HC Deb 09 July 1987 vol 119 cc614-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

9.42 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

In 1974, I drew the attention of the House to the problems caused for my constituents by a firm, Vemera Ltd., of Loughton, Essex, which bought a local farm on the fringe of the green belt, divided its 75 acres into 800 plots measuring 100ft by 30ft and then sold them individually as leisure blocks at a big profit. No planning permission for development being possible and boundary fences being prohibited, most of the new owners were unable to benefit from their land as they wished to. Some erected buildings of sorts, some cultivated their plots in a commendable way, but most of the land was abandoned to become like a rural slum. The local authority racked its brains to find a remedy. It enforced the planning law where it could, but on the whole, faced with hundreds of absentee landlords and purported tenants, few of whom put in an appearance on the site, enforcement was impossible, and 75 acres of prime agricultural land became a wilderness.

When I raised the problem in the House—it was coupled with problems caused by similar actions by the same company, including one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) — I was told that central Government could do very little. I hope that I will not get a similar response this evening.

About 25 acres of the land are covered by an orchard, which has been divided among 120 owners. During the night of 1 and 2 November last year, a convoy of over 50 vehicles with over 100 people — men, women and children of all ages and conditions — arrived and occupied the orchard. A family in a battered old bus had driven into the orchard a few days before, but otherwise the residents and the local authority were taken by surprise. The occupation was concerted among the so-called hippies and travellers who had previously been in the west country because many of the newcomers were armed with maps with Waldens Farm, St. Mary Cray, marked on them.

Since November 1986, more vehicles and people have arrived to join the others. There have been many comings and goings, but in round figures about 80 vehicles and about 200 people have been the peak occupation of the orchard. There has recently been some exodus, presumably because of the attraction of the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

The people concerned shun contact with local residents and are actively hostile to strangers they find on the site. The conditions in which they live are disgusting. They have access to the public water supply, as the main stopcock is on the farm. They have dug holes in the ground to meet their sanitary needs, they have stripped large areas of the orchard and have taken any timber they could find round about for firewood. Dogs and other animals roam freely. Most local people are afraid to venture into the area, but health visitors and midwives—heroines as always—do. Three children have been born there recently, the mothers refusing to go into hospital.

It appears that they all live on supplementary benefit, collected from one of the three local DHSS offices. Drug trafficking is almost certainly going on and there have been acts of violence against local residents. Property left out in neighbouring fields has been stolen and there have been a few ugly incidents involving packs of dogs. The people who own the plots covered by the orchard, insofar as they are aware of the situation, are powerless to do anything about it. Many of them appear to be Greek and residents of different parts of north London. They are willing to co-operate in legal action to remove the trespassers, but not if this involves expense.

The law-abiding, peaceful, ratepaying, taxpaying, hardworking citizens of St. Mary Cray are up in arms about this plunder, devastation and menace in their midst. They demand to know why the council, the police and the Government will not protect them from the consequences of this illegal occupation of private land by people who obviously have not the slightest intention of respecting the rights of others.

Bromley council—the local authority—prevaricates. The environmental health officers say that there is no present threat to public health while there is running water, earth closets and fires burning the rubbish. However, they do not live nearby and experience the daily stench. Other officers of the local authority say that it would be impossible to identify anyone on the site long enough to bring summons for breaches of the byelaws. The police say that they have the orchard under constant surveillance, that criminal law is being enforced and that, to their credit, they have tracked down the legal owners of the property concerned with a view to providing laborious evidence for possible civil proceedings for trespass.

However, they seem reluctant, probably because of the hesitation at Scotland Yard or, more probably still, at the Home Office, to take action under the new Public Order Act 1986. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, will action be taken under that Act to evict those people and, if not, why not? The Act should surely be used against the intruders who have come on to the site since the Act came into effect, if not against all the malefactors. What happens if the trespassers, following civil proceedings taken by the outraged owners of the sites, move on to another local site?

My constituents are very angry about the inactivity of the authorities concerned in dealing with this appalling state of affairs. The local residents cannot be expected to endure the strain of this continual squalid nuisance and to meet the expense of what might be long-drawn-out legal action to evict the trespassers. Bromley council is stymied. Even the remedy of a compulsory purchase order, which one might have thought would be a good solution to the problem, is unlikely to be effective for years. What are the Government going to do about it?

9.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I have great sympathy with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). He is quite right to bring the position of his constituents to the attention of the House at this time. I do not think that anybody could have put the position more clearly than he has.

The problem stems essentially from the fact that on this plot of land there is multiple ownership. Because of that, it is more difficult than would otherwise have been the case to invoke the usual remedies. It might be helpful if I tell the House what the usual remedies are in cases such as this. There are two. The first is to invoke the ordinary civil law under the cause of action of trespass. The second would be to seek to persuade the police to exercise the powers conferred upon them under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986.

It might be helpful if I were to explain the circumstances in which each of the two remedies can be invoked. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington is a distinguished lawyer and, therefore, as familiar as I am — perhaps rather more so—with the legal technicalities. However, I am sure that he will forgive me if, for the convenience of of the House, I identify those characteristics.

What is trespass, I ask rhetorically? Essentially, trespass in unlawful occupation of another person's land without the authority or consent of the person entitled to possession. When a person trespasses on land, the person entitled to possession can go to the court for a remedy. The remedy is an injunction, a claim for damages, or both. However—this is the important point—the person who has the cause of action is the person entitled to possession. If many people are entitled to possession and some of those people cannot be identified, there is a problem in bringing the cause of action. The cause of action is complete, but one has the difficulty of identifying the correct plaintiffs. If the owners are not interested in bringing proceedings, clearly they will not be brought. That is one of the usual remedies and I have mentioned the difficulty about invoking it in this instance.

The other remedy, provided by Parliament at the instance of this Government, is under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. It might be helpful if I reminded hon. Members of the nature of the remedy provided under section 39, which states: If the senior police officer reasonably believes that two or more persons have entered land as trespassers and are present there with the common purpose of residing there for any period, that reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave and—

  1. (a) that any of those persons has caused damage to property on the land or used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier, a member of his family or an employee or agent of his, or
  2. (b) that those persons have between them brought twelve or more vehicles on to the land, he may direct those persons, or any of them, to leave the land."
If the persons on the land unlawfully decline to leave, the offence is complete. However, we come back to the problem of multiple ownership. The police officer can ask the persons trespassing to leave only when he is satisfied that reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier". Once more we are faced with the problem of multiple ownership where there are many owners of land, some of whom are not identified, and some of whom may not care very much whether or not there is a trespass.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

Has the Minister taken into account the considerable effect of intimidation on landlords and owners of land? Although the Minister has given the House a full picture of the remedies open to those in single ownership — therefore, there are no complications for the owner—has he taken full account of the effect of intimidation of owners of land by persons who may not subsequently be identified? Has he also taken account of the effect on the police force of the said intimidation? That is especially relevant in my constituency. It is not enough to send one officer to talk to these people. The police may evict such persons, but they will come back. They can then cause wilful and malicious damage not only to property, but also to persons. Has he taken full account of that and are there adequate remedies in law?

Mr. Hogg

I have no doubt that if the actions of the trespassers were intimidatory, it would constitute an offence. It might constitute an offence under the Public Order Act. However, there are a variety of other offences, contained both in common law and in other statutes, which might be committed. That is not the problem; the problem is whether or not the aggrieved persons can get such people off the land.

Such action does not depend upon intimidation; it depends upon establishing a right that can be enforced either by the police or through the courts. I have identified the two remedies—the action in trespass and the powers to remove under section 39 of the Public Order Act—to highlight the problems in this instance. To use those remedies it is necessary to identify the owners of the land and to obtain their concurrence to the necessary action upon which everything else depends.

I believe that the situation may be more promising than my hon. Friends believe. My understanding is that there is one owner of the land who owns a great majority of the land affected at Waldens farm. I understand that that person has instructed a solicitor to take proceedings in the High Court. I am further told that that person has secured the consent of the great majority of the other owners of the land who have now been identified. The majority landowner is thus able to go to the High Court on behalf of himself and of the great majority of the other landowners.

If that is correct, I believe that the cause of action is complete. Clearly it would be wrong for the House or, indeed, a Minister, especially a junior Minister, to prejudge in any way the likely decision of the court. However, on those facts it would seem to me that there is a good prospect of a High Court judge making the injunction that my hon. Friend has in mind. Therefore, ordinary civil remedies may now apply in this case because the majority landowner has the consent of the other occupants.

A different situation will obviously arise if the High Court declines to make an order of the kind that we have been discussing. The question that then arises is whether the police would be entitled to act under section 39 of the Public Order Act.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

Mr. Hogg

The decision whether to invoke the powers under section 39 of the 1986 Act is a matter for the police. Again, it would be wrong for a Minister of the Crown to seek in any way to influence the police officers' decision because it is an operational matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington will appreciate as much as I do that Ministers have no jurisdiction in that respect.

Let us assume that the High Court declines to make an order in a civil action. Provided that the owners, by some collective action, can make it plain to trespassers that they, the trespassers, should leave—they can do that either individually or collectively——

Miss Widdecombe

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) is making a face. It can be done by a solicitor, an association—they can set up an association — or it can be done in a variety of other ways. The owners must make it plain to the trespassers that the trespassers must leave. Provided that the police are satisfied that the other criteria set out in section 39 are fulfilled, they may decide to invoke the powers provided in section 39.

Miss Widdecombe

As my hon. Friend has said, although there is a remedy by giving notice to itinerants and having it effected by the police, the fact remains that serving the original is up to individuals. Whether it is an individual landowner — in my constituency, we are talking about individuals, not multiple ownership—or his or her solicitor, the fact remains that it is an individual against 30 itinerant occupants., who are not necessarily at that point under the observation of law-keeping bodies such as the police. They must face such people and serve the original notice before the forces of law and order are brought in. Has my hon. Friend taken on board the effects of intimidation? What remedy does a single landowner have against itinerants?

Mr. Hogg

I have contemplated the difficulties that can arise. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone must look at it from the point of view that it is obviously a necessary condition to the powers under section 39 of the Act that the landowner wishes the trespasser to leave. After all, some landowners might not care much one way or the other.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Hogg

I shall finish my comments in this respect: and then I shall give way.

Some landowners might be content to let trespassers remain on the site. Therefore, it is right in principle and in practice that the powers under section 39, which constitute a criminal offence, should arise only in circumstances in which a landowner wishes a trespasser to leave. That is a necessary precondition.

The next question is this: what obligations are imposed upon a landowner to make apparent to the trespasser the requirement to leave? The answer to that is that it varies in accordance with the facts. There is no need to serve a formal notice. If one does not want to talk to such fellows in the field, one can get a bull horn, put it to one's mouth and say, "Get off my land." That is quite sufficient to require people to leave. For example, there is no need to go up to Mr. Speaker, shake his hand and say, "Mr. Speaker, I want you out of here." It is quite sufficient to stand at the Dispatch Box and say, "Mr. Speaker, I want you to leave." The communication of the notice depends upon the facts. If my hon. Friend's constituents arc alarmed about this, I suggest a bull horn, and I am not being frivolous.

Mr. Stanbrook

Let me bring the debate back to the issue in my constituency and point out the difficulties of proceeding by way of civil action. We are talking about one third of Waldens farm—25 acres out of 75—which is occupied in this way. Some 120 landowners are concerned, and by dint of great effort and great expenditure by the local people, including, as my hon. Friend has said, one in particular, there will be a civil action in the High Court to get rid of these people. What happens if the people concerned then move on to the other 50 acres where there are another 600 or 700 owners? Who will ask every one of them to finance a court action? The practical difficulties of civil actions are such that they are quite beyond private individuals to take action and we should not expect that of them. It should be a matter for the Home Office and enforcement of the Public Order Act.

Mr. Hogg

It is not a matter for the Home Office in any circumstances. One must go either through the civil courts, which is not a matter for the Home Office, or through the police, which is not a matter for the Home Office. The Home Office is not directly involved.

My hon. Friend is making a serious point. He is asking why we should use the civil remedy of an injunction. There is an advantage in using an injunction, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, which is that the injunction is permanent in character as it applies to the relevant piece of land, whereas the relief under section 39 is not permanent in character. My hon. Friend is asking what happens if either in civil proceedings the injunction is made, or under section 39 an order is made, and the trespassers leave the piece of land affected either by the order or the injunction and go elsewhere.

That is a fair point, and I am afraid that the position will then be as it now is. Once again, the two remedies will have to be invoked. This is inevitable for this reason. It would be wrong in principle to give anyone the power to move people from private land unless it were obvious and clear that the owners of the land on which the people were squatting, if that is the appropriate word, wanted them to leave.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington may say, "Of course the landowners want the hippies to leave." However, we cannot be certain of that. The law cannot presume that. The powers under section 39, or the relief available in a civil suit, must always depend upon the determination and desire of the landowners in question to assert their rights. That is an essential difficulty that flows necessarily from our respect for property.

I have tried to consider whether there might be any way around this by taking indirect action. I have considered the Orpington Urban District Council Act and I suggest that my hon. Friend considers that as well. Bromley borough council has some powers under that Act that might be valuable in this instance. However, one again encounters the problem of the would-be trespassers moving from one site to another. I have also considered whether there is a breach of planning regulations and whether enforcement notices could be taken. The best advice that I have had is that that would not be a useful way forward. The same is true of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which I have also considered.

Two remedies are available—one is the civil suit for an injunction and damages, and that is going forward. If that fails it may be—that is a matter for them—that the police will decide that they are in a position to invoke section 39.

No one could put the case more clearly than my hon. Friend has done, and he has been extremely ably supported by our hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone. I have not had the privilege of hearing her speak in the Chamber before, and I welcome her to it. Perhaps the civil suit will provide a remedy; I very much hope that it will.

Mr. Stanbrook

A very unsatisfactory remedy.

Mr. Hogg

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but he must also bear in mind that we have a system of law that depends on proprietorial rights and not the exercise of coercive powers in respect of private property, unless it is clear that the owners of that private property want those coercive powers to be exercised. Personally, I believe that that is what the law should be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Ten o'clock.