The amendments would make the new offence created by Clause 6 non-imprisonable. As the clause stands it makes it an offence punishable by up to two years in prison for anyone but a displaced residential occupier to use or threaten violence either to persons or to property, and the "or to property" is an important point that we must consider for the purpose of securing entry into premises if it is known that there is someone on the premises who is opposed to entry.
At a time of acute prison overcrowding we should not automatically assume that a newly-created offence should become imprisonable. In that kind of situation the onus of proof must lie with the Government to show why the new offence should automatically carry the sanction of imprisonment. If nothing else, the amendment gives the Government the chance to explain that point.
In considering whether imprisonment is necessary it is appropriate to point out that if the civil procedures for dealing with occupiers were quicker, more efficient and easier there would be no need for the offences and therefore for making them imprisonable. The new offence created by the clause is not necessary to penalise genuinely violent entries. These can be penalised with imprisonment, if that is appropirate, within the existing law including that relating to assualt, criminal damage, unlawful assembly and public order.
The offence could, however, be used in certain situations where no violence actually occurs. As with the other criminal trespass offences created by the Bill, except the offence relating to embassy and consulate premises, the main principle affects two groups. The first is the squatters in unoccupied property. The second is employees involved in an occupation arising from an industrial dispute.
The situation with squatters can be seen only in the light of a very acute problem of homelessness, particularly in the major cities, combined in the last decade or so with the number of houses that are standing empty. For example, the 1966 sample census showed 470,000 empty buildings in England and Wales, whereas the 1971 census showed a figure of 675,000. The Nationwide Building Society survey for 1976 showed that the figure had then gone up to 850,000.
Although squatting is not a real or long-term solution to the housing crisis, it is a fact that we have to acknowledge although many Opposition Members refuse to acknowledge, that for many thousands of homeless people and homeless families squatting is a short-term necessity. Four surveys of squatting in Lambeth, Haringey, Cardiff and seven London boroughs all showed that more than half of the squatted houses had children living in them. They also found that the overwhelming majority of the squatters had tried to find a legal form of accommodation before resorting to squatting. Despite the headlines and media stories to the contrary, very few squatters are politically motivated. They are motivated simply by a desire to have a roof over their heads and those of their families.
In many local authority areas, especially in the large cities such as London, squatting has become semi-respectable. Many local authority social service departments refer homeless families or potentially homeless families to squatting groups and squatting agencies which, they anticipate, will direct those families to the nearest available empty house. Agencies which refer people to the Advisory Service for Squatters, which is the London-based squatting organisation, include the housing departments of nearly all the major London boroughs, citizens' advice bureaux, probation officers and, on occasions, even the police. In that situation, it is unfortunate that the Government should take the line of making the offence under this clause imprisonable.
Because of purchasing delays or the problems of rehousing, it may very often take a council years to empty all the houses in an area scheduled for demolition, with the result, that the houses vacated first can be empty for a decade or more before they are pulled down. We all know of homes which have been gutted by local authorities. Many of them have been taken over by squatters who, in a real sense, have given them a new lease of life at minimal cost. Unfortunately, because of their centralised and bureaucratic structures, local authorities can never do what squatters have been able to do to houses in the same time or as cheaply.