we have considered very seriously, both suggesting that Clause 7 should be extended and that it should be left in its present form.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State wrote to hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee to inform them that the Government had decided not to table amendments to extend the scope of Clause 7. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said with a view to seeing what could be done. I put it to him that there is, first, the question of civil proceedings. It is better that matters of this kind should be dealt with in that way than by the criminal law.

12 midnight

As my hon. Friend informed his colleagues on the Committee, the Supreme Court Rule Committee has prescribed improvements in this procedure which came into force on 4th July. The major criticism of that procedure has not been the delay between the issue of a summons and the making of an order. On average that only takes around 23 days. In cases where speed is of the essence it can take much less time than that. The problem has been the time and effort sometimes required of the plaintiff to show that he has taken reasonable steps to identify defendants. Local authorities have put that to us. This has often meant several visits to the property in question at distinct intervals. The new changes in the procedure relax this requirement and they have been widely welcomed by the local authority associations.

The effect should be to reduce considerably the time taken from discovering squatters in a house to securing their eviction. Parallel changes in the county court rules are expected before the end of the year. There is an obvious link between the efficiency of the civil procedure and the scope of the criminal offence in Clause 7. We welcome the changes in the civil procedure. In our view, it would be a mistake to contemplate any further intrusion of the criminal law into an area that has traditionally been the preserve of the civil law, particularly until there has been a reasonable opportunity to assess the impact of these changes.

Secondly, there are great difficulties of enforcement in the case of an offence turning on the right to occupy property. The Standing Committee discussed the drawbacks of the concept of a displaced residential occupier. Of course, there will be anomalies and awkward cases at the margin, but that is bound to be true of any provision that steps short of making into a criminal offence any trespass at any time in any place.

The great advantage of basing the offence on the displaced residential occupier is that it should not be difficult to establish his status. His personal possessions will be inside the premises. It will be a matter of hours, weeks or, at most, months since he was living there himself. He will be known to neighbours. Once the clause goes beyond the displaced residential occupier, the difficulties of enforcement increase considerably, as is illustrated by these amendments. They would require a police constable to judge who was entitled to occupy particular premises and whether they intended to occupy them or arrange for someone else to occupy them within six weeks.

These are complicated matters. If these amendments were included in the Bill it is questionable whether the police would ever feel on safe enough ground to exercise the powers that they would confer. I use those words advisedly.

Thirdly, there is the danger of abuse. Hon. and learned Members opposite gave the impression in Standing Committee that they did not want a criminal offence which could be used by a landlord who merely wished to keep premises empty. The Government certainly do not want that. I appreciate the purpose of limiting the extension to a person intending to see that the premises are occupied within six weeks. But how is that limitation to be enforced? I am afraid that not all those who might wish to take advantage of this clause are honourable and truthful. There could be a more complicated provision to discourage abuse, perhaps with a criminal offence of making a false statement about one's intentions. But that would not be free from difficulties. Intentions can be changed before they are fulfilled, by honest people as well as by rogues.

If investigations took place in the event of premises not being occupied within six weeks, how would it be possible to demonstrate that six weeks earlier the intentions had not been genuine? The inevitable conclusion is that these amendments would be wide open to abuse and very little could be done effectively to remove that defect.

I listened carefully to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I should like to be helpful. I am turning down the Opposition amendment not because we have already made our decision but because we have improved the civil procedures, and I think that that is the correct way in which to move. I have no objection in principle, but I think that we should be moving in the wrong direction if we proceeded as the Opposition have suggested, involving the police in a more complicated measure. I hope that the Opposition will not press the matter to a Division. I cannot advise my hon. Friend to support them.

Mr. Farr

Despite what the Secretary of State has said, I should like to say a few words in support of what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) said about Amendment No. 37.

I do not think that there has been any reference in the debate to the position of charities that own charitable houses when trespassers or squatters enter into occupation. The House Secretary certainly did not refer to it. It is no use his saying that the matter has not been placed before him. As long ago as last year I wrote to him informing him of the position of one charity, and I received a reply from the Minister of State. In that case a group of squatters from a university had entered into possession. My local council and I pointed out to the Home Office that it appeared that the Bill as then framed, seven or eight months ago, would not enable a charity to regain possession of its houses.

It would be wrong of the House to leave this matter tonight without considering the position of the thousands of properties owned by charities which at present have no redress in circumstances of the kind that I have described. My hon. and learned Friend put the position very well in his amendment. I hope that it will be pressed to a Division and that the House will accept it. Those who run a charity with a number of houses under their supervision will then be able to require illegal squatters to leave the preises, provided an undertaking is given that those who operate the alms houses will see that the premises are occupied or have them occupied by a legal tenant. It is not a matter that the House can simply ignore.

I have with me a letter from the Home Office, written last December or January, saying that the charities are not at present protected and that where squatters enter into charity properties, of which there are tens of thousands, possession cannot be regained. It is deplorable that the Government have been acquainted of the problem and have chosen not only to reject a solution in correspondence with me but not even to refer to the matter in the right hon. Gentleman's speech.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the civil procedure being speeded up. I am told that it will probably still be too slow for many people. If the applicant loses in a civil action he must meet the costs, which can be formidable and a great deterrent, especially to those responsible for running charities.

The other point on which I wish to back up my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells is about agricultural properties, and the danger of the situation which could arise for a farmer where a farm worker's house becomes vacant for a short time. As the Bill is now framed, there is a risk that a farmer, in the course of changing employees, may find that his property, which he intends should be occupied by a new milkman or cowman, is occupied by illegal squatters. The amendment which my hon. and learned Friend has tabled would give a farmer in this position the ability to regain possession much more readily and satisfactorily than can be done as the law stands. I therefore support what my hon. and learned Friend has urged and I hope that this amendment is pressed to a Division.

Mr. Graham Page

I am extremely disappointed, as are my hon. Friends, at the Home Secretary's answer. He based his argument against Amendment No 37, if I understood him correctly, on the difficulty of proof. He said that it would be far more difficult to prove that a person is entitled very soon to become a residential occupier than to prove that he has vacated recently and intends to come back again. That is what a displaced residential ocupier is. I do not think that there is any difference in the difficulty of proof. It is the same proof. There will be difficulty at times in proving that a person is a displaced residential occupier, that he vacated with the intention of returning quickly when he has gone on holiday for a time and intends to come back. He has to prove that. What is so difficult about proving that there is a person titled to occupation and that he intends to occupy or to secure occupation for somebody else in this short, very modest, period of six months?

The Home Secretary said that we should rely on improved civil proceedings. We have not yet seen that they are improved. We were told that about 10 years ago when the new rules of the county court were produced. I saw no shortening of the period of getting a decision under those rules and I have no faith that the period for getting possession will become any shorter.

I see difficulties in two major cases which this amendment, if accepted, would relieve. The first is the case of sale and purchase. If a vendor vacates property—he may be moving into his new home—for a short time, and the purchaser is un- able to move in at a moment's notice, when the vendor leaves the property will be vacant for a period. Why can we not protect that property in the same way as we protect the property of a displaced residential occupier? That occupier is what I call an entitled residential occupier. We are not extending the period over months, or anything like that. This is a person who is coming in the very near future. That occurs particularly where there is a purchase and there is a gap between the vendor going out and the purchaser coming in but there is no intention of keeping the property empty for a long period. It is grossly unfair that we should not give the same protection then as we are giving to the displaced residential occupier.

The second important case is that of a council and council tenants. In that case a council with a waiting list has to choose tenants, the tenants have to view the premises, and then they take time to move in. During that time this Bill will give no protection against squatting.

I had hoped that this was merely a sideways inclusion of a group of people who deserve protection—the vendor and purchaser of property, the council and council tenant. The Home Secretary has not put forward any claim that the clause is badly drafted or that further modifications are required in it. It covers exactly the cases that we have in mind, and I hope he will think again. If not, we shall divide the House on it.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I, too, express the hope that the Home Secretary will take another look at this matter. Surely, if we simply make it a criminal offence not to leave a private house, whether privately owned or rented, when requested to do so by the lawful occupier, the squatting fraternity will quickly turn its attention to council properties, as described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), and all the problems now being faced in the private housing sector will have to be faced in the public sector. This will surely create an immense and unnecessary burden for local authorities, not only where houses owned by local councils are affected and where new tenants are being awaited—perhaps a council flat or house has to be done up and painted and put on offer to other tenants—but also with newly built council houses, which will become the subject of the attention of squatters. So will houses owned by housing associations and non-profit-making bodies, which now run about 3 per cent. of the total housing stock—a proportion which is growing.

Surely if we are to argue that squatting is detrimental to the owners of property, we must equally be concerned about prospective council tenants, who in many cases have been waiting for many years on council housing lists. Genuine homeless families being rehoused by local authorities will have their prospects jeopardised if squatters invade council properties in large numbers.

The Home Secretary has not given this point special weight, and he ought to take another look at it. If he does not, I hope that the official Opposition will divide the House and win on it.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I hope that my right hon. Friends will take note of the arguments presented by Conservative Members. A fictitious problem has been created of the squatter moving into the private residence. The problem was initiated by a letter in The Times which subsequently proved to be completely phoney. We have produced legislation to deal with this fictitious problem, and now we are meeting the argument from the Conservative Benches that we have to transpose the solution to this fictitious problem to quite a different problem and to make it a criminal offence to squat in property which is not residentially occupied. The arguments presented by the Opposition are very strong arguments against Clause 7 and against Part II of the Bill, but they are not arguments for extending it in the way proposed by them.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew

The Home Secretary was, I thought, plainly unhappy in the speech that he delivered in rejecting the amendment. Having regard to the three grounds on which he based his rejection, I was not entirely surprised, but I genuinely believe that his objections are founded upon some degree of misconception. I hope that I may be allowed very briefly to try to explain why that is so.

The Home Secretary's first ground was that it is far better to leave these matters to the civil remedy of the court rather than the criminal remedy. In may ways all of us would prefer to see right being done by civil remedy rather than by resort to the criminal remedy. But that is not always possible if we are to secure justice.

The Government have in Clause 7, as at present drafted, recognised that it is necessary to have to resort to criminal sanctions if justice is to be done. The reason they have given for that, with which we entirely agree, is that the ordinary member of the public is outraged if a displaced residential occupier, having required a squatter to leave, is still unable to get into his house. He thinks that it should be against the criminal law and we agree.

The right hon. Gentleman failed to show that there was any difference in the principle of any of our other examples—the council tenant, the farm worker and others—or that there was any difference in the degree of outrage of the ordinary man in the street if a squatter failed to leave when called upon to do so by any of these classes of person.

Second, the right hon. Gentleman said that it would he difficult to establish whether someone claiming this benefit had the right to occupy the property. But how, for instance, can there be any difficulty in establishing that the council house manager has the right to occupy the house on behalf of the council or to secure its occupation by someone at the top of the housing list? I hope that even now he will recognise that that was an extraordinarily bad point. The same can be said of a farm owner who wants a service house for a herdsman who is due in a week.

Third, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was difficult to show intention. But the purpose of the new clause is that of Clause 7—to deter a squatter from failing to leave in these circumstances. That genuine intention would have to be shown. It should not be difficult, but if it was not shown the prosecution would fail and costs would follow.

No answer has been given to our examples, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman even now will think again. If not, we shall certainly seek to divide the House at the appropriate time.

Question put and negatived.

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