HL Deb 25 January 1977 vol 379 cc401-48

6.5 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, that the House do again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House again in Committee accordingly.

[The Baroness WOOTTON OF ABINGER in the Chair.]

Clause 6 [Violence for securing entry]:

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 18: Page 6, line 11, at end insert ("otherwise than in execution of legal processes").

The noble Earl said: I beg to move Amendment No. 18. In Part II of the Bill we are sailing into rather more political waters than perhaps we encompassed when Part I of the Bill was discussed. It may be helpful therefore if, when moving this Amendment, which is a technical and drafting Amendment to boot, that I should by way of preface make a few remarks about this Part of the Bill. I am comforted to some extent in what I might call this application to your Lordships by the fact that on Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, welcomed what he described in col. 868 of the Official Report as a, "particularly vigorous examination of the Government's purpose". In view of the hour, the examination may be perhaps a little less vigorous than it would have been before those Peers interested were discussing whether it is legally possible to marry in Scotland one's adoptive grandmother. Be that as it may, we now turn to matters of perhaps more English interest.

Unfortunately, the term "squatter" in this connection embraces a number of people having considerably different interests in what they do. I suppose basically speaking that they come under two heads: first, what I might call residential; and, secondly, for want of a better word, political. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, is not yet in his place and I say at once—and perhaps it will be the last time I say it in this debate—that where there are genuinely homeless squatters who are in that position by virtue of the failure of society to find a roof over their heads there is nothing but sympathy on the part of everybody on every side of the Committee. Nobody wants to exacerbate their position or to inflict any further pain on what must be a disagreeable position, almost imaginable by anybody lucky enough never to have been homeless.

Where squatting becomes (shall I say?) less agreeable or less excusable is in the case of homeless squatters who squat not so much because they cannot obtain a roof over their heads but because for one reason or another they do not want to go through what I might call the usual channels of obtaining a house and perhaps do not want to spend the money on rent and rates that the rest of us have to spend. Then there are political squatters who for one reason or another infest either a factory or university buildings or (dare I suggest it?) even a Ministry or some other place such as an Embassy because they wish to illustrate their political viewpoint and wish to ram home their political ideas.

Those types of squatters are entirely different from what I might call the residential variety. In their case where they break the law—and by trespass they do, to some extent in any event, break the law—it is in my suggestion undesirable that they should do so without some kind of check eventually being applied. If the role of the law in this general field is to define rights applicable to this kind of situation and to provide the appropriate remedies, it is perhaps possibly helpful to consider the present position and how the Government propose to change it, and then to discuss whether those changes proposed are going to ameliorate the position and if so, how much.

So first, in certain circumstances, squatters may be guilty as at present of a conspiracy to trespass; and that of course was discussed by my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone in the case of Kamara, and I will not presume to comment on that. Secondly, under the Statutes of forcible entry and forcible detainer, squatters run what I term a theoretical chance of being convicted, although such cases are rare. Thirdly, there is at present what is called the right of self-help. That was commented upon by the Master of the Rolls in McPhail's case, and it is in this instance available to the owner of any right to the possession or occupation of premises to take such steps to remedy the position as he sees it. It may be described as the right of the dispossessed owner of property to take it back into his possession and eject the trespassers, if necessary, by force.

So far as the changes proposed in the Bill are concerned, the common law offence of conspiracy to trespass is abolished by Clause 5. The statutory and common law offences of forcible entry and forcible detainer are abolished by Clause 13. Taking these two proposals in isolation, the provisions, if they were adopted, would strengthen self-help. However, Clause 6 of the Bill to a very large extent removes the right of self-help except in the case of what are described as displaced residential occupiers. No doubt we shall come back to them. As I understand the situation, the squatter, as a squatter, will be at no criminal risk in the future, unless he brings himself into a position where he may commit an offence under Clauses 7, 8 or 9. So far as the owners or occupiers of property are concerned, they will not be able to take physical steps to repossess their properties without running the risk of proceedings under Clause 6; although if they are displaced residential occupiers as defined in Clause 12 they then have a defence.

In such instances, therefore, any proceedings brought by the owner of a house will inevitably have to be in the civil courts, and there the owner renders himself liable to all the delay which is inherent in such proceedings. I was taken to task by the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, when on Second Reading I talked about delay. I should like to quote from the Law Commission. At page 58 a footnote to paragraph 2.45 says: We understand from our consultations that in the county courts the time between discovery of the occupation and obtaining repossession is commonly about two months, although in a very urgent case this could be reduced to about four weeks. In the High Court the period is usually a little longer". If there is to be any attempt to minimise damage to property or any case—and no doubt we shall come back to this, too—where speed is of the essence, it would seem that civil proceedings, even under Order 113, are unlikely to be very effective.

I have put down, with the help of some of my noble friends, a series of Amendments to this Part of the Bill. The object of them, broadly speaking, is first to give an opportunity for the Committee to discuss the feasibility or desirability of enlarging the protection given under Clause 6 to persons seeking to reoccupy premises—in other words, persons other than those who are displaced residential occupiers—and, at the same time, to make the criminal law relating to squatters applicable in all cases where a person requiring the trespasser to leave has any interest in or right to possession or occupation of any premises.

At the same time, the Amendments would remove the protection a squatter has against the owners or occupiers of the property in the sense that, in the vast majority of cases, the criminal law under these provisions will allow a squatter to remain on the property without committing an offence while the owner—and I use the word loosely—will commit an offence unless he falls into one of the narrowly prescribed categories of exemption.

I find it disagreeable that in the last quarter of the 20th century we are proposing to sanction a measure which in effect allows one citizen to offer violence to another, because that is what Clause 6 implies. It means that where a displaced residential occupier wishes to regain possession of his premises, he is at liberty either himself, or by his employees, agents, friends, any body he can muster, to offer such violence as may be necessary for the purposes of securing entry into those premises again. It is not a very happy commentary on our state as a community that this is what is being considered.

The difficulties which this will cause to the courts have only to be visualised to be realised. One wonders what the degree of violence which can be exercised by the displaced residential occupier may be before he commits some offence. One wonders how—and we will come to this—the words "displaced residential occupier" are going to be interpreted. What is the definition?

This brings me to my main complaint against these criminal offences so far as a squatter is concerned. The behaviour of a defendent—in this case the squatter—is going to be adjudged not by what he has sought to do, what he has done, or what his intentions were, but by the physical state of the victim. I can illustrate it in this way: if one picks up a watch in the street it is, in the old language, a larceny by finding; it matters not to whom the watch belongs. If, as a squatter, I move into the owner's house and he asks me to leave, if he is a displaced residential occupier and I do not leave, I commit an offence; but if he is some wretch who has merely bought the house and not yet moved into it physically, then I commit no offence by remaining on the property. I do not believe this to be fair, and I certainly do not believe it to be good law. It is in this spirit that these Amendments were tabled and it is in this spirit perhaps that they will be discussed.

Coming back after what I hope has not been too long a preface to Amendment No. 18, as the Bill stands it is difficult to see how anybody can use or threaten violence without lawful authority otherwise than in the execution of legal processes, because the lawful authority can only exist in a case where, for instance, a bailiff or police officer has occasion to go to a house in these circumstances. As I have said, the displaced residential occupier, whatever he does, has no lawful authority, but he may be judged not guilty of an offence if he comes into the exception clause in subsection (3). As I have said, this is really a paying Amendment. I beg to move.

6.20 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

I should like briefly to support my noble friend and to congratulate him on his clarity in moving the Amendment on this difficult and complicated law. I regret that I do so with no special knowledge: indeed, I feel worse off than the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, who said on Second Reading that she had not read Part II of the Bill and would not understand it even if she did. I have read it and regret that I still find it difficult and I get a little confused. This is no fault of the Law Commission's Report, where the difficulties, particularly n drafting, were put with admirable clarity.

If one were allowed to show one whiff of criticism of the Law Commission's Report on this part of the Bill, it is that I believe they devoted very little space to analysing the types of property primarily affected by squatters and how many cases reached the criminal courts. In the latter case, I believe that criminal charges against squatters have been rarely brought in practice, which supports the theory that for the private individual the protection of the criminal change against squatters is, in the main, treated as a reserve power. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris, can tell us later whether he has any facts or figures as regards the types of property affected and of the numbers of criminal charges that have been brought in recent years.

As to the type of property, I think the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, with his great practical experience in this field claimed—and indeed it is what I have tried to discover—that 99 cases out of 100 dealing with squatting in residential property are concerned with empty houses in the local authority housing sector and do not really deal with the private sector. Yet in Part II of the Bill, we see, as my noble friend has described, particularly under Clause 6, that the private individual will lose what I believe was the quite valuable old common law protection of self-help. The suggestion under the Bill is to replace the remedies previously at the disposal of the private individual with, frankly, a bare skeleton form under Clauses 6 and 7. I do not believe that Clause 6 is really an adequate successor to the old laws.

I would share the concern of my noble friend about the word "violence". Although the Law Commission's report logically argued the reason why they wished to use the word "violence" rather than "force", to the laymen like myself it seems to be something which can be wholly misunderstood. If one takes the case of how Clause 6 can affect the private individual, the owner or occupier, one must ask: is it fair that an intruder, occupying a property without having used violence, can remain there until the owner or occupier (other than a displaced residential occupier) has applied to the civil courts? As we know, that can take up to one month and can cost the individual a great deal of money, all because of largely, if not completely, having lost the protection that has been granted in the past. Is it really that a legitimate owner-occupier, finding perhaps, his small office premises occupied illegally and who then shouts angry threats, perhaps tinder standably, is liable to arrest? Is it sensible for a displaced residential occupier, under Clause 6, as my noble friend has said, to use violence, apparently legally? I do not myself believe that Clause 6 reaches the right balance in what is undoubtedly a very delicate and difficult area of the law.


Might I indicate that I view with some concern the Amendments which have been moved to Clause 6 and those which are to be moved to Clause 7. I believe that your Lordships will want to recognise that squatting is an expression of an extremely serious social problem. There are a large number of people who squat, not because they have any desire to show their contempt for society or their contempt for the rights of property or because they desire to damage the possessions of others, or because they are seeking to make any point of political protest—they squat simply and solely because they are in desperate need of a roof over their heads. I would venture to hope that your Lordships will agree that it is not right that the criminal law should be extended to deal with people of that sort.

The limitation in Clause 6, and again in Clause 7, which in effect means that the only rights that can be affected are those of a displaced residential occupier, in order that the criminal law should be brought into force, would seem entirely appropriate. There is the civil law to deal with a variety of other classes of squatter. It is capable of being used with expedition and efficiency, and I hope the noble Lord will indicate that the Government do not propose to extend the operation of the criminal law in the way which is proposed in these Amendments.


I find this clause somewhat puzzling, and I think that part of the difficulty lies in knowing what is the content of the words "without lawful authority" which appear in line 11. As I read it—and no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong—the clause does not make it an offence for a displaced residential occupier to use or to threaten violence, whether directed against a person or against property, for the purpose of securing entry into premises which he is lawfully entitled to be in; but if he does not come within the heading of a displaced residential occupier he will commit an offence if he breaks a window to enter the premises, which he is lawfully entitled to be in, if he knows that there is someone in those premises at the time. He will not commit an offence if he breaks a window to get in, if he does not know that there is anyone inside. If, by chance, he knows there is someone inside and there is an open window, he can force his way in through that window without committing any offence at all.

It seems to me that that is a very narrow distinction to draw, and I am not happy about the drafting of this clause. I should like to ask the noble Lord, when he comes to reply, to tell me the answer to this problem. Let me suppose—it has happened—that a person has been kidnapped and is being held in premises: does not this clause make it an offence for any police officer to break into those premises by using violence—either by breaking down a door or by breaking open a window—to secure the release of that person and to secure entry to the premises? The police officers will not be displaced residential occupiers, but, as I read it, this clause is so wide in its terms that it would operate to make a police officer, who broke in when he knew that there was someone inside who was opposed to his entry—the words in line 15—guilty of an offence. That does not seem to me to be right, and I ask the noble Lord to give further consideration to the wording of this clause.

May I put this further point to him? Entry is effected, say, into premises without violence by someone who is not a displaced residential occupier. The premises are large, and violence is then used to break down an internal door in those premises, or to break into a flat if the premises are a block of flats. There is no definition of "premises" in this Bill, so far as I can see, and I ask the noble Lord this question. If someone enters premises without committing an offence in the language of this clause, but finds that there is someone inside a room—a squatter, if you like—and the door is locked, will he commit an offence if he breaks open that internal door? The clause does not seem so to provide. It should not be left up in the air, and I believe that the clause should make clear what the position is in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has rightly referred to certain types of squatters who are in desperate need. There are, of course, a great variety of squatters, and in some cases of which one knows the amount of damage done can be very considerable indeed, running into hundreds of pounds, to premises not always occupied by wealthy people, or people who can afford it. So I must say that I feel very considerable concern at the limitation—it may be necessary; maybe it cannot be extended a little wider—of subsection (3) to displaced residential occupiers. Let me put this kind of instance to the noble Lord, which I feel ought to be covered. Let us suppose that a man is occupying a flat in which he has all his possessions. He is taken ill and is sent off to hospital. Squatters then come in, because they know that he is away. There are all his possessions, some of which he may treasure greatly, although they may not be of great intrinsic value—perhaps he has left some money on the premises—and then that man dies in hospital. So far as I can see, it would take at least two months, and probably a great deal longer, before his executors would be able to resume occupation of that property and able to protect the possessions inside it. I may be wrong about that, and if I am, perhaps the noble Lord will tell me. But it seems to me that one wants wider scope to subsection (3) than just saying "displaced residential occupier".

6.35 p.m.


The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, began this discussion on Part II of the Bill, as is his custom, with a moderate and most reasonable speech and, as he pointed out, I said during the Second Reading debate that the Government were particularly interested to hear the view of both Houses of Parliament on this Part of the Bill. Of course, it is a highly complex series of interrelated problems, of the kind upon which the noble and learned Viscount has just touched. Certainly, I indicated then that we had no rigid posture on this Part of the Bill, and we are particularly anxious to hear the views of both Houses on this question.

Not unreasonably, given the fact that the noble Earl touched on a number of problems relating to Part II, the discussion on this Amendment has ranged a little more widely than the rather narrow terms of the Amendment, and I will if I may, without any discourtesy to the Committee, deal with certain points when we come to later Amendments which cover some of the questions raised, particularly that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, with which I found myself in some agreement. That obviously comes up to some extent on this Amendment, but it arises to a much more significant degree on an Amendment which I hope we shall be discussing in a few minutes' time.

If I may for a moment deal with the narrow terms of the Amendment which the noble Earl has moved, the Law Commission recognised in its report that the new offence ought not to apply to such people as bailiffs and those acting under their authority to execute a court order, and police officers acting within the scope of their authority under laws relating to search and arrest and to the prevention of crime. The words "without lawful authority" in line 11, which we are now discussing, are intended to safeguard bailiffs, police officers and others who have lawful authority to enter premises. The phrase "without lawful authority" appears fairly commonly on the Statute Book, and we have no reason to believe that it is inadequate or in any way unclear.

I would cite some precedents—the Theft Act 1968, the Road Traffic Act 1972 and the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. The additional words suggested in the noble Earl's Amendment could not be substituted for "without lawful authority", because they would not cover, for example, a Gas Board official who was given a specific right of entry to deal with an emergency which could result in an explosion. The addition of these words might cast doubt on the meaning of "without lawful authority", not only here but throughout the Statute Book. In the circumstances, it is our view that this Amendment is unnecessary and would confuse the situation, so I very much hope that the noble Earl will not press it. The noble and learned Viscount asked a number of questions which I will certainly go into before the next stage of the Bill. But, if I may repeat the point, I understand that a police officer who enters premises for the purpose of making an arrest has lawful authority, and nothing in this Bill changes that position.


I should just like to question that for a moment. I should like to ask the noble Lord to look into that, because I doubt very much whether a police officer has authority to break into premises, which is what we are considering, because he thinks that someone he wants to arrest is inside them. I feel that if this clause is left in its present form there will be a lot of argument, and perhaps unnecessary litigation, as to the scope of the words "lawful authority". It may be that they are used in different contexts in other Statutes—I am not challenging that—but in this context it would be a great improvement to make it perfectly clear that this clause does not apply to police officers acting in the execution of their duty.


Certainly, as I indicated a moment or two ago, I will look into that point and, indeed, the others which the noble and learned Viscount has raised. Obviously, we want the position of the police to be clear beyond any possible misunderstanding, and I will ensure that this point is looked at before the next stage of the Bill.


Even thus far the debate has shown the wisdom of the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, on Second Reading. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, was here when I began my remarks, but he was, perhaps, less than fair. As I have stated already, nobody has anything but a very great degree of sympathy for the genuine homeless squatter. Unfortunately, so far as these clauses are concerned the law makes no distinction between the genuine homeless squatter and the thoroughly disagreeable political squatter. This is one of the points which the Committee, the House and, indeed, Parliament will have to pay attention to in the coming debates. So far as this rather narrow Amendment is concerned, as I said before, it was drafted to set the scene and that it has done. Now I beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.41 p.m.

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 19: Page 6, line 14, after ("someone") insert ("lawfully").

The noble Earl said: It may be convenient if at the same time I speak to Amendment No. 21.


I do not want to press the noble Earl, but it could conceivably be for the convenience of the Committee if, together with Amendments Nos. 19 and 21, we took at the same time Amendments Nos. 20, 22 and 24.


Amendment No. 20 is an attempt to improve the English. No Parliamentary counsel will admit that it should ever be improved and I did not have very much hope that the noble Lord would accept the Amendment. I will do what the noble Lord suggests, although I shall take Amendment No. 20 in a little detail on its own. When I read this part of the Bill it seemed to me that the word "which" made it slightly more agreeable, but no doubt the noble Lord has his briefing on that point.

Amendment No. 19 inserts the word "lawfully" in line 14. Like Amendment No. 21, which inserts the words on line 16, but who has not committed an offence under sections 7, 8 or 9 below it seeks to make this legislation coherent and what I might call logical, looking at the matter from one point of view. In other words, the Amendment is saying that if you are going to allow violence by the citizen in these particular circumstances there should be no benefit, so far as violence is concerned, to somebody who in any event is not lawfully on the premises.

Putting the matter rather more simply, the Amendment says that this offence under Clause 6 should not be available for the protection, if that is the right word, of either somebody who is not lawfully on the premises at all—in other words, a squatter—or, alternatively, somebody who has committed an offence under Clauses 7, 8 or 9; and I need not go into those clauses. In effect, it would create a different offence which could be used only against somebody who was trying to secure violent entry as against a rightful occupier. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, suggested that Amendment No. 22 should be debated at this point?


I did indeed.


Amendment No. 22 seeks to leave out subsection (2). I suggest that Amendment No. 24 goes with it.


Yes, it does.


That is to say, the Amendment seeks to delete subsection (3) of the clause. I am not sure about this; it is making the debate on these Amendments into a general debate and perhaps it is all the better for that. But this, as it were, puts the boot on the other foot. Whereas the first two Amendments say that no offence is committed when the person on the premises is there as a trespasser, these two Amendments create a very much wider class of people who can resort to this type of violence than is envisaged by the Government. I know very well that in my preface I said that I was not very keen on this clause, but if we are to have it I suggest that it must be fair and logical.

I touched, first, on the fact that only certain people could commit the offence and that only certain people would, if they resorted to violence, have a defence. However, one of the effects of the clause as it is presently drafted is that it can apply only to a dwelling-house; it cannot apply to any building other than a dwelling-house. More especially, it cannot apply to offices, universities, or any building like that. Therefore I suggest that we have a potential series of absurdities which depend upon the type of premises and the person who seeks to regain possession of them.

If, for instance, a bank is occupied by squatters during the time when the bank is open and they infiltrate lots of people into the bank, they commit no offence by so doing if they have no intention to steal or commit theft but literally block up the entrance to the bank with their bodies. The staff of this branch of the bank, who perhaps number two, three or four, are, I suggest, entitled to resort to reasonable violence to resist the trespass on their employer's premises. They are entitled to use reasonable force to eject the squatters. What they are not entitled to do is to summon reinforcements, and if these reinforcements try to get into the bank they then commit an offence. Is that desirable?

The noble and learned Viscount gave one or two examples which also show the hazards in sight. One comes to the definition of a displaced residential occupier who is defined in Clause 12(1) as any person who is occupying any premises as a residence immediately before being excluded from occupation. First one asks: when does occupation become occupation? If somebody contracts to buy a house, exchanges documents and starts to get all his furniture and possessions into it but has not actually slept there before trespassers take possession of the house, I suppose he had not, within Clause 12, taken possession and is therefore not entitled physically to regain possession of his house. If that person has slept for a night in his new house and then goes out and the squatters get the timing wrong, he is a displaced residential occupier and can take such steps under Clause 6 as he likes. That is a capricious effect which I suggest is thoroughly undesirable.

If I buy myself a cottage on the side of some lake—what in Scotland we might call a "butt and ben"—and I go there for holidays with my family, and I go along one day and find that it has been taken into possession by squatters, am I a displaced residential occupier or not? If I use the cottage only once a year, do I fall into that category? If I use it once a month, do I fall into it? If I go there every weekend? In other words, does the regularity of the occupation make any difference? What is the effect of the user of the house if one merely resorts there for the purposes of pleasure or relaxation or recreation? Is it residence within the contemplation of the Government at all?

I hope that what I have said shows—I will not say "the folly" because perhaps that is offensive—the uncertainty that will be created by this legislation. Therefore, what we have sought to do is to give anybody who has a lawful interest in property the same rights as a displaced residential occupier envisaged by the Government. In other words, one's rights so far as Clause 6 are concerned are not determined by this somewhat "chancy" method of ascertaining one's tenure. They are determined, so to speak, by one's actual legal interest. I beg to move.


I have listened carefully to what the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, has said and I cannot think it would be right if this clause is intended to make it an offence when there is someone present on the premises who is opposed to the entry, to limit that "someone" to someone lawfully on the premises, because as I understand it that would mean that subsection (1) would apply only where the person was not a squatter, because a squatter cannot claim to be lawfully present on the premises. By its very nature it would mean that. But when it comes to the point of the residential occupier to which the noble Earl referred, T should like to urge, in addition to the point I put before, the position of someone who has bought a house, whose completion takes place on a particular day, work has to be done by builders immediately and arrangements are made, and the purchaser is not protected at all. If squatters get in while workmen are on the premises that purchaser, who is entitled to possession, will not be able to avail himself of this provision. That seems to me to be unduly narrow and, provided that paragraph (a) is left as it is, and the word "lawfully" is not inserted, I should have thought one could have dispensed with the qualification about the residential occupier. Does that need to be looked at again?

6.54 p.m.


I will begin by saying that points similar to that just raised by the noble Viscount are one reason why we were so anxious to encourage full discussion of this particular area, because an exceptionally complicated series of inter-related problems are dealt with in this Part of the Bill, and certainly I will ensure that the point is looked at very carefully before the next stage of the Bill.

With regard to the remarks made by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, I can start with some good news for him. He will be glad to know that the Government share his view on the grammatical point which he raised and are prepared to capitulate to him on that point. Therefore he will be overjoyed to hear that we are prepared to accept his Amendment No. 20. However, he will not be altogether astonished to hear that our enthusiasm for the other Amendments is not wholly unqualifield. Perhaps I may state why that is so, and I can really begin with the point raised a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. Our view was simply that this would take the matter a great deal further than we are convinced would be desirable at the moment. It would go far wider than our present intentions. It would cover landlords, landlords' agents, building societies and so on, and, given the fact that we are talking about a difficult concept—one in which in fact some degree of force should properly be used—I think it is important for us to bear in mind that it is necessary for us to regulate this matter with some degree of precision, to some extent, I may say, for the reason raised by the noble and learned Viscount on the last Amendment. So I regret to say that I start off with that cautionary note.

The noble Earl's Amendment seeks to limit the scope of the offence in Clause 6, largely for the benefit of those with a legal interest in the property. The structure of the offence reflects its primary purpose, which is to prevent breaches of the peace. A breach of the peace may be occasioned even though the person on the premises and opposed to the violent entry is not there lawfully or has committed one of the other offences in this Part of the Bill, and even though the person who seeks entry has a legal interest in the property.

In their Working Paper on offences of entering and remaining on property the Law Commission proposed that violent entry should always be an offence, even in the case of a displaced residential occupier; but in response to comments which were made on the Working Paper, the Commission changed their mind and recommended in their final report that violent entry by or on behalf of a displaced residential occupier should not be a criminal offence, but they considered that to except from the offence the use or threat of violence to recover possession of other premises might too readily lead to breaches of the peace. The civil law provides a remedy for a person excluded from property which he has a right to occupy.

The noble Earl raised the question of what would be the situation if a person were temporarily absent from the house. So far as this matter is concerned, the important thing is to remember that one does not need to be physically present on the premises all the time in order to occupy them. Thus a person continues to occupy his home even when he is on holiday. Similarly, a person remains the occupier of premises which he may use only from time to time; for example, if he has a weekend cottage. But the terms of the Amendment—and I can well understand the noble Earl's anxiety on this point—I think would take the matter a great deal further, and he recognised when he spoke and when, if I may say so, he made his form of Second Reading speech on the second part of the Bill when speaking on the last Amendment, that this is a dangerous matter to carry too widely; and that is why at the moment we are not persuaded to extend it to the degree which is contemplated in these Amendments. Our position on this matter is not closed. We are perfectly prepared to listen to the views of your Lordships at this stage and the next stage and, of course, of those in another place, to decide whether this matter should be defined rather differently than appears on the face of he Bill at the moment.

I will now return to the sort of problem that would be involved if in fact we accepted the Amendments as drafted at the moment by the noble Earl. I think the question of administration of this law has to be taken very seriously into account. The police have to know exactly where they stand in enforcing it. I say at once that the offences in this Part of the Bill, as drafted at the moment, will not be straight-forward for the police to enforce. In our judgment, the Amendments would in fact make the offence in Clause 6 a great deal more difficult to enforce. Under the clause as introduced, a police constable confronted with a violent entry would have to establish, first, that there is a person present on the premises opposed to that entry; and, secondly, that the premises are not the home of the person by or on whose behalf entry is sought. If the clause were amended the constable would have to establish that the person on the premises was there lawfully, and that the person by or on whose behalf entry was sought did not have an interest in or right to possess or occupy the premises.

These matters are sometimes found to be complicated in the civil courts, but we are talking here about a situation of a policeman standing on a rainswept corner, perhaps with a crowd of people milling around, having to make a judgment as complex as this. For that reason, we are concerned that to accept an Amendment of the kind which the noble Earl has put down would in fact take the matter far wider than we consider prudent at the moment. But, as I repeat, we are perfectly prepared to consider the points which have been made, the points made by the noble Earl, the point raised by the noble Viscount, and indeed any others which may be made during the passage of the Bill. We are anxious to adopt a reasonable formula here, but I must repeat that this law has got to be enforced by the police, and it is, in my view, imprudent to define it in such ambiguous terms that all one will get is a great deal of confusion and also a large number of complaints against police officers.


Could the noble Lord tell us which of the Amendments we are discussing? I was not quite sure whether Amendment No. 24 was included in this general discussion or whether it was being taken separately.


We were taking Nos. 19, 20, 21, 22 and 24.

The Earl of KINNOULL

For the purposes of clarity, I wonder whether the noble Lord could consider the reverse case to the case put by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, earlier. I think the noble Viscount was taking the case of someone moving their home; they buy a new home and before they can actually occupy it is occupied by squatters. Supposing one has the other side of the coin; the person moves into a new home but fails to sell his old home in time before he moves. What happens to the old home, and is an argument likely to arise as to what constitutes "residential occupation"? For instance, would a table and chair in the old home be sufficient to constitute that the person had not actually moved?


I imagine that the answer to that case would probably be that he remained in occupation of both premises; although he had bought the new home he would still be in occupation of his old home. I support the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in his desire to make this clause concise and clear. It is not only for the police. We are here dealing with the creation of an entirely new criminal offence, and it is quite impossible for us to draft in the course of the Committee stage. I, for one, would thank the noble Lord for his assurance that he is going to look at all these points that are raised. I stress—even if he does not go to the full length suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield—that "displaced residential occupier" is too narrow a definition.


Might I ask the noble Earl if when he replies he would be good enough to indicate whether I have correctly understood the effect of these Amendments and the subsequent Amendments to Clause 7 as meaning that not only the civil law but the criminal law might, in certain circumstances, be invoked against those who take part in what is sometimes called an industrial "sit-in"?


I should like to direct myself to the Amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, No. 24, which we are taking within this discussion. I am not terribly happy about the Bill being confined to residential premises. It is easy to say that up to this time there have been very few cases of squatters going into other than residential property, but it seems to my lay and perhaps rather practical mind that if we produce a Bill which imposes heavy penalties on people entering into residential premises, then it will not take long for some of these rather astute and politically motivated groups—who are not, we feel, genuine squatters—to jump to the conclusion that if they go into premises which are professionally occupied or commercially occupied they will not fall foul of the rigour of this Bill.

I should like to remind the noble Lord of the many areas in our big cities—one thinks of the centres of Edinburgh, Manchester and London—where large mansions, great Victorian blocks, are substantially occupied by professional bodies. Even in the streets around my own neighbourhood, if you go into Nos. 2, 8 or 16 they are residential property; the identical structures next door are occupied, one by a professional trade union, one by a charity; and as I understand it they are premises that would not be covered, as the Bill stands. I think some protection should be given to them, and that it should not be solely residential property, because it gives squatters an opportunity to drive a coach and horses through the intention of the Bill.


While, as I understand it, we are discussing a rather fine grammatical point on Amendment No. 20, may I ask the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, why it is better grammar to insert a "which" in line 15—"the entry which the violence is intended to secure", but not to insert it in line 32 where the same expression occurs—"the entry the violence is intended to secure". I am not quite clear whether the grammar would be better or worse in either case, but I think it would be logical to put it in both or in neither.


I really cannot be responsible for tidying up all the Bill. There are two further stages at which the noble Viscount can correct it if he wishes to. I am just grateful that my one suggestion, at any rate, has been accepted. I wish in a way that we were discussing Clause 7 before Clause 6, because I made very plain my distaste for Clause 6. I see the force of the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, especially over the question of squatters, or anybody else for that matter, being lawfully on premises. If I may say so, I think the noble Lord will have to do a little better over the question of "displaced residential occupier".

As several noble Lords have said, this is a very narrow definition. I sought to widen it by giving everybody with a legal interest in property the right to take action under Clause 6. Obviously the Government do not like that. They think it is too wide. However, for the life of me I cannot see how one is to enlarge the class, if one is going to, by removing the residential qualification without having protection for all persons who may be legally interested in this piece of property. Certainly this argument has nothing to do with enforcement by the police. They are not concerned and I should hate to think that a young police constable had to concern himself with whether the man battering on the door of a house did or did not qualify as a displaced residential occupier. As I foresee the situation, the unfortunate will be arrested and it will be for him—I shall not say "to persuade a court"—to put before the court the fact that he is a displaced residential occupier. He will then be entitled to an acquittal under the section as it will be.

I was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, if this section and indeed Clause 7 apply as regards our Amendments to premises other than housing. The answer is, Yes. I produced what I thought was not too bad an example about a bank. Clause 7 in particular is designed to apply to any premises, not only residential premises. I hope that we can all go away now and think a little more deeply about these difficult and intricate matters. For the time being at any rate I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 20: Page 6, line 15, after ("entry") insert ("which").

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 25: Page 6, line 31, leave out from ("property") to end of line 34.

The noble Lord said: Your Lordships will see that Amendment No. 25 in effect deletes subsection (4)(b) from this part of the clause. The noble and learned Viscount has already touched on this subject, in other words the motivation behind enforced entry. He produced two excellent examples of where someone might wish to break into a house which was in the possession of squatters, or of anyone else for that matter, not so much for the purpose of regaining possession of the house but either to secure property which might well be in it or, in the case of the police investigating some crime, to clear the matter up.

I intended to ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, whether it is the Government's intention to draw the protection quite so closely round the citadel inhabited by the squatter. I must at the moment beg the question of residence. Let us take premises of any kind which are not residential but where, for instance, there is, as in a bank, a very large sum of money. Are the Government suggesting that the owner of the money or the property must go through Order No. 113 procedure in order to gain some sort of entry to these premises, using the civil process in order to ensure that his own property is still there? It is almost bizarre. If premises contain a large sum of money and the owner of the money has to wait anything up to two months before he can enter the premises, I fear that if that money is not under lock and key there just, "ain't going to be very much money left" after two months. Is that the Government's contemplation?

7.16 p.m.


I should like to put a point to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. It is not altogether frivolous. However, I shall put it in a slightly frivolous way because I think that we should have some fun in this rather dreary little debate and it is not the less important for being frivolous. Let us suppose that the Foreign Secretary is occupying this room in the Foreign Office and that 25 people who do not like the Statement he made this afternoon—either because they are fanatically in support of Mr. Smith or because they are fanatically in support of Mr. Nkomo—decide to occupy that room as a protest against what he is doing. As we all know, the Foreign Secretary is a man of spirit. Let us suppose that he decides to re-enter his room by force, passing the pickets at the door of the Foreign Office who are demonstrating and who seek to prevent his entry. The Foreign Secretary, summoning to his aid the rather decrepit officials who occupy the Foreign Office and who assist Foreign Office Ministers, forces his way to the 25 occupants of his room and tries to throw them out. Where do we stand in that situation? Are they to be in possession? Would the Foreign Secretary be committing an offence? Where do the Government stand as regards public buildings? I know where they stand as regards foreign embassies and consular missions because that is dealt with in a separate section, but where do they stand as regards Government offices?

Let us take something that could have happened in a building in which I am quite interested, namely, the polytechnic of central London. The other day I read that the administrative offices of that educational institution, which is supported almost entirely by the Inner London Education Authority, were occupied by students. It so happens that we have a very responsible band of students and a very responsible administrative band. We know very well that these things happen in circumstances where relations are less good.

Let us suppose that the noble Lord, Lord Boyle, the Vice-Chancellor of one of our Northern universities, being a man of spirit, bashes his way back into the offices normally occupied by the Vice-Chancellor. Where do we stand in that situation? Are we to prosecute these spirited persons who wish to reoccupy their own property, and for what? Is it not the case, perhaps, that the deliberate occupation of public buildings for political purposes represents a danger which ought to be dealt with by the public law of this country? If we are to leave it simply to the owners of residential premises to resort to self-help and if we abolish the law against conspiracy to trespass, which I gather is the purpose of the Bill, are we not possibly leading to a situation where there may be more breaches of the peace and not fewer?

7.19 p.m.


Although the noble and learned Lord hinted at the beginning of his remarks that he was about to be frivolous or ask a frivolous question, he should realise, if I may be mildly pompous for a moment, that I had better be careful about indulging in jests on a matter quite as grave as the occupancy of the Foreign Secretary's room, just in case by any mischance in the future such a situation were to arise. Therefore, I will gladly look into the point.


I hope so.


I will study the point. As the noble and learned Lord rightly says, we have dealt with the question of diplomatic premises, for the reasons which I indicated on the last occasion. In the light of what has happened in recent years it is obviously desirable that we take steps along these lines, all the more so because we have some international commitments so far as this is concerned.

So far as this Amendment is concerned, which seeks to delete a paragraph in subsection (4) which declares that the new offence, in common with the offence of forcible entry which it replaces, is committed whatever the purpose of the entry, the Law Commission, as the Committee will recall, recommended and the Government accepted that the offence should not depend on the purpose behind the entry. If violence is used that factor alone justifies criminal sanctions.

This provision would indeed be needed even if subsection (3) provided an exemption for anyone with an interest in property. Other provisions in the clause are concerned with the rights in the property of a person seeking entry. The noble Earl's Amendments on the scope of the offence and the right of self-help have already been discussed, but even if the Committee were to accept them on a future occasion we would not advise your Lordships to accept this particular Amendment. Whatever its intention it is aimed at a provision in the clause which is concerned with another point.

It may help to explain the point at which Clause 6(4)(b) is directed if I mention one matter of legal history. Although it was long thought in respect of the offence of forcible entry that the entry had to be made with the intention of asserting a right in the land, it is now clear that the word bears its ordinary meaning. Thus, in R. v. Brittain, reported in 1972, it was held that gatecrashers at a bottle party had been rightly convicted of forcible entry. The Law Commission recommended that entry for whatever reason should be caught by the new offence; paragraph (b) of subsection (4) gives effect to this recommendation, and it is this paragraph which the Amendment seeks to remove.

Subsection (4)(b) deals with the purpose of entry and, of course, it covers a person who intends to secure possession although he has no interest in the property, as well as a person who has an interest. The Amendment would not in general, in our view, further the interests of those with an interest in property. In the light of the explanation I hope that the noble Lord will not press this Amendment today, though I shall certainly deal with one or two of the other matters with which he dealt in moving it.

7.24 p.m.


May I ask one question of the noble Lord. Would the subsection as it stands cover almost every case of housebreaking where there are people in the house, or any case of factory breaking where there is somebody looking after the premises, or a bank? Suppose in a bank there is somebody whose purpose there is to look after the premises. The words in Clause 6(1)(a) read: there is someone present on those premises at the time who is opposed to the entry… Does "opposed to the entry "mean "who is offering opposition to the entry", or does "opposed to the entry" mean," Well, if he knew that entry was taking place he would be very much opposed to it because he is there to try and stop it if he knows of it"? Supposing the house holders are asleep in bed and somebody breaks into the premises—they are using violence—are they opposed to the entry? Then if the man is merely a burglar, or somebody who wants to take from the bank anything he can find, he is not merely there to acquire possession, he is there "for any other purpose".

I do not say that this is at all a defect of the subsection; but, just by way of inquiry, does it in fact cover almost every case of housebreaking where there is somebody in the house; almost every case of factory breaking, or bank breaking, provided there is somebody in the premises even though that person is oblivious of the fact that somebody breaks in?


I should like to take a view on this particular matter. I apologise to the noble and learned Lord. I thought we were on the later Amendment and I realised suddenly that he was on the earlier one. I should like to look into it if I may, and I shall communicate with him when I have done so.


Again I think that this debate has shown that the proposed legislation, if it is not defective comes somewhere close to it. I shall pray in aid my noble and learned friend's instance when we come to the next Amendment on Clause 7. Going back to his analogy, it is slightly ridiculous that at the moment if the Foreign Secretary merely uses the Foreign Office as an office, proceedings must be by way of civil process. If, on the other hand, he has a bed there for the night quite different considerations apply.

Being serious, it is quite wrong that these accidents, or haphazard chances, should decide our criminal law. If a bank has a flat somewhere in it, then I suppose Clause 6 immediately comes into play. If it has not, it does not. I suggest to the Committee that that is far from satisfactory. At present, however, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 6, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

7.28 p.m.


May I raise one not very substantial matter in relation to Clause 6(6) at the top of page 7, which also applies to Clause 7, perhaps to Clause 8, and again in Clauses 9 and 10. Where a squat is forcibly ended by the action of the police there is frequently a situation of considerable emotional disturbance. Frequently large numbers of people are involved if there is a multiple squat. There is a scene of substantial confusion and a very real risk of breaches of the peace. In those circumstances, is it not important that those who are squatting should be able to appreciate at once that those who are carrying out the law are in fact police officers? I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to consider between now and the next stage whether it might not be in the interests of public order generally that the powers of arrest under these various clauses should be given to officers who are in uniform, which would thus put the matter beyond doubt.


I would not, as the noble Lord would appreciate, want to commit myself on a point of that sort. I understand exactly the motivation behind the point which he has just put to the Committee. I should like to reflect upon it. It is arguable that it would in fact be undesirable to do this in certain circumstances, if by chance a plain clothes officer came into contact with a situation of this sort and had to wait for uniformed officers to arrive. But I should prefer not to commit myself at the moment. I should like to think about this.

Clause 6, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 7 [Adverse occupation of residential premises.]:

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 26: Page 7, line 11, leave out ("a displaced residential occupier") and insert ("any person having an interest in or right to possession or occupation").

The noble Earl said: We come to the clause which I regard as being potentially —not at the moment, but at least potentially—far more satisfactory both to the citizens who will have to abide by it and to the authorities. As I said earlier, I do not favour a clause in a Bill which in effect allows the citizen to take the law into his own hands, for whatever purpose, and show violence to other citizens; that is a sort of modern form of trial by battle which I find distasteful. However, the circumstances in which society must take action is when people engage in unlawful acts, and society then does not have the courage to provide the mechanism by which those unlawful acts can be acted upon, but merely throws its hands into the air and says, "You, the injured party"—because that is what there are in many of these cases—"must go through the civil courts taking your chance as you find it". That I regard as unfortunate, and it will be equally unfortunate if, having this Bill and this part of it, we do not improve it to try to make better sense of the present situation.

We have talked much about residential premises. It is a fact that most of the squatting—the vast preponderance of it as I understand it—takes place on local authority property. It is housing which they are perhaps seeking to improve or redevelop and, for one reason or another, squatters take possession of the property—either before it can be redeveloped or perhaps after it has been almost completed—and then a number of things happen. First, the local authority is unable to carry out its programme; secondly, people who may well be on some sort of waiting list on which they had hoped to be reaching the top are unable to move into the property which they had been allocated; and, thirdly, the squatters in such instances are to some extent defrauding their fellow ratepayers or citizens of the rates and so on which would accrue to that local authority if it were able to put proper tenants into those housing units. For all those reasons, it is, I suggest, a proper cause for Parliament to try to devise some means by which, in proper instance, the owner or occupier of this type of premises can take action quickly, using the resources of the State, to remedy the defect so far as that position is concerned.

Then there are what I would call political squats. Again, I would be the last to try in any way to prevent citizens from making peaceful protests or in other ways enjoying their civic rights of civil demonstration, but where, for example—and it has happened—premises are taken over (as, for example, at universities and offices) simply as a political demonstration or, to put it another way, as a political manifestation, at the moment there is no possibility of the owners of those premises being able to take quick and effective action. It is time the community looked at the law to see what can be done to make it better; to make it better, I hasten to emphasise, without being in any way onerous on anyone and their particular civil rights.

So far as Clause 7 is concerned—and for the purposes of this Amendment I can speak at the same time to Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 because all three go to the same matter—what do we have? First, a person may be guilty of an offence as a trespasser if he is on residential premises. If he is not on residential premises, he cannot be guilty of an offence under Clause 7, and that comes about because he can be required to vacate the premises only by a displaced residential occupier. We have had a debate already on a displaced residential occupier and I have sought to show that I regard such a definition as unfair and capricious, and I hope the Government will take this definition away and try to improve and enlarge on it. The definition in this clause is, of course, much more important because it also limits the type of premises which can be the subject of a prosecution under Clause 7.

It is really a matter of chance in the future, I suggest, as to whether squatters in this particular instance are or are not guilty of an offence. For example, if they invade an Embassy because they dislike the politics of the Government concerned, then immediately, however quiet or orderly they may be and however transient their desire to occupy the Embassy, they will be guilty of an offence. On the other hand, if they occupy the premises of a bank which happens to have large investments in a country which does not enjoy favour, there is no offence. If, as we have heard, a Government office is occupied in these circumstances, there is no offence and no possibility of taking any action. If it is a residential house owned by somebody who is a displaced residential occupier, there is an offence. But if it is owned by a local authority, there is no offence. On the other hand, if it is owned by a landlord, unless his tenant will take action, there is no offence. If it is a house which may be between owners, there is no offence; but if it is a house which may be used by a man for the purposes of enjoyment with his mistress, there is an offence. It is all delightfully British and haphazard, but it is not logical and it is not fair.

What can be done to make it better? I have suggested—and all the Amendments I have so far moved are in this spirit—first, that "the premises" should be enlarged in this instance to "any premises "on the basis that only by so doing can there be a quick form of relief where it may be important that it should be quick; and, secondly, as your Lordships will see from the Amendment, relief would be extended to anybody who has a legal interest in the premises.


The offence of trespass by a squatter is an offence only if it is trespass with a weapon of offence, and then it is an offence under Clause 8. But here we are dealing with, adverse possession. A squatter being a trespasser is not per se guilty of an offence under Clause 7. He is guilty of an offence only if he fails to leave the premises on being required to do so by a displaced residential occupier or somebody on his behalf. I approach this from a slightly different angle from that of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield. There is much to be said for discouraging the use of violence; Clause 6 deals with that and we are not concerned here with violence, and Clause 6, as I understand it, applies not only to residential property but to all classes of property.

I urge the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, to consider this: if the sanction against trespassers who refuse to leave when asked is not adequate, the chances of persons resorting to violence in fury and desperation to secure possession of property to which they are entitled is increased. It seems to me that there is a case here for drawing a distinction between Clauses 6 and 7 and not limiting Clause 7 to requests to leave by displaced residential occupiers or by a slightly widened definition of that term. I cannot help but feel that it might be for the reduction of the prospects of breaches of the peace if it were made an offence for a trespasser who is asked to leave by someone entitled to occupation of the premises in question or by someone acting on the latter's behalf—someone who could show that he was entitled or acting on behalf of the person entitled—to remain on the premises. This might well be made an offence not limited simply to residential property. If Clause 7 were made to have that kind of application, it would assist in the case that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, referred to.

If the noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich or Lord Donaldson, went back to their room and found it occupied by trespassers, they would perhaps not be so inclined to resort to violence, being persons of high spirit, if they could say to the individuals in the room, "Please leave, this is my room." Refusal to leave the room then would constitute a criminal offence. It seems to me that, if Clause 7 were of general application, it would probably be righ.t and beneficial and that it is really wrong to limit Clause 7 to the request by a displaced residential occupier. It ought to be a request by anyone who can show that he is entitled to possession of the premises. Then, if he is in fact entitled and the person does not leave, there will be an offence.

One could test it in this way: someone goes along and asks the trespasser to leave and he refuses. The person who asks says, "I am entitled to possession of these premises" or "I am authorised by the owner, the resident or the occupier of these premises to require you to leave." The person addressed refuses to leave and can then be charged with an offence, but he may establish as part of his defence that he was not asked to leave by a person acting for or on behalf of the occupant. If so, he will not commit an offence. That seems to me to be logically justifiable and it would improve the Bill to widen the scope of Clause 7 to make it apply to persons who refuse to leave when asked by persons who are entitled to ask them to leave.


I hope that the Government will not seek to extend the law to the extent where it might become wholly unenforceable and to the extent where serious breaches of the peace might take place as a result of the attempt to enforce it. I have in mind the danger of extending the law on the lines indicated by this Amendment, as a result of which, for example, the owner of a factory might inform his workforce of 1,000 people this morning that the factory has to close down this evening. This is, unhappily, a situation that sometimes arises and is one in which those 1,000 people might decide to stay on at the factory to indulge in an industrial sit-in by way of protest or by way of seeking to start up their own form of enterprise. As I understand the Amendment, in that situation, if the owner of the factory were to say to his 1,000 workers, "You must leave" and they do not, it would be the duty of the police to try to arrest them. I can think of no clearer recipe for civil disorder than a provision of that nature.


I want to apologise for not having been here at the beginning of the Committee's proceedings. I was called away on an engagement which started at precisely the moment when the Committee began to consider the Bill, but I was able to hear the greater part of the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, on his Amendment.

I am expecting and hoping that my noble friend Lord Donaldson will be announcing the Government's rejection of this Amendment or anything like it. What the noble Earl is seeking to do is to take us back to the original, or something very close to the original, proposal of the Law Commission's Working Party which, when it reported in June 1974, tentatively recommended the creation of a general offence of failing to leave property when requested to do so by a person entitled to occupation. This Amendment comes very close to that proposal.

After the proposal in question was promulgated, there was a great amount of public debate, much of it on the lines of the argument which has just been used by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, to the effect that this would be bringing the police and the criminal law into areas of social conflict where they should not come, for it comes close to making trespass a crime. Trespass would become a crime under the clause as the Conservative Front Bench seeks to amend it, if that trespass is continued after a request, however couched, to leave by the person entitled to possession. The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, gave the example of the factory owner who orders a large work-force to leave when it is occupying a factory in an industrial dispute. It can also happen that large numbers of persons squatting in local authority buildings which have been left empty for an unconscionably long time may also receive requests to leave by letters or loud hailers. Once those persons do not leave, under the clause as the noble Earl seeks to amend it, the police would, as I understand it, have a duty to intervene. This would not even be a discretion; it would be a duty because, if it were against the criminal law that some dozens or perhaps hundreds of people were staying in a place after they had been ordered to leave, the police would be required to go in and seek to turn them out. What a recipe for social conflict and what a deplorable way to resolve the kinds of conflict that result in the occupation of either work places or dwellings!

I hope that my noble friend will not only reject this Amendment but will indicate that there are not to be put forward by the Government any similar Amendments to this clause. This is the clause on which, on Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Harris indicated that the Government had an open mind. He said: The Government are not committed to the view that the criminal offence in Clause 7 ought inevitably to remain as narrow as this. There was an invitation to all and sundry to put forward Amendments. The only Amendments that have been put forward have been those of the noble Earl, and they are clearly unacceptable. The Government have put forward no Amendment and what I should wish to ask is when we are to have the opportunity to consider any Government Amendments, if such Amendments are to be put forward. I hope that my noble friend can say that the absence of any Government Amendment from the Order Paper indicates that there is not to be any extension of Clause 7 as it now stands.

Before I sit down, I should like to make very clear one last matter as far as displaced residential occupiers are concerned. In my view, it should be an offence to displace a residential occupier. I would have no support for anyone who did so. It is, in fact, already an offence for a landlord or indeed anyone, I think, to evict, or to harass, or to seek to remove a tenant or someone staying on after his tenancy has expired. The proper approach would be to make it an offence for any residential occupier to be protected by a similar provision. Just as I would not wish to see anyone coming in and squatting or trespassing upon someone's home when he is absent, so I should not like to see landlords or owners of property coming in and evicting or ejecting people who are using a place as their residence, either lawfully or in disputed circumstances, or even unlawfully. The courts and the protection of a court order is the right way to remove persons who are resident and whom someone else wants to displace. I would have no sympathy for displacing residential occupiers.


If I may just fill in the last point, the case of the tenant who is overstaying his lease without paying his rent is specifically excluded right through the Bill, so we need not waste time any longer on that. My noble friend Lord Gifford asked me whether the Government would give an undertaking that there would be no further Amendment to this clause. As my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich asked for a debate on Second Reading and as we have had a debate on this subject, it would be very uncivil of the Government to do any such thing; they certainly have no intention of doing so.

The width of the problem has been well shown up by the speeches we have had from the two angles. First, I should say that the objective of the clause was to put into law the recommendation of the Law Commission Report, which was dealing only with the residential occupation that we have been talking about. So the noble Earl and the noble and learned Viscount are asking us to go further than the Law Commission went, and my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich said that the Government's mind was not closed to this. He referred on Second Reading to various particular problems where squatting interferes with the rights of a new owner or tenant, and we have had two or three instances today which do not seem to be properly covered by this clause. Saying that does not amount to saying that it should be a criminal offence in any circumstances for a trespasser to refuse to leave premises at the request of a person with an interest in the property, which I think is what the noble and learned Viscount was suggesting, more or less specifically——


I did not say "interest in the property" because that would be too wide, but rather the person entitled to occupation of the property.


I thank the noble and learned Viscount for making that point. In this clause we are already extending the criminal law. It is one thing to do so on behalf of a person excluded from his own home; I think that even my noble friend Lord Gifford has no objection to that. But it is quite another matter when the property is empty and there are no plans for it to be occupied, or rehabilitated or demolished for some time to come. Of course, occupation in such a case is unlawful. But there would not be much widespread support for a provision making it a criminal offence for a homeless family of squatters to refuse at the request of a property company to leave an empty and previously derelict property which the squatters had perhaps made habitable when the property company intended only to board up the premises and leave them empty.

That is the extreme case which I think the Amendment of the noble Earl would enforce. I think that it is fairly clear that the Government will not go so far as that. I can give my noble friend that assurance. But something between there and the law which applies only to the displaced residential occupier is a matter to which I think my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich and his colleagues will give very serious attention. The Government's mind is not closed on this.

One of the really evil things about squatting in local authority empty properties is that it holds up housing. On the other hand, I do not think that anybody could doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, is right in that if something is made a criminal offence the policeman then has to deal with it, and if there are a hundred men in a factory there is a very serious situation. This is the problem that we are up against. My noble friend has said already that he will look at this matter again with his colleagues. My noble friend Lord Gifford asked when would there be any further comment and the answer is: at the next stage of the Bill.


I should like to suggest that the noble Lord, if he is to deal with the matter in that way, should look at it not by making it a test as to who is asking for possession of the property, but by defining the class of property which falls within the scope of Clause 7. For instance, factory premises might be excluded from that. Perhaps it can be dealt with on that approach. This is only a suggestion for the drafting and I do not want a reply now.


That is a perfectly helpful suggestion; I entirely agree. My noble friend whispered to my ear that we may not be able to deal with all these matters before the next stage, but I think that we can make a good step towards doing so.


Can the Committee be assured that such Amendments as the Government see fit to make to Clause 7 will be open to debate in this House and will therefore be before the House at the Report stage?


Either on Report or through Amendment in another place these matters are bound to come back to this House; so the answer to my noble friend's question is, Yes.


I suggest that it would be unsatisfactory for the matter to be left first of all to be debated in another place when we are here giving much time to debating a Bill which the Government wish to put forward in this House. For the matter to be left to debate on whether we accept Commons Amendments is putting it far too late, and I suggest that this House should have the right to hear the Government's proposals on Committee, or, if not on Committee, at Report stage so that our views can be heard.


I cannot believe that the Government can possibly commit themselves not to make an Amendment to this clause during consideration in another place. It seems to me somewhat unreasonable to ask the Government to preclude the possibility that they will make, or accept, an Amendment to this clause in another place.


The question really does not arise.


That is not what I am asking the Government to do. There has been a specific reference to Clause 7. The Government say that their minds are not closed; therefore, they may—we know not—seek to extend it. If they seek to extend it and change it, can that be done on Report? That is my plea.


I should like to intervene, since I dealt with this matter in the course of the Second Reading debate. What I made clear then—and I repeat now—is that the Government wish to take the view of both Houses of Parliament on this important question. The point which the noble and learned Viscount has just made is perfectly correct. It may well be that there will be a Commons Amendment on this matter at some stage in the future, and we could not possibly undertake today not to consider Commons Amendments which may be made on the matter. We want to be as reasonable as possible, but both Houses of Parliament have to be consulted. That is a perfectly normal way to proceed. I can assure my noble friend that there is no anxiety on our part to prevent this House participating in that discussion; indeed, the value of this debate today is that we have been in the happy position of being able to initiate that discussion.


I perhaps naively thought that the normal course of events was that the Government made proposals by way of a Bill and Parliament then debated those proposals, and may be they were amended. In this case we have Parliamentary debate first and the Government proposals will be second, which is a curious way of proceeding. But since the question of future amendment is up for grabs, I should like to take the opportunity to ask the Government not to consider the possibility of further amendment of this clause on the basis that squatting in local authority accommodation holds up housing. In far more cases the presence of squatters in local authority accommodation has created housing. By going into local authority property squatters have drawn attention to the fact that that property is lying fallow and empty, and is likely to do so for a number of years. In many cases, what started off as an unauthorised occupation, an unauthorised squat, has become and has been turned into, by the agreement of all parties, a licensed use of short-life accommodation. To give local authorities carte blanche to evict, with the help of the police, those whom they deem at a particular time to be holding up their housing programme, short-cutting what is in any case a very short civil process, would be a retrograde step, and I hope that will be borne in mind.


Of course it will be borne in mind. If any Amendment along these lines is suggested, this is one of the things which will have to be discussed. Most fair-minded people, I think, would admit that violent protests, or even very energetic protests, produce results. I do not want to say anything particularly hostile against people who try to protect the homeless, which is a thoroughly worthy thing to do. They have trespassed in a literal sense on local authorities' rights and have woken up local authorities, and good luck to them. But we are not at that stage today. We are discussing extending a perfectly narrow conception, and I do not think we need go into the further complications at this stage.


I think that this debate has shown that in various parts of the Committee there is certainly a realisation that this clause will have to be amended in one way or another. When that moment will come, we do not know; and I felt some sympathy for noble Lords opposite when there were those who wanted to pin them down—and fairly rapidly, at that. But I think the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, has this point, that it would be a pity if the Government were determined to keep their powder so dry that they merely used this House as a sieve for ideas and then waited, perhaps until the Committee stage in another place, before producing the plum out of the pudding. That, I think, would be slightly unfortunate; but I have no indication, and I do not think the Committee has any indication, that that is in the Government's mind.

In the case of this particular clause, we have seen both ends of the spectrum so far as possible Amendments are concerned. I reject the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, that it is in any way unseemly for a property company to try to get squatters out of its property, any more than it is unseemly for a local authority to do so; and that, I suggest, should not be the criterion which is used if and when an Amendment comes to be tabled and accepted or voted upon.


I did not use the words "unseemly" or "intended". I thought it would be in danger of producing a serious confrontation, which is quite a different thing.


The point really is: In the terms of Clause 7, who is to require the occupier, the squatter, to depart? My point is that we should not be concerned with the identify of the person who has the particular interest which entitles him to require the squatter to go. I was a little sorry about the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, because what he was really seeking to establish was that there should be "no-go" areas for the criminal law. That I regard as an unfortunate argument.


I was raising that only because the noble Earl was suggesting an extension of the criminal law.


I think that many of the troubles we have in this country are brought about because we enact laws and then are not prepared to carry them through and face the consequences. If people break the law or defy it, that is something which has to be considered by the authorities when they try to enforce it. I see the difficulties, but I regard it as unfortunate that at this early stage we should be saying that we cannot do anything merely because a lot of men happen to wish to make a protest.

The other end of the spectrum is, I suppose, to make it a criminal offence for a trespasser not to leave after having been required to do so by anybody with an interest in property. I, for one, seriously seek to put that view forward; but, equally, I suggest that the ambit of Clause 7 as it presently is in this Bill is much too narrow, as we have seen from the various examples which have been held up to us tonight. I think this is something which, again, we shall return to at a later stage of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. I hope that others will respond to the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to table Amendments, and that it will not merely be for me to think of different ways of saying approximately the same thing. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [Trespassing with a weapon of offence.]:

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 29: Page 7, line 28, leave out ("weapon of offence") and insert ("offensive weapon").

The noble Earl said: I can speak to Amendment No. 30 at the same time. This is really on a point of information. I wondered why the draftsman of this clause left aside the good old "offensive weapon" and the definition thereof in the Prevention of Crime Act and adopted what I regard as the slightly more prissy phrase "weapon of offence" and the definition in the Theft Act. It is no more than that. I beg to move.


I hope I can persuade the noble Earl not to press this too hard. It is not a matter of very fundamental difference, but the definition in Clause 8(2) is the definition from the Theft Act, which was 15 years later than the definition of "offensive weapon", which was used by the Law Commission. The Government thought the former was the better. It is a tiny bit wider. It includes incapacitating, which means handcuffs and things of that sort, and it was thought the simplest way to proceed.


That is really what I wanted to know: what was contemplated by the definition of a weapon which incapacitates. I must say that handcuffs had not occurred to me. I did not know that squatters went around with handcuffs. I had thought of some aerosol bomb, or something. But I am perfectly happy, and I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Obstruction of court officers executing process for possession against unauthorised occupiers]:

8.10 p.m.

Viscount DILHORNE moved Amendment No. 30A: Page 9, line 13, leave out ("solely").

The noble and learned Viscount said: It might be for the convenience of the Committee to consider this Amendment and No. 30B at the same time. We are now moving into a rather different field. I must confess that I have not looked at Section 8(2) of the Sheriffs Act 1887, which is not affected by Clause 10, but subsection (1) of this subsection makes it an offence to resist or intentionally to obstruct: any person who is…an officer of a court engaged in executing any process issued by the High Court or by any county court for the purpose of enforcing any judgment or order for the recovery of any premises or for the delivery of possession of any premises. I should have thought that that was a very desirable improvement in our law, if that is a gap which requires to be filled.

These Amendments relate to subsection (2). Subsection (2), if I read it correctly, is a very curious one; because obstruction of an officer of the High Court or of a county court will not be an offence unless the proceedings that have lead to that particular order of the High Court or the county court are of a particular character. I must say that that seems to me to be wrong and to be an undue refinement of the law to say that you can, in certain circumstances, lawfully obstruct an officer of the High Court who, himself, is lawfully acting for the purpose of enforcing any judgment or order for the recovery or possession of any premises, unless the proceedings which have led to the order of the High Court or of the county court are of a particular character. That, I would suggest, must be wrong.

If your Lordships look at subsection (2), you will see that it will only be an offence to obstruct an officer of the court carrying out the process of the court if the claim for possession of the premises alleges that the premises in question are occupied solely by a person or persons who entered into or remained in occupation of the premises without the licence or the consent of the person claiming possession. Subsection (1) will not apply if the premises are occupied by a tenant or tenants holding over after the termination of the tenancy.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to the tenant or tenants holding over. This is quite a different provision. This is dealing with obstruction. If the High Court or the county court—after the interval of two months to which the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, referred as being the likely interval of time—make an order for possession of the premises, surely it must be wrong to obstruct the officer seeking to carry out that order. The wrongness of it does not depend on whether the order is made against a person who was a tenant and is holding over and has no right to be there or against anyone else. It should be an offence to obstruct an officer of the court lawfully carrying out the duty that he is charged by the court to carry out. It should not depend upon the nature of the proceedings or the persons against whom proceedings are brought.

I hope that I am not misreading this subsection, but if it has the meaning that it appears to me to have, then it seems to me to be both wrong and unnecessary. I hope that I may be successful on this occasion, although it is not merely a linguistic difficulty, in persuading the noble Lord to say that he thinks there is force in what I have said.


I think this is rather more substantial than a linguistic difficulty. I will, if I may, begin by setting out the intentions of Clause 10 in dealing with what the noble and learned Viscount has raised. I think that that is the most sensible course.

Subsection (1) provides that it shall be a criminal offence for a person to resist or obstruct a court officer in the execution of any High Court or county court judgment or order for the recovery of any premises or for the delivery of or possession of any premises. Subsection (2), to which the noble and learned Viscount referred, limits the scope of the offence to cases where the judgment or order in question follows proceedings under rules of court applicable only in circumstances where the person claiming possession of the premises alleges that those premises are occupied solely by a person, not being a tenant holding over after the termination of the tenancy, who entered into or remained in occupation of those premises without licence or consent. In effect, this limits the offence to cases where court officers are seeking to enforce orders for possession under the summary procedure introduced in 1970 specifically to provide a speedy remedy in the case of squatters. The procedure is provided in Order 1133 of the Rules of the Supreme Court and Order 26 of the County Court Rules. It would be natural to think that subsection (2) would be easier to follow if it simply referred directly to Order 113 and Order 26 but, of course, that would make nonsense of the offence if the procedure has to be amended and is then contained in Orders with different numbers.

I understand clearly the point which the noble and learned Viscount has made. I will certainly undertake to reflect on what he has said; but the Amendment, as I understand it, is designed to widen the offence to cover all cases where a court officer is executing process for possession, whether or not it is issued under the summary procedure. These Amendments will not achieve that purpose, which could best be achieved by leaving out subsection (2) from the Bill; but I cannot advise the House to accept any Amendment designed to widen the scope of this offence.

The Law Commission recommended this offence on the grounds that there is an increasing tendency for those occupying property without licence seriously to obstruct court officials seeking to enforce court orders. The Commission pointed out that it is mainly in relation to the enforcement of orders for possession under the summary procedure that the problem of enforcement has arisen on a widespread scale. If we were now to extend the offence to cover all orders for possession, it could add to the already heavy burden on the police, especially in London, where the pressures are inevitably greatest. The Government recognise that there has been a serious problem in relation to squatters and this clause is intended to help to alleviate that problem. In other cases, the police do their best to co-operate with court officers where, for example, it is anticipated that a breach of the peace is likely to occur.

I must say—and I am quite sure I anticipate a point that the noble and learned Viscount might make in his reply—that I recognise that the views of the police in a matter of this sort should not necessarily be decisive; but I think it is important to recognise that the police would not welcome an extension of this offence into areas where in the past the problems have not been so serious. In deciding what the police should be asked to do, it is frankly necessary, as in so many areas of public policy, to assess the priorities. There is still a substantial shortage of policemen in the Metropolitan Police district and we are bound to take the views of the police in matters of this sort very seriously.

I recognise the force of the argument which the noble and learned Viscount has put and, as I have said, I will certainly reflect on what he has said. All that I must say clearly is that at the moment we are not persuaded that it would be right to widen this offence. However, I shall reflect on what he has said, without, I regret to say, being able to give any form of commitment to change our position in this matter.


While the noble Lord is indulging in his reflections, might I ask him to reflect upon two associated matters? The first is whether it would be desirable to provide that the exemption for the class contained in the brackets in lines 14 and 15 should depend not on the judgment or order of the court but on the allegation made by the person claiming possession of the premises. It would appear, on my reading of the subsection, that it would be open to a plaintiff to make an allegation of the sort in that subsection and thereby avoid the provisions of the parentheses; even though judgment was given on the ground that the tenants were holding over after the termination of the tenancy.

The other matter is this. If it is desired to persevere and exclude from the operation of Clause 10 a particular class of people—namely, tenants who are holding over after the termination of the tenancy—ought that not to be extended to cover those persons who innocently take a sublease which has been granted in breach of a covenant not to assign, as a result of which they wholly inadvertently find themselves technically in a position of squatting? If it is thought that there should be protection given to tenants holding over, do not people in that position deserve similar assistance?


As I read this clause, it is not concerned with protection to persons holding over or to protection of tenants. It is concerned with protection for officials who are carrying out court orders—nothing else. I do not question the desirability of making it a criminal offence for obstructing court officers seeking to enforce orders for the recovery of premises or for the delivery of possession of premises. I, too, take the point that it probably would have been better to put down an Amendment to leave out subsection (2), because at present that subsection is unnecessary surplusage and unnecessarily complicated. I do not think that the protection given by the clause should be limited only to the court officials who are seeking to enforce orders for possession if those orders for possession are based on certain claims and not on others. I hope that I have made that clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, talked about the position of the police. I am sure the noble Lord will agree that we are not solely concerned with the police on this. There is a power given to a constable to arrest without warrant. There is no need in every case for an arrest to take place. What I am concerned with is the protection of the court officials. A court official who is obstructed may think fit to bring proceedings for an offence under this clause. One does not know. I should have been happy if the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, could have assured me (perhaps I should know, but I have not looked it up) that, quite apart from the provisions of this clause, there is adequate protection for court officials who are seeking to enforce orders for recovery of possession mace against persons to whom the clause does not at the moment apply. It may be that there are those powers. I am afraid that I am not aware of them, and I would be content if they came in other ways.

If there are not those powers, I cannot think that the exclusion of subsection (2) would add appreciably to the number of instances upon which the police might be called upon to act. If this criminal offence of obstruction of court officers acting in the course of their duty is made a general offence, I cannot believe that there would be many more people who would be convicted of that offence if it extended to all persons obstructing court officers who are seeking to enforce orders of the courts. The noble Lord will look at it again, I am sure.


I will gladly look at it again. As the noble and learned Viscount has had rather more substantial experience in speaking both from this Box and, no doubt, in another place than I have, I would not wish in any way to give the impression that I can give this point away. We have had discussions with the police on this matter. There is substantial anxiety on their part that by widening this and covering all sorts of situations, there would be demands for the police to be involved in all sorts of problems.


If I may interrupt the noble Lord, I was not suggesting that he should make any concession now. Perhaps he will write to me before the next stage and deal with it. I ought to know what protection there is now, apart from this.


I will gladly do that, of course.


I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 10 shall stand part of the Bill?

8.25 p.m.


When the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, is considering the position as to whether police officers should be in uniform when carrying out arrests, would he also ponder for one moment whether it is wise, as in line 26 at the moment, to give the power of arrest without warrant to an officer of the court? He is not only a person who does not wear a uniform, but he is a person who has no training of any sort in carrying out those duties.


This is one of the many problems about any possible extension of this provision, as the noble Lord will recognise. I take the point completely. We have thought it right to give these powers in this clause. Clearly, there might well be problems if we were to extend it, as has been suggested by the noble and learned Viscount.


Is the power, even in this limited case, right? There have been cases—there was one in Ilford some years ago—when court officers or persons acting in execution of court processes misbehaved themselves. I should be sorry to see wide powers of arrest given to persons without adequate training.


I cannot obviously comment on a particular case in Ilford. Unhappily, the situation is that on various occasions allegations can be made against court officers; they can be made against police officers and other members of the public on some occasions. Of course power will be misused. But there is a procedure for complaints against a public servant. So far as this provision is concerned, we think that it is reasonable given the limitation that at present exists in this particular clause.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 12 [Supplementary provisions]:

8.28 p.m.

The Earl of MANSFIELD moved Amendment No. 33:

Page 10, line 24, at end insert— ("( ) In this Part of this Act "premises" means the whole of the building (together with land and erections within its curtilage) in one occupation or entitlement to occupation provided that if the building is in two or more parts which are occupied or entitled to be occupied as separate units then "premises" means all those parts of the building having a common entrance.").

The noble Earl said: This is a simple matter; it is really a probing Amendment to ask the Government whether they are satisfied that the definition of "premises" so far as this part of the Bill is concerned is adequate. One can visualise various contingencies. I will not worry the Committee with examples at this time of night. This Amendment is designed to secure within this part of the Bill buildings which are larger than a simple dwelling-house. I beg to move.


I considered this matter when I first looked at the noble Earl's Amendment. Our view was that the definition of "premises" would not necessarily be precisely the same in the case of Clause 6 as it was in the case of Clause 7. We were not sure that it was right to put a definition in the Bill. I have listened to what the noble Earl has said and I should like to consider the matter further without making any commitment at this stage. Perhaps we may come back to this point.


I suppose it depends whether the Bill is amended at a later stage. If it were substantially amended, then obviously the definition would have to be reconsidered. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 agreed to.

House resumed.