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.