HC Deb 25 July 1991 vol 195 cc1335-41 1.30 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

I wish to discuss the case for a review of the law on squatting and its effect on privately owned second homes. Many people associate second homes simply with the wealthy who have a weekend cottage or a country home that they visit on Friday nights, returning to London or wherever on Sundays. In recent years, however, that has not been the only definition of a second home. More and more people own second homes because they must travel elsewhere for work and be away from their families from Monday until Friday, returning to the main family home at weekends. Many people have a second home simply because, as a result of mortgage interest rates, they have been unable to sell their home but have decided to move to their new home so that they do not lose that purchase.

Since I first raised the matter with the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), I have been extremely grateful for the help of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Home Office for the part that he and his officials have played in this thorny, pressing problem. There is no short cut to a solution and no easy answers. Many complex legal attitudes and issues must be looked at before we come up with an answer that will deal with the problem.

The current legal position is that squatting is an act of trespass which, in general, is dealt with by civil rather than criminal law. However, in cases of displaced residential occupiers—people who are displaced from their main residence—the provisions of sections 6 and 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 apply. That gives immediate relief to lawful occupiers who are deprived of living accommodation. If squatters' actions result in making occupiers homeless, immediate action can be taken to remove the squatters. The criminal law deals with the more objectionable behaviour associated with squatting. If damage is done to the property during entry into or occupation of the property, an offence is committed under the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

Although the principle of the law may be excellent, in practice it does not work so well for those who own a second home and are caught with the problem of squatters. The law is inadequate for the current circumstances and needs to be reviewed urgently with respect to squatters in individuals' second homes, which are not only holiday homes but second homes simply because they are taking longer to sell their main homes than they had hoped.

I should like to mention two cases to highlight the heartache, misery and expense that squatters can cause. One relates to my constituency of Chelmsford; the other took place elsewhere. For obvious reasons, I cannot mention any names. My constituents' home is still unoccupied and they live in fear of squatters returning to the property.

The first case was that of someone who is not a constituent. I should like to read the episode, which concerns the misery caused to a woman and her home. The local newspaper wrote: A woman wept last night in her dream home, now reduced to a stinking shell by squatters. Mrs. X broke down in tears at the appalling damage to the house in which she had sunk her hopes and her savings. The vandals even scrawled obscene rhymes on the walls, threatening to sort her out with a crowbar. She said, 'How can I live here now? I never thought people could be this base. The house even smells of animals.' The gang wrecked the two-storey house which was being converted to a single home from bedsits. Mrs. X was only days away from moving in. Now it will take months and more than £15,000 to repair the damage caused in a drunken orgy of destruction. The vandals ripped bannisters from stairs, smashed seven sinks, two showers and a bath, wrenched off every radiator, hacked out all the plumbing. Floorboards were pulled up; skirting boards stripped and plaster chiselled off so that they could pull out copper pipes… Every room was covered in obscene graffiti. 10 hippies and two dogs lived in the house for just over a week. As well as the damage, they left beer bottles and rotting rubbish everywhere. They started ripping the house apart after Mrs. X obtained a writ for their eviction … Police today said that they were powerless to combat the squatters". Every reasonable and decent person will have a great deal of sympathy with Mrs. X, given the reprehensible activities of the squatters who destroyed the home into which she hoped shortly to move.

The second case concerns constituents of mine who wanted to sell their house and in the meantime found another house into which they wished to move. So as not to lose the sale on the house they bought it and moved into it, having emptied their original home and ensured that all the windows and doors were securely bolted and locked so that no one could force entry. Imagine their horror when they discovered that squatters had entered the property. I believe that what they had done should be considered forced entry, but under the legislation it was apparently not an offence. They had managed to gain entry by removing the window panes without damaging them and had then unlocked the window. They proceeded to open the front door by unlocking it, brought up a van with their possessions and moved in. Nothing could be done by the police to remove the squatters immediately.

The squatters remained for just over a week, in which they held open house parties every night, inviting total strangers from the local public house to come and enjoy themselves and drink. The wallpaper, the carpets and the remaining beds in the house were damaged, and it was left to my constituents to seek a court order to get the squatters evicted.

My constituents were relatively lucky. It took quite a short time for them to get a court order, but they were determined, and because they could not have their case heard in a court in Chelmsford quickly enough they fortunately managed to find a court in Essex which was able to deal with their problems relatively speedily. They got their court order and the squatters left. But it cost those people a considerable amount of money to gain that quick access to the law. It cost them even more money because they had to repair the damage to their home before they could ask people to visit it with a view to buying it. That is unacceptable.

Fortunately, my constituents had the financial resources to seek redress from the courts, but many people do not have the £800—or, in some cases, more than £1,000—necessary to go to court to seek quick redress. It seems inherently unfair that people have to spend considerable sums of money to obtain possession of their home. One argument is that such people could sue the squatters for the damage caused, but that is not realistic. Most squatters would not have the financial resources, even if they could be identified and taken to court. Suing or claiming damages from squatters is not a viable alternative.

It was for those reasons that, on 19 June 1990, I raised the matter with the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley at Prime Minister's questions. I said: Is it not time that the balance of the law was redressed to favour the innocent home owner, rather than the reprehensible activities of squatters? To her credit, my right hon. Friend replied: As my hon. Friend is aware, squatting that directly excludes a householder from his home is already a criminal offence. The police can act, and penalties are severe. However, squatting in a residential property which does not cause the immediate threat of homelessness can be dealt with only through civil action. My right hon. Friend continued—and this is crucial— I agree with my hon. Friend that there appears to be a defect in the law, and I am looking into the matter further."—[Official Report, 19 June 1990; Vol. 174, c. 797.] I am grateful that my right hon. Friend looked into the matter further and I know that, over the past year, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and his officials have considered the matter carefully and may possibly order a review of the law, which I welcome.

I accept that there are no easy answers; the law on property ownership is complex and difficult. Obviously, the law must be fair and any solution must be fair to all parties. However, the law at present is grossly unfair. It is balanced away from the innocent victims—home owners—and a review must address that problem urgently.

I accept, as I know my right hon. Friend the Minister would, that there is a problem of homelessness in this country. Fortunately, actions taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is dealing realistically with those problems. I am sure that everyone welcomes the fact that, in the past six months, the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of London has been halved due to my right hon. Friend's precipitate action and his imaginative policies of seeking to open up buildings such as the one in Soho square to provide night stay.

However, the fact that we have homelessness does not give squatters a divine right to take the law into their own hands and move into the properties of innocent bystanders who have taken all the care that they thought necessary properly to secure their homes against people breaking and entering, and squatting. It seems ironic and unfair that people lock their houses and ensure that they are secure but, because of the definition of what constitutes damage to a property when gaining entry, there is a legal way in which people can gain entry to those properties causing mayhem, misery and expense for homeowners, who find it can take some time to sort out the problem.

I should like to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for what he has done and for the fact that at 1.45 pm on the day in which we go into recess he is prepared to listen to the problems that are close to the heart of people who, sadly, have become caught up with the activities of squatters. I urge him to ensure that his Department's review is concluded swiftly so that we can discuss in detail any suggestions that his Department is prepared to make for changing the law and putting an end to these reprehensible and anti-social activities.

1.45 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has expressed his case with characteristic lucidity, and I congratulate him. The problem that he has highlighted over the past year, since he asked the question of our right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), has got worse. The problem of squatting has been deteriorating over the past three or four years and I applaud the action that my hon. Friend has taken. He has highlighted the issue and caused us in the Home Office as well as my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to look at this fiendishly complex problem. It involves both criminal and civil law, landlord and tenant law and an individual's right to occupy property. It is exactly where criminal and civil law intermesh and where, over several hundred years, a complex set of statute laws has grown up.

Following my hon. Friend's question last year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have been engaged in a wide-ranging review of the law on squatting. I am afraid that I cannot make any announcements today, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it will not be long before I am able to make an announcement about the next step in what we intend to do.

Squatting is not trivial. It causes enormous inconvenience and, on occasions, great expense for those involved. The two examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford gave, one from his constituency and one from elsewhere in the country, clearly showed the personal tragedy as well as the expense and inconvenience that can be caused to innocent people who own property in which they are not currently living.

I am sure that people who have had squatters in their property feel the same as those who have been burgled. They may never feel comfortable in the house or flat again. Someone has entered the property by force and done the sort of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford described. Although I have never been in that position, I am sure that I would not feel comfortable in my home for a considerable time afterwards. The emotional distress can be considerable.

I join my hon. Friend in rejecting absolutely any suggestion that squatting can ever be defensible or that it is normally—there may be exceptions—related to homelessness. The majority of those who squat, as in the cases described by my hon. Friend, have chosen to invade the property of others in a measured and calculated way as they move from place to place. I have seen that in my own part of the country. Squatting is the unlawful occupation of someone else's property and it cannot be justified.

Squatting involves not only residential property. We have received alarming reports from different parts of the country about an increase in the amount of squatting in commercial and shop property. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) has made a strong plea for further action in that regard. I know that the Confederation of British Industry, on behalf of its members, feels that more needs to be done about squatting by those who look as if they are professional gangs of shop squatters. They manipulate the law and sometimes set up shops for a few days and sell sub-standard goods. Of course, the use of any electricity or gas that may be connected to the property renders them liable to criminal prosecution, and the people who have purchased goods from such places will find themselves in an unfortunate position. My hon. Friend's campaign has flushed out that additional dimension. We are trying to deal with the problem, but squatting in domestic properties is rather easier to deal with than the complex problem of shop squatting.

It is difficult to gauge the extent of squatting: it is like drug addiction, it is a hidden problem or a passing problem as people move in and out. It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics. Recent newspaper reports estimated the number at 50,000. Sometimes newspaper estimates are as useful as ministerial estimates, and I would not dispute that number. However, statistics are available for local authority properties. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning reports that, at 1 April 1990, approximately 5,200 local authority homes were being unlawfully occupied. Ninety per cent. of those were in London and 65 per cent. in just three boroughs—Southwark, Lambeth and Hackney. Those boroughs are a byword for hopeless housing administration.

The 1986 London housing survey suggested that a quarter of an estimated 7,500 residential properties that were being squatted in were privately owned, the remainder being owned by local authorities and housing associations. The survey estimated that there were 12,500 squatters in London, about half of whom were under 25; only 8 per cent. were over 40. It is essentially a young person's problem. The survey revealed that mass squatting was rare and that, mercifully, cases involving young children were negligible.

Hard figures may be difficult to obtain, but the Government do not doubt that squatting represents a problem that merits serious attention. Squatting is one form of the civil tort of trespass and has traditionally been dealt with in the civil courts. This approach was justified in the past by the fact that squatting was seen as the simple occupation of property, which may be subject to genuine civil disputes. Where squatting is accompanied by criminal activity such as theft, criminal damage—undoubtedly some of the matters to which my hon. Friend referred fell into the category of criminal damage—the abstraction of electricity and the use of gas, the general criminal law is available for use against squatters, as it is against anybody else. The problem is that it is difficult to obtain evidence when people swoop into houses or shops and move on.

The traditional approach, which has dominated our approach to the occupation of property as far back as records reveal—that is a long way—has always been to leave it to the civil law. That approach was modified for the first time by the Criminal Law Act 1977, which made it an offence for a trespasser to remain on premises after being required to leave by a displaced residential occupier or a protected intended occupier—someone who has several defined legal interests in the property.

Given the seriousness of the predicament facing those who were made homeless by squatters, that approach was justified. Someone could come home, find people squatting in their home and have nowhere to go. That was put right, and Parliament decided that a civil remedy alone was insufficient.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford and other hon. Members would like to extend that protection to those who are not made homeless by squatters but who nevertheless may suffer considerable hardship at their hands. I think particularly of my hon. Friend's constituents, who had moved to a new house but were unable to sell their former house because squatters had moved in while it was on the market. After those squatters had been evicted, my hon. Friend's constituents were still faced with the difficulty and expense of returning their old house to a fit state for sale. That is a serious issue. There is no denying the feeling of injustice that my hon. Friend's constituents and others rightly feel at having been put in such a situation, often with little prospect of compensation from the squatters. They must feel helpless and in need of the law's protection. That is the point which my hon. Friend has been pressing on the Government.

My hon. Friend will agree that a distinction can be drawn between this sort of case, serious as it is, and cases which the law recognises in which lawful occupiers of property are made homeless. My hon. Friend draws attention to the case for a review of the effectiveness of the present law in dealing with the sort of case that I have just outlined. I assure him that, in reviewing the law, the Home Secretary and I have such cases very much in mind.

As I have explained, squatting is not generally a matter for the criminal law, except in cases where squatters commit criminal offences. The civil remedy is to seek an order from the High Court or the county court to get possession of the property. The courts are aware that it is often important to move quickly against squatters, and expeditious procedures are now available. I have recently discussed these matters with the Lord Chancellor, who said that all that it is possible to do under present procedures to expedite matters is being done. In the most urgent cases, where there is a danger to life or limb or to property, it is possible to obtain an immediate ex parte injunction, although that involves much cost by those who are threatened.

Mr. Burns

The Minister has given two examples of the definition of emergency. An emergency is often more pressing to those who own a property than it is to the law, and they probably interpret it differently from the courts. For example, I suspect that in many cases there would not be loss of life or limb. The emergency for the people involved is that of no longer having their property under their control but invaded by others.

Mr. Patten

That is a good point, characteristically made by my hon. Friend, and we shall have to take it into account as we finalise the review of the law in this area.

It must be stressed that there are dangers in widening the scope of the criminal law in this field. In the past, some hon. Members have suggested changes which in practice would mean that anyone who could not satisfy a policeman or even a local authority official—and such officials are not necessarily as benign as local authorities officials in Chelmsford, now happily back under Conservative control since May—that he or she was in lawful occupation of the house could therefore be thrown on to the streets without further ado. In that context, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates the difficulties.

Even with less radical extensions of the law, we must be apprehensive about the prospect of involving the police in what may be genuine disputes over property rights or disputes between landlords and tenants and not disputes over squatting. There are considerable difficulties, and we would not wish to see chief constables or hard-pressed policemen and policewomen turned into a free eviction agency for landlords. We must also be sensitive to the possible public order consequences of police involvement in squatting cases.

I acknowledge that, in the great majority of cases, the squatter is in the wrong, and knows it. A further point which my hon. Friend did not raise but which underlines much of the complexity of the consideration that the Home Office is giving to this issue is the matter of third party rights. For example, in his constituency or mine, an absentee landlord may sell a property in which there are squatters and not care very much for immediate repossession. On either side of the property, or above and below if it is a flat, people may be grossly inconvenienced by the noise, smell and attendant nuisance.

That is a live question. In the spirit of the times, I know that my hon. Friend will spend almost the entire recess at his desk in the Palace of Westminster attending to the problems of his constituents. Over that time, perhaps he will give some attention to the problem and let me have his views. It may be that third parties should have the right. I do not know. It is a complex issue and such a right might give other people a gratuitous opportunity to cause trouble.

The criminal law already intervenes in the worst cases of squatting. Before we go any further, we have to know precisely what it is that we are aiming to catch, and ensure that we do not aim too wide. It would be a good idea, particularly as matters concerning property are always sensitive, if there were wide agreement on both sides of the Chamber. If we make changes to the law, we want them to stick, in the interests of citizens, not in the interests of a personal or political point of view. Therefore, a fair measure of agreement would be a good thing.

I hope to be in a position to make an announcement about this issue soon, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend, who has spoken so forcefully about this important issue, gets a copy of the announcement on the day that it is made.