Committee (10th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 15th February 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 10:30 pm, 15th February 2012

My Lords, I realise the hour, but I will need to detain the Committee for some time on this clause because it is very serious and seeks to criminalise a large group of people. It was not debated in Committee in the other place, so I feel that this House needs to give it its full scrutiny. I am very pleased that so many of your Lordships are still in their places at this time of night to debate this issue. I have tabled this amendment and given notice of my intention to oppose the Question that this clause stand part of the Bill because I think the Committee will need to question very deeply the Government's claim that they need to criminalise the vulnerable homeless who are seeking shelter.

Let me say at the outset that I-like all noble Lords, I am sure-feel that a home should be sacrosanct and that any violation of it is totally unacceptable. An Englishman's or Englishwoman's home may not be a castle, but it should be so in law, and so it is. Despite the many misconceptions peddled by the press and others, it is already a criminal offence to squat in someone's home. The instances of squatters trying to establish themselves in someone's home are minuscule, but when it happens homeowners can be quite clear that they can ask the person or people to leave, and should that not happen immediately they should call the police. The police should remove the squatters and deal with the matter as a criminal offence. The same applies to a home that has been bought into which someone is intending to move. In both cases, the property owner is protected by Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which was updated by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It is already a criminal offence to refuse when asked to leave someone's home or a house that they are about to move into, to cause criminal damage either to gain entry or once inside the property, and to use utilities without paying for them. The police have a clear duty to enforce that. That is just to be absolutely clear. When the Minister began to speak to this amendment, he implied that the law was not sufficient in this case, and my first question to him is: why do the Government think that?

My amendment is suggested by the charity Crisis. Its purpose is to probe whether it might be better to extend what is covered by Section 7. The amendment proposes that anyone squatting in a house that has been empty for more than six months-not anyone's home, but a house that has been empty-and where there have been no material steps to bring it back into use would not be committing a criminal offence. What we need more clarity about are empty houses-not homes, but empty houses; for example, because they are going to be redeveloped or because someone has bought them and is waiting for the property market to pick up. It would be better to debate the link between homelessness and empty houses in the context of a housing Bill. I am sure the Minister has read the Crisis report of September 2011, Squatting: A Homelessness Issue, which urges that squatting should be discussed in the context of housing, homelessness and welfare.

Crisis commissioned independent research that shows that 41 per cent of homeless squatters report mental health needs; 34 per cent have been in care; 42 per cent suffer physical ill health or a disability; 47 per cent have experienced drug dependency; 21 per cent self-harm; and 15 per cent have a learning disability. On all these measures, homeless squatters are more vulnerable than the single homeless population as a whole, and 90 per cent of homeless squatters have also slept rough.

These are the people whom the Government are seeking to criminalise. I submit that criminalisation will not solve the problems faced by either these homeless individuals or by our society as a whole, which has a housing crisis, with over 600,000 people homeless and 350,000 empty properties-which is, as George Clarke graphically described in his Channel 4 series "The Great British Property Scandal", equivalent to a city the size of Leeds.

To have a rational debate about squatting and empty properties, we need to debunk some of the myths. The Crisis report makes plain that there are a lot of myths around squatting; for example, that of the eastern European squatting gangs invading people's homes, which, according to the Met policeman responsible for squatting policy, does not happen. What we are dealing with are people who, for whatever reason, have lost their home and are on a route back to housing.

Of course there are a few who choose to squat as a political statement, the so-called lifestyle squatters. As the historian Colin Ward says in his history of the subject:

"There has always been a distinction between squatting as a political demonstration and squatting as a personal solution to a housing problem. In the first instance the intention is for propagandist purposes, to be noticed. In the second the hope is to be inconspicuous and blend into the landscape".

The Occupy squats are there to be seen and heard. Other squatters are trying in nearly all cases to be quiet neighbours and keep themselves to themselves.

There are a number of reasons why I am challenging Clause 130. First, it is no way to deal with the vulnerable homeless. Secondly, alone in this Bill, which is all about cutting costs, it will pass substantial additional costs on to the Ministry of Justice and eventually the taxpayer. I know how anxious my noble friend is for the Government to reduce costs and for his department to reduce its budget. Thirdly, the Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association, the Metropolitan Police Service and Crisis all believe that it would be much more sensible for the Government to focus on ensuring that the current law, which is quite adequate, is enforced, rather than to create a new criminal offence.

Interestingly, that position has also been taken by Annington Holdings plc, one of the largest owners of private property in the UK, which describes enforcement as the crux of the problem. It is in empty premises unoccupied for months or years, intended at some time for redevelopment, where people are likely to squat. For the owners of those properties, the housing associations and so on, the recourse is of course civil remedy. I accept that large-scale landlords who have several, perhaps dozens, of empty homes that they intend to redevelop find it very annoying to have to have recourse to civil remedy if they find that one or more of their properties has been squatted.

As a former leader of the local authority in Somerset, I have seen this issue from the other side and I have some sympathy. Housing associations have been affected, as have many private sector developers, but the fact is that civil remedy is not difficult. It is tried, tested and backed up by a very experienced bailiff system, which is what the civil law is there for. One of the peculiarities of the proposed legislation is that it is likely to lengthen the time that it takes to evict squatters. Prosecuted under civil law, squatters can be removed with an interim possession order in just a couple of days but going through the CPS could take weeks or even months.

In March 2011, the Government made a very good move when they made the position clearer in a joint initiative between the MoJ and the Housing Minister, Grant Shapps. They issued updated guidance called Advice on Dealing with Squatters in your Home, which makes it clear that it is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a residential property when asked to do so. I would ask the Minister what advice to the Government changed after March 2011. It was not the advice from the police who, in their formal response to the MoJ consultation, said:

"Criminalisation of squatting and subsequent enforcement would have an impact on policing, in terms of community relations, local policing objectives and cost".

They are not in favour of the change before us tonight. It was not on the advice of the enforcement agencies.

I do not know whether the Minister has had time to read the opinion of Claire Sandbrook, who is one of 60 authorised High Court enforcement officers and chair of Shergroup, which is a leading legal services company. She said:

"'The options put forward in the paper also have one massive omission-the option of enhancing the civil enforcement route for dealing with squatters. Certainly, to my knowledge, there have been no complaints as to how effectively HCEOs deal with squatters once the cases are put in their hands. HCEOs deal with squatter evictions quickly, efficiently, safely and without cost to the public purse once they are in a position to take control of the situation ... The trick would surely be to ensure that cases can be processed and actioned far more speedily through existing civil procedures".

The fact is that the police are neither resourced nor trained to take on the duties that the bailiffs are undertaking. They could do so only at considerable cost and with other vital law and order priorities being downgraded as a result.

What will happen if we leave Clause 130 as it is? I ask your Lordships to consider whether it would mean more empty homes are brought back into use quickly by housing associations and local authorities. No, it will not because the reason that those homes are not being renovated and brought back into use is almost always financial. Will it make it easier for private landlords to gain possession of empty properties? It will not make it any easier or simpler; it will just shift the financial burden from the civil procedure effectively to the taxpayer because the time spent on it will be time spent by the police instead of the bailiffs.

The Government's regulatory impact assessment envisages spending something between £3 million and £10 million more per year to enforce this. That is a very conservative estimate. I have seen others which estimate the sum to be nearer £20 million a year. The impact assessment does not cover the added costs to local authorities that presentation of numbers of vulnerable homeless will present-somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000-nor of children who will need special care arrangements. I think that taxpayers will ask who has benefited from this change. It will not be home owners, who are already protected.

I must say that the Government have made an excellent start on tackling the empty homes problem. Only in December last year, for the first time a £20 million fund was announced to provide support for single homeless people. The Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, then announced a review of barriers to investment in rented homes, and the Government introduced their empty homes strategy, when my honourable friend the Minister Andrew Stunell said:

"The number of empty homes in this country is a national scandal ... yet for every two families that need a home there is one standing empty. That is why I've made tackling the blight of empty homes a top priority for the Coalition ... we've made £150 million available to help councils and charities take radical action".

All the building blocks are in place to solve the empty homes issue and make squatting a thing of the past. That is the route I believe we should be taking. I do not think we should criminalise the vulnerable homeless and we should not be creating a worse housing crisis.

I admit that we have to solve a knotty and difficult problem, but the period between now and Report is when your Lordships need to look in depth at these issues and not at Clause 130 as it is before us tonight. I beg to move.