§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the provisions of section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 by making it an offence for a trespasser to fail to leave premises in the ownership of a local authority when the authority certifies that the premises are ready for letting or sale and requests the trespasser to leave; and for related purposes.
In general, trespassing is not a criminal offence in this country. People who unlawfully move into premises that they have no title to occupy are not, therefore, committing a criminal offence. The owner of the premises or anyone else legally entitled to them has to use civil processes to recover possession.
In 1977 Parliament decided that some kinds of squatting should become a criminal offence. If a person occupies premises as a resident and a squatter moves in, the squatter is committing a criminal offence if he does not get out when the lawful occupier asks him to.
When the Criminal Law Act was going through the House in 1977 there was a lot of discussion about how far we should extend criminality in such a situation. In the end we extended it to cover the case where a local authority or housing association has awarded a tenancy to someone but where the tenant has not yet moved in, provided that the landlord gives a certificate to say that the tenant has been authorised to occupy.
During those debates I argued that we were leaving uncovered an important situation—where a local authority has done work or, a place, spent a lot of money on it and is ready to let it but where no one has actually been offered or accepted the tenancy and squatters move in at that moment. The purpose of my Bill is to cover that case.
In many inner city areas a large part of local authority new housing provision these days takes the form of buying old properties and modernising them. T"his normally is preferable to the old practice of demolishing whole streets and erecting council estates. Very satisfactory accommodation can be provided by modernising old properties.
Any local authority housing department engaged on this work knows that the dangerous time comes when the work has been completed, or nearly so, but before the tenancy has been allocated. Squatters who, in many inner city areas, certainly in mine, are well organised can move in during this time. They commit no offence merely by occupying the premises and even if they commit criminal damage by breaking in, that does not make their continued occupation of the premises an offence.
The local authority cannot therefore call in the police to eject the squatters. It must go to the county court to get a possession order. That takes a considerable time. A few years ago the courts introduced an expedited procedure for this process, but it still normally takes many weeks for the average council to get its order. Assuming that the squatters do not immediately move out, it then takes some more time to get the court bailiffs to come to eject them. The squatters are still committing no offence by staying put, even after the possession order has been given against them. My Bill would correct that point, too.
Normally the squatters, who know the ropes, leave just before the bailiffs arrive. This process is time-consuming and costly. Under the expedited procedure the local authority cannot sue for damages. It can get an order 745 covering the court and the bailiffs' costs but no more. But in any case it is normally quite impossible to recover any money from squatters without disproportionate effort and cost. There is also the loss in rent and rates during the period when the premises are denied to legitimate tenants.
Then there is the question of damage. Few squatters treat the place they occupy as if it were their own, for the very good reason that it is not. It is not uncommon for a council to have to spend a great deal more money putting the premises back into the state they had been got to when the squatters moved in.
There are, no doubt, some hon. Members who would be prepared to make all unlawful occupation of residential premises an offence, but the tradition of English law that, except in aggravated circumstances, trespassing should not be an offence is well ingrained in at least lawyers' minds.
The question is whether we got the line right in 1977 in distinguishing between those situations that should entail criminal proceedings and those that should not. I did not think in 1977 that we got it right and I do not think so now. Great cost to the public purse is caused by the abuse I have described. Great misery is caused by the delay in getting rehabilitated property into the hands of legitimate tenants who may have been waiting for years for a decent place.
I recollect a place in Matilda Street in my constituency where the GLC had a house ready for sale. The squatters who moved into that place were actually two foreign students over here from France for a holiday. The international student and squatter grapevine had told them where to look. They stayed there for the few weeks' vacation that they wanted and then moved out. The police were powerless to act.
At the beginning of this year a group of houses in Liverpool Road in Islington were due to be formally opened after modernisation at great expense. The night before the formal opening was due, squatters, who had no doubt been monitoring progress, moved into the very flat where the opening was due to be held. It took months to get them out, even by the expedited procedure. Neither of the two flats in that house could be let during those months. Genuine Islington residents, old people needing to move to ground floor accommodation or young couples waiting for their first homes, were denied accommodation 746 which their rates and taxes had paid for. The squatters had had the use of a fully modernised place for months for absolutely nothing.
I want to stress that my Bill would not cover squatting in old property waiting to be modernised. It would cover only property that the local authority certifies is ready for occupation or for sale. It uses the procedures that Parliament has adopted under the 1977 Act. The procedure of allowing the criminality to be triggered by the local authority making a certificate follows exactly the procedure adopted in the 1977 Act.
Of course, some local authorities might not choose to use the procedure. The choice would be theirs. In the case of the present Islington borough council, which has taken leave of its senses on many things, I can well believe that it would not choose to use the new law. Just recently Islington council has decided to take a large block of flats and hand it over to the 20 or so squatters who are now occupying it, despite the fact that there are legal tenants in the block whose lives have been made a misery in recent months by those very squatters. I refer to Charles Rowan House in Finsbury, a block which some of us struggled for years to get into council hands from the Metropolitan Police so that it could relieve the desperate shortage of accommodation in the area.
It is monstrous that squatters should be able to deny accommodation to genuine residents in the way that they can now. My Bill would bring some relief against a particularly serious form of that abuse. I ask the House to give leave for its introduction so that I can discuss the matter with Home Office and Environment Department Ministers with a view to legislation reaching the statute book, if not this year, perhaps next Session.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. David Alton, Mr. John Cartwright and Sir Brandon Rhys Williams.