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New Clause 26 — Offence of squatting in a residential building

Education and Training (Young People with Autism) – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 1st November 2011.

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‘(1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser,

(b) the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, and

(c) the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.

(2) The offence is not committed by a person holding over after the end of a lease or licence (even if the person leaves and re-enters the building).

(3) For the purposes of this section—

(a) “building” includes any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure), and

(b) a building is “residential” if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.

(4) For the purposes of this section the fact that a person derives title from a trespasser, or has the permission of a trespasser, does not prevent the person from being a trespasser.

(5) A person convicted of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale (or both).

(6) In relation to an offence committed before the commencement of section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the reference in subsection (5) to 51 weeks is to be read as a reference to 6 months.

(7) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) it is irrelevant whether the person entered the building as a trespasser before or after the commencement of this section.’.—(Mr Blunt.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to new clause 26, line 7, at end insert—

‘(2A) The offence is not committed where the building has been empty for six months or more and where there are no significant steps being taken to refurbish, let or sell the building at the time of the trespass.’.

Amendment (c) to new clause 26, line 22 leave out subsection (7) and insert—

‘(7) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) no offence is committed if the person initially entered the building as a trespasser before the commencement of this section.’.

Government amendment 140

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation) 8:30 pm, 1st November 2011

The Government are very concerned about the harm that squatters can cause. Residential and non-residential property owners have contacted Ministers repeatedly about the appalling impact that squatting can have on their homes and businesses. These are not media scare stories; they are very real and stressful events for victims whose properties have been occupied.

It is not just a question of the cost, length of time and incredible hassle involved in evicting squatters. Properties can be left in a terrible state after the squatters have been evicted and owners may face hefty cleaning and repair bills. While the property owner is literally left picking up the pieces, the squatters have gone on their merry way. They might even be squatting in somebody else’s property.

The current law already offers some protection to both non-residential and residential property owners. Squatters may be guilty, in certain circumstances, of offences such as criminal damage and burglary. There is also an offence under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 that protects certain residential property owners. It applies when a trespasser fails to leave residential premises on being required to do so by or on behalf of a “displaced residential occupier” or a “protected intending occupier.” This means that people who have effectively been made homeless by squatters can ask the trespasser to leave, and if the trespasser refuses to leave, they can report an offence to the police.

We do not think the existing legal framework goes far enough to tackle the problems I have just described. The offence under section 7 of the 1977 Act does not protect non-residential property owners or many residential property owners, including landlords, local authorities and second home owners, who cannot be classified as displaced residential occupiers or protected intending occupiers. Following the conclusion of a recent public consultation exercise, we have decided that decisive action is needed now to criminalise squatting in residential buildings. We want to reassure owners and lawful occupiers of residential property that the law will protect them should trespassers occupy their properties. We want to send a clear message to would-be squatters that it is simply not acceptable to occupy someone else’s home.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I am sure the Minister will recall that a year ago tomorrow he met my constituent Steve Cross, a commercial property manager. The Government are clearly concerned about the impact of squatting in commercial property, so it is surprising that the new clause, which I entirely support, does not include greater protections for commercial properties. Will the Minister reassure my constituent that the Government have not forgotten the devastating impact of squatting on commercial property managers, and that they will continue to look at ways of strengthening the law to provide greater protection against squatters in commercial properties?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and for bringing her constituent to see me. I absolutely give her that reassurance, and I will do so in terms during my prepared remarks, which I hope will show her that I have not forgotten that the consultation identified the fact that 50% of the harm caused by squatters was to the owners of commercial premises. Although we are not proposing to criminalise such squatting with these measures, it is certainly not forgotten.

We recognise that this is a controversial area of policy. Many homelessness charities, for instance, are likely to continue to say that the new offence will criminalise homeless and vulnerable people who squat in run-down residential properties, but one of the reasons that the properties remain in that state is that the owners cannot get in to renovate them because the squatters are present. Consultation responses indicated that squats can be unhygienic and dangerous places to live and are no place for genuinely vulnerable people. That is why we will ensure that reforms in this area are handled sensitively, in conjunction with wider Government initiatives to tackle the root causes of homelessness. We are also working to provide affordable homes and to bring more empty homes back into use.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The Minister will, like me, have read the documents presented by Crisis, which indicate that 40% of homeless people have been squatters at some time, and that because they are often single people, they have great difficulty in getting local authority or housing association accommodation, and there are 700,000 empty properties in the country. What are homeless people supposed to do?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

I will deal with the amendments tabled by John McDonnell, who has quite properly raised concerns in this area, and I will go into some detail to give Jeremy Corbyn a proper answer to his question.

As my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch said, there are others who will say that any new offence should extend to squatting in commercial premises. As I said to her, I remain concerned about squatting in those properties and will work with other Departments and the enforcement authorities to see whether action against existing offences such as criminal damage and burglary could be enforced more effectively in those cases.

The Metropolitan police acknowledged, in response to our consultation, that a lack of training and practical knowledge regarding the law on squatting may be a barrier to effective enforcement. My officials will work with the Home Office and the wider police service to address these issues and fill any gaps in current police practice. We will keep the situation under review in relation to non-residential property and are not ruling out further action in the future if it is needed.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

Will the legislation provide for co-operation or contact with services—electricity, water and so on—to those houses as a method whereby people can be taken out of those houses to ensure that the squatting does not continue? Will that be covered by the legislation?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

That is not strictly within the terms of what is proposed here. The effect would be to criminalise those who are squatting in residential premises and to create a new offence. As a first step we intend to limit the new offence to squatting in residential buildings. We consider that this option strikes the best balance. It will protect those who are likely to suffer most from squatting—those whose homes are taken over by squatters.

I shall turn now to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. I know that he is a supporter of the campaign group Squatters Action for Secure Homes, and I also know that he agrees with the arguments put forward by homelessness charities, such as Crisis, that criminalising squatting will impact on homeless people who squat. I fully understand why he tabled the amendments, but I will take this opportunity to explain why I do not agree with them.

On amendment (a), many squatters claim that they do not cause any harm to anybody because they look for empty properties to occupy. In the responses to our recent consultation exercise, that point was made by squatters and squatters groups, but respondents who made that argument were missing one rather important point: the houses are not theirs to occupy. There are many reasons why a house might be left empty for more than six months without any steps being taken to refurbish, let or sell the building. For example, somebody might decide to do charitable work in another country for a year, or they might visit their second home during the summer months only. It is the owner’s prerogative to leave the house empty in those circumstances. To say that property owners or occupiers should not be protected by the criminal law in these circumstances would be unjust and it would considerably weaken our proposed new offence.

Consultation responses highlighted a concern about the number of properties that are left empty on a long-term basis. They argued that such properties can crumble into disrepair and might be seen as a blight on the local neighbourhood. But permitting squatters to occupy derelict, crumbling, unsafe houses cannot be the answer. We are doing a number of things to encourage absent owners to make better use of their properties.

We want to increase the number of empty homes that are brought back into use as a sustainable way of increasing the overall supply of housing, and to reduce the perception of neglect that can blight neighbourhoods. Reducing the number of empty homes will also help to reduce the incidence of squatting. That is why we have announced £100 million of capital funding within the affordable homes programme to tackle problematic empty homes—that is properties that are likely to remain empty without extra direct financial assistance from the Government. This programme will deliver at least 3,300 affordable homes by March 2015, as well as engaging local communities in dealing with empty homes in their area.

Amendment (c) is designed to exempt squatters from the offence if they occupy residential buildings before the date of commencement. Let me be clear that we have no plans to punish people retrospectively. If they have squatted in the past but are no longer squatting when the offence comes into force, the offence will not apply. However, we would be creating a significant loophole if we exempted squatters who initially entered the building as a trespasser in the run-up to commencement even though after commencement of the offence they remain in the building as a trespasser, they know or ought to know that they are a trespasser and that they are living there or intend to live there. Such an occupation would be no less painful for the property owners concerned.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and others are concerned that the new offence might penalise vulnerable, homeless people who squat in run-down residential properties. One of the reasons they remain in this state is, as I said, because the owners cannot get in to renovate them. It would be much better for us to introduce an offence that is capable of protecting law-abiding property owners and occupiers on the one hand, while working with other Government Departments, local authorities, the police and homelessness charities to continue to address the root causes of homelessness and to mitigate any impacts the new offence might have on the levels of rough sleeping.

We are prioritising spending on homelessness prevention, investing £400 million over the next four years, with the homelessness grant being maintained at the 2010-11 level. For the first time, we have also brought together eight Departments through the ministerial working group on homelessness to tackle the complex causes of homelessness. The group published its first report “Vision to end rough sleeping” in July 2011, which sets out joint commitments to tackle homelessness and to ensure that nobody has to spend more than one night out on our streets—“No Second Night Out”. This includes actions to prevent homelessness for those people without a stable home who may be at risk of rough sleeping. For those reasons, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendments.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

It feels as though we are in a different world when the Minister describes these as measures to tackle homelessness and when one considers everything that the Government have been doing with their housing benefit cuts and with their cuts in shared room rate, which organisations say will cause thousands more people to become homeless. Is he not cognisant of those arguments being put forward very forcefully by those charities?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

I absolutely support the measures being brought forward by my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Minister for Housing and Local Government is absolutely right. One cannot but be impressed by his huge determination in chairing the ministerial group to address this issue. It is the other side of the equation, and I hope that it addresses the amendments and answers the question from the hon. Member for Islington North.

Jim Shannon asked about linking up with the utility providers. It is already an offence under the Theft Act 1968 to use electricity without authority and the maximum penalty for that is five years’ imprisonment.

I hope that the House will welcome this move to protect home owners and lawful occupiers of residential property from squatters.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 8:45 pm, 1st November 2011

It is pleasure to have the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Blunt, at the Government Dispatch Box this evening.

It is a shame that the Lord Chancellor is not here, but of course he was also absent when the provision was announced by the Prime Minister at the famous press conference on 21 June, when most of today’s business first saw the light of day, including the clause we have just debated. At times it appears that there is a parallel Bill: the agenda that the Government wish to present to the media, or which the media dictate to the Government.

Sadly, the consequence for the House is that we do not have the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation properly. I do not know whether that is because the Government have no confidence in or commitment to their own legislation and are simply going through the motions, as we saw a little while ago, but the process of formulating the policy has been absurdly rushed, even by their standards. It is wholly inappropriate to introduce major changes to criminal law on Report. For that reason, among others, I suspect that the provisions will have a rather more torrid time in the other place than they will have here tonight.

Squatters are a nightmare for homeowners and tenants alike. The Criminal Law Act 1977, which the Minister mentioned, makes it a criminal offence for any person not to leave premises when required to do so by “a displaced residential occupier” or “protected intending occupier” of the premises. Furthermore, parts 55(1) and 55(3) of the Civil Procedure Rules allow owners to evict someone from a residence they do not occupy. An interim possession order, backed up by powers in section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, mean that a criminal offence is committed if an individual does not leave within 24 hours of such an expedited order being granted.

As the Minister confirmed in his opening remarks, new clause 26 seeks to deal with squatting in vacant properties for which there is no imminent plan for residency. The clause, as drafted, applies only to residential properties and will not apply where there has been a previous landlord and tenant relationship between the occupier and the owner. Those are not the cases that typically attract the media’s attention. For example, the case of Dr Cockerell and his wife, who was pregnant at the time, was widely reported this September, in the Evening Standard and other newspapers. In that case the police wrongly said that the case was a civil issue and not one for them. As I understand the facts as reported, Dr Cockerell and his wife would have been protected intending occupiers and the police should have intervened. I fear that their failure to do so is not atypical. I remarked in Committee that if we had a pound for every time the police said that something was a civil matter when someone goes to them, we would probably be able to build affordable housing in the country, unlike what the Government are doing. I worry that the Government are trying to introduce new legislation without implementing the legislation that already exists, which is clearly the case in the examples I have given so far.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

My hon. Friend is old enough to recall the lengthy consultation that took place before the 1977 Act was introduced. It specifically distinguished between an occupied property and a property that had been left empty for a very long time. The issue at the time, particularly in London, was that vast numbers of empty properties were being squatted. That law was a product of consultation. There has been no consultation on this—

[

Interruption.

]

Well, there has been very limited consultation, but certainly not in the House, about criminalising people who are actually extremely desperate for all the reasons pointed out by my friend Caroline Lucas.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

I think I was doing my politics A-level at the time, so I might have studied the Act as part of that. My hon. Friend makes an important point about housing need that the Minister, to be fair to him, also addressed, and I will move on to that in a moment. I will not say what grade I got in my politics A-level—[ Interruption. ] Let us just say that it probably would not impress the Education Secretary.

We share the anger of people whose properties are damaged or vandalised by squatters. That is always wrong, and it is right to decry such behaviour. It is also right to say that there are, for want of a better term, lifestyle squatters—people who are part of the something-for-nothing society. We disagree with that, and we support the criminalisation of their activities. However, many squatters are homeless, and often have severe mental health or addiction problems.

It may be a sign of the Government’s topsy-turvy logic that in one part of the Bill, which we support, they seek to divert those with mental health and drug problems from the criminal justice system, but this part may criminalise those very people. At the same time, we are seeing some of the most swingeing benefit cuts in history. Housing benefit has been mentioned. In constituencies like mine, thousands of families will be forced to move because of the cuts in housing benefit, or may lose their properties. Incompetence by the Department for Work and Pensions and its private sector agents, such as Atos Healthcare, is causing a rise in poverty and homelessness. We are seeing a massive increase in appeals on welfare benefits, and 170 extra staff have been hired by first-tier tribunals to deal with those appeals, many of which are successful. That is one reason why we oppose the Government’s proposals on social welfare legal aid.

I wish that yesterday we had had the luxury that we have today—a timetabled programme with knives to grandstand some of the Government’s proposals. The House is thinly attended and the debate is frankly low key, whereas yesterday the Government engaged in talking out important measures on which many hon. Members wanted to speak. I noted what the Secretary of State, or it may have been the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Djanogly, said about our debates tomorrow. I hope that we will have the debates that we want tomorrow, including those on part 2, and that Government Whips will not employ their tawdry tactics again.

Some 40% of homeless people have squatted, as my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said, and 6% of homeless people are squatting at any one time. There is a significant prevalence of mental health problems, learning difficulties and substance addiction in those who are homeless.

This afternoon, I opened a new project for homeless people in my constituency. Very experienced people from organisations for the homeless—they were not trying to be party political in any way—asked me a question that I could not answer. They said that the

Work and Pensions Secretary talks about an underclass, or a feral class as the Justice Secretary also said, and says that the Government want to take action to help problem families and to relieve poverty at the bottom of society, so why do they wish to take measures that could criminalise those same people?

The Government are clearly being tough on squatting, and we have no objection to that, but they are being incredibly weak, contrary to what the Minister said, on the causes of squatting. In fact, their impact assessment gives a hint of who the people are who often end up squatting. It says:

“Local authorities and homelessness…charities may face increased pressure on their services if more squatters are arrested/convicted and/or deterred from squatting. Local authorities may be required to provide alternative accommodation for these individuals and could also face costs related to increases in rough sleeping in their areas. An increase in demand for charities’ services (food/shelter etc.) may negatively impact current charity service users…There may also be a cost to society if this option is perceived to” be

“unfair and/or leads to increases in rough sleeping.”

The pièce de résistance is:

“It has not been possible to quantify these costs.”

The Government accept that there will be pressure on services, but say that they cannot quantify the cost. Why? They do not know how many people squat. I believe—the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—that the civil servants have used figures from squatters’ organisations to estimate how many squatters there may be. The Government’s estimate is that there are between 340 and 4,200 criminal squatting cases across England and Wales, and that the Crown Prosecution Service will charge between 850 and 10,600 offenders.

The Government accept in their response to the consultation that

“as with any criminal offence there would be an operational discretion as to whether a person should be charged with an offence.”

I think that goes without saying, but they say it in particular with respect to hikers who take refuge in a house to take shelter from the elements. [Interruption.] I am glad that the Government Whip, Michael Fabricant, is interested, and I will say a bit more about that. It is a problem that the Government see as a possible unintended consequence of the new legislation. They state:

“The Government accepts that hikers who occupy a residential building in these circumstances might be committing an offence as a result of its proposals. In practice, however, it seems unlikely that the property owner would make a complaint”, so that is all right. They continue:

“Even if a complaint were made, as with any criminal offence there would be an operational discretion as to whether a person should be charged with an offence. The Government considered creating a ‘reasonable excuse’ defence to allow for this type of situation, but was concerned that such a defence would be open to abuse and might render the new offence toothless.”

I have seen some pretty shoddily justified legislation in my time, but that really is an “on the one hand, on the other hand” explanation.

I hope that at the very least the Minister will tell us whether his intention is to apply the discretion that he wishes to see applied to hikers, an important category of citizen, to those who occupy empty properties out of desperation—the people the Government’s own impact assessment states would now have to resort to sleeping rough. They could include people with mental health or addiction problems whom it may be more appropriate to give treatment than to detain in jail. I have heard the Minister make that argument in another context in Committee. I note that this farrago and confusion would not have happened had the appropriate parliamentary process been followed.

It is common practice in a Second Reading debate—this increasingly feels like Second Reading, when we see measures for the first time and pass general comments on them—for a proposal that has some merit but needs refinement to be allowed through. That is what we intend to do today. We support the idea that there may be categories of squatters who need to be criminalised, although we say that the current criminal law is not being properly used in that respect.

I hope that the Minister will not think that our decision to allow matters to proceed is an unthinking endorsement of his position. Those who think squatting an acceptable lifestyle choice should be under no illusion about the fact that we disagree, and we support the criminalisation of what is, frankly, arrogant behaviour. For that reason, we believe it is right to allow the matter to be scrutinised in another place. However, there remain issues to consider and more thought and deliberation to be done before the new clause reaches the statute book.

I hope that the Government will at the very least consider the issues that I have raised today, and those that other hon. Members will no doubt raise, and keep them in mind when they feel the endorphin rush of a few cheap tabloid headlines again. I hope that they will think seriously about all the implications of the new clause and come up with something a little clearer, better defined and less vague.

The Minister will no doubt say that I am giving less than wholehearted support. Not true. We support the Government’s intention, but we believe that because they have once again rushed matters towards the statute book, they have not given them proper and clear consideration thus far. Once again, they leave it to another place to do that.

Photo of Mike Weatherley Mike Weatherley Conservative, Hove

Today is a good day for the law-abiding citizens of this country and a bad day for those wanting something for nothing. Since my election nearly 18 months ago, I have been campaigning to criminalise squatting, including in an excellent Westminster Hall debate with the Minister about a year ago. I congratulate the Government on tabling the new clause.

I wish to dispel once and for all the myth that squatters and homeless people are one and the same. My Hove and Portslade area contains both wealth and deprivation. It is a Mecca for every character imaginable, and that is what makes it such a wonderfully diverse place to live. Homelessness is an issue, and we have a fantastic support network of local charities, including Emmaus, Brighton Housing Trust, the YMCA and Off the Fence, which looks after a great number of vulnerable people through Project Antifreeze—indeed, I will visit Off the Fence again this Friday. It is our duty to look after homeless people. I fully support all the excellent work being done and the Government’s commitment to do even more.

In my experience, squatters rarely fit the profile of the vulnerable people whom we should be looking out for. Serial squatters know the law. They are web-savvy and highly resourceful. They run rings around the law, and what professional squatters lack in respect for other people’s property they make up for in guile and tenacity. They are organised and frequently menacing, as we saw last night outside this place. When they entered a property in Hove recently, a web advert went out, and squatters from as far afield as Bristol turned up to party. They were not vulnerable persons looking for a bed for the night. Many simply wanted to have a good time in a nice city for nothing.

In another case, a lady in my constituency sadly died. While her family were sorting out the funeral arrangements and the sale of her estate, the squatters moved in. They refused to leave no matter that they knew they were causing distress. Ten thousand pounds in legal fees later, the family finally got their mother’s treasured keepsakes back.

In another instance, when evicted from one property, the squatters simply moved in next door. I understand that they did so through a hole in the wall they made while waiting for the eviction notice.

Those examples are unacceptable and must be stopped. In all cases, there were no recriminations against the squatters, who got no criminal record and no financial penalty, and no damages were paid to the homeowners. The squatters simply move out of one property and into the next with the knowledge that they can do so under existing law.

I have discussed the issue with Sussex police, whose powers are limited even when the property is clearly being lived in. A police inspector in the city of Brighton and Hove tells me that in 18 years, no one has been prosecuted for any offence directly in relation to squatting. The squatters know that. Even where utilities are being used illegally or where there is forced entry, there are usually no witnesses, so arrest is often difficult.

A local resident asked me in my local paper, The Argus:

“If squatting is a practice that is socially unacceptable, how is leaving a property empty for more than a year any more acceptable?”

My answer is simple: it is not acceptable at all. I have contacted my local council on a number of occasions about the issue of empty buildings belonging to exploitative developers, and I fully support the Government’s moves to use taxation as encouragement. However, we should be careful not to embrace squatting on the principle that our enemy’s enemy is a friend. We must get tough on bad landlords soon, but buildings can be temporarily empty for all sorts of reasons, many of which are entirely acceptable, as we have heard.

The pro-squatting movement would have us believe three things, the first of which is that the existing powers are enough. They are not. In all situations, including even when a property is being lived in, a justice of the peace or commissioner of oaths must be involved before the police can remove the squatters, which adds to the delay. In that delay, the squatters are sleeping in people’s beds, watching their TV and eating their food.

Secondly, pro-squatters would have us believe that squatters actually improve the properties they are in. I have thrown down the gauntlet to every squatting organisation in the country to show me one single squat where that is the case, and so far not one has been forthcoming. I am not surprised. Damage and destruction is the norm. Squatters do not run around with the hoover before they leave.

Thirdly, pro-squatters would have us believe that if squatters were not squatting, they would be homeless and a burden on the state. Not only is that simply not true, but even if it were, squatting would not be the answer. Support and assistance from the state is to be encouraged for those who need it rather than living in often unfit and dangerous conditions.

The new clause is a good piece of additional legislation that most people in the country will welcome. More could have been added, and I hope it will in due course. We might find that some of the exemptions should not be exemptions. I will be keeping a close eye on them to ensure that they do not turn into loopholes or simply displace targets for the professional squatters. However, I support this important legislation, and I am pleased to have played some part in progressing it to this stage.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:00 pm, 1st November 2011

I want to follow on from the previous debate and the discussion of the method of making legislation. Making new laws, especially ones that can put people in prison for up to a year, is an extremely serious matter, so judgment cannot be undertaken or driven by anecdote, prejudice or media headlines.

There are questions that have to be considered for wise judgment. What is the problem to be addressed? Is it real? What is the scale of the problem? Is there an existing law, and if so, is it defective in a way that renders it ineffective? If we are to make legislation of this sort, what are the consequences of creating a new crime for the people seeking a remedy in this way and for those who will be brought into the criminal justice system? What are the consequences and implications for the resources, operations and standing of the law enforcement agencies and our communities overall? Finally, during my years in the House, I have learned another key question: will it cause more problems than it seeks to cure?

Is there a significant problem with squatting in residential properties? To be frank, the evidence produced by the Government so far has not demonstrated this. There have been some highly publicised cases in the media and statements by MPs and Ministers, but no hard evidence. The Government’s consultation paper acknowledged the lack of statistical evidence. For instance, the equality impact assessment states that

“there is no consensus on the true extent of squatting, or the proportion of squatting that is in residential buildings.”

Based on a number of assumptions—I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter that many of them were supplied by squatters themselves or housing campaigning associations—the Government estimate that there might be between 200 and 2,100 criminal squatting cases in residential properties across England and Wales. That is a tenfold range, demonstrating the inexact nature of the Government’s evidence.

In the response to the Government’s consultation, only seven victims of squatting in residential properties came forward. The lack of evidence has led the Law Society to object to changes in the law that are not evidence-based and the Magistrates Association to express its reluctance to see new laws created without proper analysis. This is the first time that I have been in alliance with the bench.

Is the current law defective? Even if only a small number of people are affected, it is right that we sympathise with them and ensure that action is taken to protect them. If the law is defective or lacking, there should be a remedy, but most legal authorities that commented during the consultation felt that the existing law was sufficient. As has been said, under existing law, it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave someone’s home or a home that they are about to move into.

Photo of Mike Weatherley Mike Weatherley Conservative, Hove

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that the squatters should not be there to start with?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I shall move on to that; I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is already an offence for any person on a residential premises not to leave on being required to do so by or on behalf of…a displaced residential occupier…or…protected intending occupier”.

According to the response to the consultation, the Metropolitan police said that

“the law was broadly in the right place and that the existing array of offences allowed them to tackle the worst cases of squatting (e.g. where squatters cause the rightful homeowner to be displaced).”

The Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association confirmed the same view. The Law Society stated:

“The consultation paper acknowledges that there are no reliable data on the nature and extent of squatting. In the absence of any such evidence, we have no reason to believe that the existing law does not deal adequately with squatting.”

It went on to describe the operation of section 7 and confirmed that no evidence had been produced to demonstrate that it did not work adequately when properly used. Those concerns were confirmed by the Criminal Bar Association.

The Law Society reported that section 7

“is not often used, as squatting happens infrequently, but where it is our members”— that is, the lawyers concerned—

“report that it is extremely effective.”

These are the responses to the Government’s own consultation.

Everyone in the House has to support evidence-based policy making. From all the evidence and information to hand, including from the Government’s own consultation and impact assessment, we must conclude that there is no evidence of a problem on any significant scale, that there is conjecture that it exists and that in the judgment of practitioners—not just the advocates, but the law enforcers—the existing law is sufficient.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that one of the flaws with the current legislation is section 6 of the 1977 Act, which allows squatters to claim rights to a property, thereby making it difficult for owners to get rid of them?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I cannot accept that when section 7 enables people to request squatters to leave. If they do not, they are committing a criminal offence, and the law should be enforced by the police under existing legislation.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

It is important to make it clear that section 7 does not apply to second home owners, landlords, vacant properties or probate properties, so even if applied satisfactorily, it is not the answer.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The point made by most people in the consultation, including the police, is that if elements of section 7 need tidying up, there should be a proper discussion about that. However, to criminalise a entire group in society is to over-react to a problem that is relatively minor, although I do not wish to underestimate the problem that appears to be caused to some home or property owners.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will my hon. Friend inform the House exactly when new clause 26 was published and how long people have had to comment on it, including those from the Law Society and elsewhere?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I will come to that, because we need to learn lessons across the House about the appropriateness of how we have legislated in recent years. I have sat in this place and seen bad law produced as a result of rushing things—it happened under the last Government and it is happening under this one—and a lack of judgment about how much consideration each piece of legislation needs.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I will, but I would like to press on, because others want to speak.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Is there not a hint of short-term populism in what the Government are doing? Does my hon. Friend think that even the Government might come to regret it if they press their case?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I went through 13 years of new Labour, so commenting on short-term populism might not be the most appropriate thing. I would not say: “A plague on all your houses!”, but let us all learn a few lessons.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Just so we are clear about the hon. Gentleman’s position, does he agree that it is unacceptable for anyone to be made homeless as a result of the kind of actions that we are talking about? Does he also agree, as a consequence, that passing new clause 26 in its current form would place an additional burden on the legal aid budget?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I wholeheartedly agree.

Let me press on, because others want to speak. Clearly there are a small number of cases, which we have already identified, that have caused genuine concern. The problem appears to be not with the existing law, but with its operation, as the consultation has made clear. Annington Holdings plc, a property holder of considerable size, said:

“In Annington’s experience enforcement is the crux of the problem; our past experiences have shown that delays arise in removing squatters from properties due to limitations on police resources.”

If the current problem is with police resources, the question—which has been raised by the High Court enforcement officers, the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society—is whether the police would have the resources to enforce the law if a new offence is created, when they appear to be unable to enforce it against the existing offences. The Met has acknowledged that and is seeking to address it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and the Minister have said. The Metropolitan Police Service said in its statement that there was a lack of training and practical knowledge on the law on squatting, particularly section 7 of the 1977 Act, which may be a barrier to effective enforcement, and that it was conducting further training to address the issue.

By criminalising squatting, the new clause certainly does not appear to be needed, but it will have consequences if introduced, some of them unintended. The new law will have consequences for those who will be brought into the criminal justice system for the first time, and it is worth repeating who those people are likely to be. The housing charity Crisis commissioned research into squatting from the centre for regional, economic and social research at Sheffield Hallam university, which was published only a month ago, in September. It found that, by and large, squatters were homeless people. The House of Commons Library note sets out for Members that

“squatting is a common response to homelessness”, and that

“most homeless people who squat try other avenues to resolve their housing problems before squatting”

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said that 40% of single homeless people had squatted at some time. Furthermore, 6% of the homeless population are squatting tonight, 41% of homeless squatters report mental health needs, 34% have been in care, 42% have physical ill health or a disability, 47% have experienced drug dependency, 21% are self-harming, 15% have a learning disability, and 90% have slept rough. Those are the people whom this legislation is about to criminalise.

The Crisis survey found that many of those people had no alternative, and that 78% had approached the local authority for help and been turned away. Among the housing charities—Crisis, Thames Reach, Shelter, Homeless Link, Housing Justice, St Mungo’s—there is a fear that the new legislation could criminalise extremely vulnerable people and force them into more dangerous situations, particularly rough sleeping.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall 9:15 pm, 1st November 2011

I entirely support what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that this will be particularly bad law because it is going to be retrospective? It will apply to people who are squatting at the moment, and who thought that they were doing so legally. The House should not be pushing through this legislation in this ridiculous way, without scrutiny.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I believe that it will damage a large number people’s lives, some of whom are squatting at the moment for no other reason than that they are homeless. They will be criminalised by this retrospective legislation, which is something that I thought Members of all political parties across the House had rejected.

What will be the effect of the new law on squatters’ lives? We know that many, although not all, vulnerable people live chaotic lives. They will be fined up to £5,000 or face up to a year in prison. Not many will have the resources to pay the fine, so prison will be a reality for a significant number of them. I have heard no estimate from the Government of the extent to which this will swell prison numbers. I fear that people will be drawn into a cycle of squatting and going to prison. One third of people coming out of prison have no home to go to, so they will get back into the squatting cycle.

I hope that the House will not pass the new clause into law, but if it is determined to do so, I have tabled amendments to ameliorate its impact. Amendment (a) would provide that squatting remains a civil matter in all residential buildings that had been left empty long term and were not being brought back into use. This would ensure that residential buildings that had been lived in recently or that were being brought back into use would be covered by the criminal law. That includes the question of refurbishment that was raised earlier.

I have looked at the statistics cycle over the past five years and found that, on average, between 650,000 and 700,000 residential properties stood empty during that time. Most are private properties, and 300,000 have been empty for more than six months. When there are 40,000 homeless families, 4,000 people sleeping rough in the capital, and 1.7 million households on waiting lists, desperate for decent accommodation, it is immoral that private owners should be allowed to let their properties stand empty for so long. My amendment could force those irresponsible owners to bring their properties back into use. More importantly, it would mean that desperate people who need a roof over their heads would not be criminalised for resorting to occupying a property that was being wasted by its owner.

It is not for me to criticise the Speaker, of course, but I regret that my amendment (b) was not selected. I had hoped to try to persuade the House to protect the most vulnerable people in our society from being dragged into the courts, but I am sure that there were good reasons for not selecting it, and perhaps it will be debated in another place.

My amendment (c) would address the fact that the present wording of the new clause criminalises those who are currently squatting in a residential building. It is one of the principles of good government that retrospective legislation is unjust. I should like to quote from article 11, subsection 2, of the universal declaration of human rights:

“No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time it was committed.”

There is a basic injustice about retrospective legislation, and I hope that the House will accept that and address it at some stage in this Bill’s consideration.

Finally, there is a mounting housing crisis. I criticised the last Government as much as this one for their failure to address the supply of decent housing. We have got the return of appalling housing conditions in my constituency—overcrowding, high rents and the return of Rachmanite landlords. People are desperate and will resort at times to any means to put a decent roof over their and their family’s heads. Squatting is sometimes the only way. People should not be criminalised for wanting a decent home.

The new clause is being rushed through Parliament. The Secretary of State launched in July a consultation on a range of proposals to criminalise squatting. The consultation ended in October. More than 2,000 responses were received, 90% of them opposed to the Government’s proposals. Clearly, there has been no serious consideration of the consultation responses because the clause was brought forward only three weeks after the consultation closed. This is rushed legislation, and rushed legislation, as I have said, is generally poor or bad legislation. The consultation, if it had been properly taken into account, made it clear that the current laws were sufficient to deal with any abuse. Professionals, police and others have told us so. My fear is that we now risk putting people on the streets and possibly into prison because our society has failed to provide them with a decent home. If this clause goes through tonight, I believe that many will regret it.

I give notice that I wish to press amendment (a) to a vote.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. As Members can see, a considerable number still wish to participate in the debate. As we want to listen to the Minister and the knife falls at 10 o’clock, I call for brevity and short speeches.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Conservative, Finchley and Golders Green

I commend the Minister for listening to our concerns and introducing these proposals. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Mike Weatherley) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), as we have been pressing the Government for action for some time. I am grateful to the Minister for his courtesy on this issue.

Labour Members commented that they did not see a need for this Bill, as they thought that there was some parallel Bill. I have to say, having listened to some Labour Members, that they seem to be living in a parallel universe. If there is not a squatting issue, why is it that three houses in my constituency were squatted in one week?

My concern is about the residential squatters and the homes they squat, which are often not derelict or abandoned properties. Those properties can be dealt with. Councils such as my own London borough of Barnet routinely issue improvement notices. If landlords do not bring the properties up to standard or back into use, they use the threat of a compulsory purchase order to bring the landlords back into line. On every occasion I have seen that used, the property has been refurbished and brought back into use. There are methods of dealing with abandoned and derelict properties without giving a charter for squatters.

The issue of residential squatters is not just one about mansions or large houses lying empty for year after year. The houses to which I refer in my constituency have been refurbished between purchase and occupation. These are houses that are going through probate or whose owners are on extended holidays. When the owners come home, they find their property occupied by somebody else, who is not necessarily homeless. As we have seen in the papers recently, it is often organised gangs that occupy family properties that are clearly occupied, clearly in use and clearly not abandoned.

I listened to what Labour Members said about squatting already being a criminal offence and the police having powers to deal with it. If so, why is it on every occasion in my constituency that the police have stood by and said, “Sorry, guv, but it is nothing to do with us; it is a civil matter”? The current law is defective; the current law needs clarifying; and these proposals do that.

I was intrigued to hear the argument that homelessness is some excuse for squatting. Is it okay for people to say, “I don’t have a house, so I’ll have yours. Thank you very much.”? I am not sure whether that is what Labour Members are genuinely saying.

We heard the argument that pennilessness is an argument for squatting. Is it also an argument for mugging? If I am penniless and go out and mug somebody, is that all right? Is that what Labour Members are really saying?

I have read the amendments, and I understand the problems of those who have been in shelters for the homeless or domestic violence refuges or have received mental health support. However, I also know that many people in need of mental health support squat not because they are not being given that support, but in order to evade the very support they need. If we can deal with squatting, those with mental health problems will have a better chance of benefiting from the intervention that they both need and deserve.

Hard-pressed taxpayers and home owners who have worked hard, have bought their houses and pay their mortgages are demanding change and protection. I support the new clause because it will provide the very necessary protections that those people require.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Like other speakers, I shall be as brief as possible, because a good many Members clearly want to say something about this issue. I commend the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend John McDonnell, the way in which he presented them, and the background information he provided.

New clause 26 first saw the light of day only a few days ago. This is effectively a Second Reading debate, but it provides the only chance that the House will have to discuss a major change in legislation that will result in criminalisation. I predict that in years to come, Government and, indeed, Opposition Members will complain that a person has been criminalised because they were homeless—that a person who occupied someone else’s house was put in prison for a year, which would cost the rest of the community about £50,000.

This country has a long and chequered history when it comes to squatting. It goes back to the Forcible Entry Act 1381, which became law during the Black Death. The issue has arisen time and again during periods of great stress: it arose at the end of the Napoleonic wars, at the end of the first world war and at the end of the second world war, when there was widespread squatting because of a terrible shortage of housing.

The Criminal Law Act 1977, which I mentioned in an intervention earlier, was introduced after a great deal of consultation by the then Labour Government. There was a fair amount of opposition to the legislation, which distinguished specifically between the act of taking someone’s house when that person was occupying it and the act of occupying a property that was being kept empty. The property might be empty as a result of the inefficiency of a local authority or housing association—or, in some cases, a charitable landlord—but more often it would be kept empty deliberately while a property speculator waited for its value to rise before seeking to possess it and sell it to someone else; and, at the same time, a large number of people were homeless on our streets.

Crisis and other charities have produced interesting statistics and arguments. It has been claimed that 40% of homeless people in the country have squatted at some point, and that because the housing crisis means that there will be more people on the housing waiting lists and more without access to houses, there is likely to be more squatting.

Let me tell Mike Freer that it is very easy to stand up in the House and say that no one should ever occupy any empty property, but it is another matter for someone who is homeless, has applied for local authority housing but is deemed not to be vulnerable as a single person, and is therefore not eligible to be nominated for a council or housing authority property. Those who try to rent a property in the private sector anywhere in London will find that renting a one-bedroom flat costs a minimum of £150 to £200 a week, renting a two-bedroom flat costs £250, and renting a house costs between £400 and £500. When the very same Government who are lecturing someone about occupying a property that has been deliberately left vacant are preventing that person from obtaining housing benefit to pay such rents, what can the person do? It is all very well for us to lecture, but what can that person actually do?

I believe that the existing law can deal with most of the concerns that have been expressed. There are some cases in which people have behaved disgracefully and driven others out of their homes when they should not have done so, but the 1977 Act is designed to deal with such cases. They can be dealt with through selective, specific and well-thought-out legislation, rather than through the approach that is being adopted in the House this evening.

We shall press amendment (a), tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, to a Division. It covers only residential property that “has been empty for six months or more”. Parliament has a responsibility to recognise that there are 700,000 empty properties across the country and a very large number of people who are either homeless and sleeping on the street, sofa-surfing before they run out of friends entirely, sleeping in cars, or just trying to get somebody to put them up for a night before they move on. I assume all Members have met such people in their advice surgeries. What do we say to them? Do we say, “It’s your problem; you go and solve it,” or are we a society that tries to help everyone and make sure everyone gets somewhere to live and has a secure roof over their head?

I shall conclude by quoting from a letter from Sarah Evans. She was the Labour parliamentary candidate for North West Hampshire in 2010, but, unfortunately, she was not elected. Her letter is directed more to people in my party than to anybody else:

“It beggars belief what sick logic can bring a government to condemn and criminalise some of the most vulnerable people in society for successive governments’ failures to build enough council homes—a policy which is forcing people to live on sofas and the streets.

We have five million people in 1.8 million households on council waiting lists, there are many more ‘sofa-surfers’ who don’t even register on the homeless figures.

We have a hyper-inflated housing market caused by the shortage of council homes.”

In order to deal with this issue, we must invest in homes. We must invest in council properties, control rents and stop the obscene profits that the private rented sector is making as a result of the housing shortage. Then, we will begin to see a solution. Criminalising people is not a solution.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington 9:30 pm, 1st November 2011

Squatting clearly has a devastating impact on private owners, and it can also have a devastating impact on councils. When I was a councillor in Hackney back in the late ’80s, it was eventually discovered that many council properties were squatted, and that in many cases council employees had sold the keys to the squatters. We clearly need to tackle squatting, therefore. I would have welcomed a fuller debate on the matter, however, and I now want to raise a few points that would, perhaps, have been more pertinently raised in Committee, if that stage had taken place.

The first aspect of new clause 26 on which I seek clarification is proposed new subsection (3)(b), which states that

“a building is ‘residential’ if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.”

Could a commercial building be so “designed” or “adapted”, and what would be required for that to be achieved? Would simply placing a bed in a commercial premises be enough for it to be “designed” or “adapted” as “a place to live”?

The second point on which I seek clarification relates to proposed new subsection (4) on the “permission of a trespasser”. If a person has not been informed by someone who is a trespasser that they are in a building that they are squatting, and that person then squats in that property, would they be guilty of the offence of trespass? I hope the Minister can provide some clarity on that point.

At the risk of the Opposition accusing me of trying to have my cake and eat it, I will say that John McDonnell has raised some interesting points in amendment (a). Setting a bar of six months would not be appropriate, however, because there are many circumstances in which people might legitimately choose to leave a property empty—for example, if they are abroad for a year. However, I am sure that every Member of Parliament here tonight probably has one, two, three or possibly more properties in their constituency that have been empty year after year—possibly for decades. I know for a fact that residents living on either side of such properties may prefer to have someone in them so that the property is not allowed to fall down, be taken over by foxes, have trees growing in the front room and so on. I accept that the difficulty lies in trying to distinguish between those cases and cases where a squatter takes advantage of a property. The amendment raises an interesting point and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to it.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Is the right hon. Gentleman truly saying that neighbours on either side of a property would prefer to have squatters in it than to have foxes in it or trees growing in it? Is that actually what he is saying?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

I think that the hon. Lady may, if she examines her constituency cases, find some examples where people are frustrated at the length of time—it could be years—that a property next to theirs has been empty and has been allowed to fall into disrepair, with all the environmental and other dangers associated with that.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

I just want to try to disabuse the hon. Lady of a simplistic view about this. The council had determined to knock down a block over the other side of the river—the Pullens estate in my constituency, which is a fantastic old estate—but it was squatted, as were some estates in Surrey Docks. Had that not happened, these places would have been demolished. They were squatted, they were kept, they have been refurbished, and they are now properly let and in use. So this is not nearly as simplistic as it has been made out to be, and often people would rather a property was occupied than sitting empty.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, which provides its own explanation.

The final point that I wish to make is about the retrospective nature of the provision as, again, it is an area that the Government need to examine carefully. As we have not had an in-depth debate here tonight, I suspect that it may well be a point that is examined much more closely when the matter is raised in the other place.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I, too, wish to congratulate my hon. Friend John McDonnell on the way in which he spoke, because this issue too often becomes one of exaggeration, where inaccurate things are said on both sides. He gave a very reasoned outline of why this coalition Government are rather silly in proposing this measure at this time and in this way. I, too, have been in this place a long time and I have seen legislation go through as a knee-jerk response to something that has happened. Very often people later regret very much that such legislation went through.

It is quite wrong that something that has been introduced so recently, and where a substantial number of people in a consultation—90% of them—were opposed to it, is being put through in this way. As everyone else has said, this is, in reality, a Second Reading debate. No scrutiny will be provided in the House of Commons on the detail, so all these questions are being raised by different people about different aspects of it and we will not get a full answer. We are abrogating our duty and our responsibilities as Members of Parliament if we allow this measure to go through and hope that it will be dealt with in the other place. I am disappointed that Labour’s Front-Bench team is not taking a more robust view on this measure. There is always a danger for politicians in that regard, because they may worry about what the headline will say, but sometimes the headline is totally inaccurate and sometimes it has been devised because of the inaccuracies, the half-truths and the mistruths that have been put around over a period of time. Even at this stage, I hope that the Labour Front-Bench team will consider amendment (a) seriously.

I believe that the retrospective nature of the measure is quite wrong. I also believe that there is squatting and squatting. The public see the difference in the kind of squatting that we have all condemned, whereby people take over someone’s house because they are away on holiday. However, there is already a law to prevent that from happening and those Members of Parliament who say that that has not been observed in their area should talk to the police because it means that the police are not enforcing the law.

The kind of squatting that I support is the kind that Simon Hughes mentioned, when large blocks of flats and houses that have deliberately been emptied early by a local authority or a private developer sit empty for months or years waiting either for some work to be done or to be knocked down. I see absolutely no reason why people who have come to London as the capital city of their country to try to get work and to live but who have nowhere to live and no chance of getting a local authority flat or of affording a private sector property should not live in those empty properties. Most of those squatters would be perfectly willing to sign something saying that they will move out as soon as work is to start. Instead, we see such places being left empty for years.

I am very sad indeed that we are seeing this knee-jerk response and that the Government are trying to introduce this measure so quickly. They will live to regret it and I hope that even tonight, at this late stage, Members who have come along thinking that there was no debate to be had and that this was a matter of, “Let’s just get this through”, will think very carefully and will at the very least support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I rise to support new clause 26 and I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Mike Weatherley) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) who, along with myself, have moved this matter up the agenda. I am grateful that the Minister has listened and that we now have some clarification over this area of law.

I have practised as a solicitor and I can tell the House that, regardless of the 1977 Act, this area of law is completely unclear. It is unclear to the police, to lawyers and to home owners and it certainly is not working. Millions of home owners will be grateful that the new clause is, I hope, going to reach the statute book. There could be nothing worse for someone returning from a holiday than to find that their home has been occupied by squatters. Insult is then added to injury if they are told by their lawyer that they need to embark on a long and complicated civil law procedure, and a costly procedure at that.

I note the point that has been made by Opposition Members about there being doubt about the exact numbers of properties that are occupied by squatters, but the fact remains that if a home owner returns to their property to find it occupied by squatters, it is 100% occupied by squatters and the overall statistics are, frankly, irrelevant.

Let me make one further point about the amendment on which I understand we are to divide. It provides that an offence would not be committed

“where the building has been empty for six months or more”.

One point that has already been touched on is of real concern to many people. When a family member dies and leaves a property empty the personal representatives might have to wait many months—often longer than six months—before they can obtain a grant of letters of administration. There are many instances of properties being occupied by squatters in that time and, for that reason if no other, I hope that the House will reject the amendment. The new clause is a great step forward. It is often said that an Englishman’s home is his castle and I hope that this will help to reinforce that.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

I share the concerns that have been expressed by many Opposition Members about the Government’s proposals further to criminalise squatting. I want to highlight just a few of them. My first concern is the justification for the proposals. Squatting can have devastating impacts, and I want proper redress and protection for anyone who returns from a two-week holiday to find their house squatted, or for someone trying to sell their house who leaves it empty only to find squatters have moved in. But the law already stands to protect people in those instances. The major problem in dealing with cases of squatting is not the law itself but the enforcement of the law, including the time it can take for the courts to issue an interim protection order, for example.

In theory, there is no reason why such an order cannot be issued far more swiftly. In practice, I accept that things can take far too long, often compounded by what appears to be a lack of understanding of the law by many police, who are the first port of call for home owners. That is unacceptable and it needs to be addressed, but those delays in implementing the law often result in cases being highlighted in the media, wrongly creating the impression that home owners are not protected in any way from squatting.

The law clearly states when a criminal act has taken place. For example, section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it clear that squatters asked to leave by home occupiers are committing a criminal offence if they fail to do so.

Photo of Mike Weatherley Mike Weatherley Conservative, Hove 9:45 pm, 1st November 2011

The hon. Lady is under a misapprehension. The person who comes back from holiday and finds their home squatted has no legal redress other than to ask the squatters to leave. The squatters are already in that property; they should not be there while the owners are on holiday.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

The legal redress is to ask them to leave. If the squatters refuse to leave, they are committing a criminal offence. That is the point.

In September 160 housing lawyers wrote an open letter accusing Ministers and politicians of distorting public debate by making inaccurate statements about the law on squatting. I claim that that is exactly what is going on in the House tonight.

Even the Metropolitan police and the Association of Chief Police Officers believe that the current squatting law is sufficient and that a new one would be a waste of police resources that could impact negatively on community relations. We need to see instead efforts increased to enforce the current law properly and swiftly, including better training for police officers.

As many Opposition Members have said, many homeless people are pushed into squatting and do not do so out of choice. The appalling and often dangerous conditions in many squats are hardly attractive. Research by Crisis shows that 40% of single homeless people escape the horrors of rough sleeping by squatting, mostly in disused properties. These are the people who are most likely to be affected by the proposed new law, and who will be unnecessarily criminalised.

Often homeless people will suffer from multiple diagnoses, with a combination of mental ill health, substance abuse and other problems. The challenge is to ensure that practical measures are put in place so that people with the most complex multiple needs can be supported more effectively and squatting avoided in the first place.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

In my surgeries now for the first time I am seeing people who are not in the categories that the hon. Lady has just described. I am seeing people in work who are losing their accommodation; they cannot keep going in the private sector on the wages that they earn. Those people are becoming homeless without any access to other provision, and some of them will turn to squatting, and I can well understand why.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

That is exactly the point I was about to come on to. In my surgeries in Brighton, Pavilion we are seeing levels of homelessness rising. People are coming to me in exactly the situation that the right hon. Lady describes. According to figures from the Department of Work and Pensions, 840 people in Brighton and Hove risk losing their homes as a result of the proposed changes to the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit, making this area of Brighton one of the worst affected in the whole country. So Government efforts must focus much more on tackling the root cause of the problem, not on penalising vulnerable homeless people, including those living in buildings that have been empty for long periods and are not about to be brought back into use.

Part of the solution is investment in affordable housing and so, too, are measures to bring empty properties back into use as soon as possible. Brighton and Hove city council was named 2011 practitioner of the year by the Empty Homes Network for bringing 154 properties back into use over the past 12 months alone. The council’s amazing success is down to the hard work it has put into identifying empty private properties and its commitment to working with the owners of those properties where possible.

Insufficient work is still being done about empty properties nationally. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell, admitted in response to my oral question that only 46 empty home management orders had been issued in the full five years since they were brought in. That and other steps to tackle the lack of affordable housing in my constituency and elsewhere must be given far more priority than playing political football with the roofs over people’s heads.

As many other Members have pointed out, the way the proposal has been brought to the House is completely unacceptable. To say that it was rushed is no exaggeration. This is not proper scrutiny; laws made in this way can only end in problems. The Government’s consultation on squatting closed only three weeks ago and I am sure I am not the only person who suspects that the 2,217 responses have not yet been fully analysed, especially as I understand that more than 96% of them expressed real concern about the impact of criminalising squatting. What is more, the option we are asked to consider today was not even included in the consultation.

In conclusion, there is no denying that some high-profile cases raise serious concerns about the need to enforce better existing laws on squatting, but criminalising vulnerable homeless people is inhumane, undemocratic and, crucially, unnecessary.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the four minutes.

A lot has been said. We have heard about parallel universes; indeed, we come here from different parts of the nation to offer different views. We have heard that the Englishman’s home is his castle. It is awful for people when their home is broken into; it feels desecrated and dirty. Where have the intruders been and what have they been up to? It is an awful feeling and we understand it, but when I heard some of the comments from Government Members I thought about my perspective—my universe.

When we talk about squatters, people think in terms of their own home, but that is a far cry from my experience of squatters. I am talking about people in places where there is no electricity, gas or water. There is no toilet and in some cases there is not even a roof. The properties are cold, damp, dark and very dangerous, with rats, stench and disease. They are also very violent places.

What about the squatters? We are not talking about hippy communes, with bean bags, beer and loud music, or about scroungers who ought to pull their socks up and get a job or go back home. We are talking about people without friends or families, and possibly without futures. In my experience, no one squats if an alternative is available.

That may not be the experience of other people, but it is mine. Debate on the provisions on legal aid and social welfare was shamefully evaded last night, but so many people in squats have suffered as a result of the failure of our system. In many cases, the state has put them into that position, whether the health service or the council; 78% of squatters have been turned away by their local authority. The failure may relate to employment support, or people may have just been downright unlucky.

Where on earth is the value in adding a criminal record to the problems those people face? The proposals are irresponsible. They are costly. At a time when we are being asked to do so many things that are unpleasant and unpopular, but possibly necessary for the deficit reduction plan, these proposals would simply add to the costs that we will all have to face, if not in our communities then in Armley prison. It does not make sense. The proposals do not add up.

The two universes could be brought together through amendment (a), which is a compromise that would improve the enforcement of existing legislation, with the back-up of the six-months provision. I shall support it.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

It is pleasure to follow Mr Ward, with the undoubted candour that he brought to his remarks. However, I profoundly disagree with him. It is a basic premise that if one takes someone else’s home, one has stolen from them one of the most important things for any of us. I am afraid we are going to part company on that principle, and as he will have heard in my opening remarks, the issue of homelessness has to be addressed in that strategy.

I thank the official Opposition for their support, presented with his usual enthusiasm by Mr Slaughter. There was a moment when the charming side of the hon. Gentleman almost escaped—his rather touching revelation about his aptitude for politics when assessed by an external examiner at A-level. For that at least, I am grateful. However, to challenge us about talking business out, when he made a three-hour speech on the first group in Committee, would have come better from someone else.

The hon. Gentleman made an accusation that there was no clarity. There is absolute clarity in what we are doing. To try and escape into the issue of when a bothy is not a bothy, which will not be entirely clear to hikers, was the refuge of the desperate. When people are hiking they are clear where bothies are, and if they are not, they should not be undertaking the hike.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the benefits of the measure and the impact assessment. The impact assessment is clear. It has to identify benefits and potential risks. The benefits section of the impact assessment makes it clear that there could be significant benefits for residential property owners in the form of reduced legal costs in particular. Perhaps that puts into context the lobby by the legal profession. The impact assessment also suggests that if the offence acts as a deterrent, the instances of squatting may decrease.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mike Weatherley for his excellent speech and the impressive campaign that he has waged on the issue. He made the point that we owe a duty to the homeless, a view shared by all on the Government Benches. His pertinent challenge to find any case where squatters have improved a property by virtue of their occupation was extremely telling.

In my opening remarks I tried to answer the terms of the amendment tabled by John McDonnell, who asked us not to legislate on the basis of anecdote or prejudice. I say to him and to Kate Hoey that the issue is hardly a surprise. It has been around for a very long time. The Prime Minister announced the consultation back in June. We have consulted for 12 weeks, and what we have tabled is a limited proposal. Those on the Opposition Front Bench feel able to support it because it is limited to residential properties.

As I said, we will keep the other areas under review, particularly commercial property. We recognise that that will be more controversial. That is why the proposals are limited to subjects on which we believe there is widespread agreement. In the words of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, those on the Front Bench support criminalisation as it represents arrogant behaviour on the part of squatters, who think they can just take someone else’s property.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said that only seven victims of squatting responded to the consultation, but a number of local authorities responded and a number of law firms responded on behalf of several of their clients who had been victims of squatting. My hon. Friend Mr Nuttall made the same point and I am delighted to find myself in absolute agreement with him. Four landlords associations representing a very large membership responded to the consultation and they all shared a desire to strengthen the law.

My hon. Friend Mike Freer made a powerful case. He made the basic point that what we are addressing here is something that is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong to steal someone else’s home and that is what the new clause will address—

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 31 October).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Clause accordingly read a Second time.

The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

Amendment proposed to new clause 26: (a), line 7, insert—

‘(2A) The offence is not committed where the building has been empty for six months or more and where there are no significant steps being taken to refurbish, let or sell the building at the time of the trespass.’.—(John McDonnell.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 23, Noes 300.

Division number 385 Education and Training (Young People with Autism) — New Clause 26 — Offence of squatting in a residential building

Aye: 22 MPs

No: 299 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Abstained: 1 MP

Abstaineds: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put, That the clause be added to the Bill.

The House divided:

Ayes 283, Noes 13.

Division number 386 Education and Training (Young People with Autism) — New Clause 26 — Offence of squatting in a residential building

Aye: 284 MPs

No: 13 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

New clause 26 added to the Bil l .

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Newmark.)

Bill to be further considered tomorrow.