HC Deb 15 October 1991 vol 196 cc151-65 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the law on the unlawful occupation of private property known as squatting.

As Home Secretary I receive letters almost daily showing real grievances on the part of owners and lawful occupiers about squatting and I have had representations from many Members of Parliament. There is no doubt that squatting can cause considerable distress, inconvenience and financial loss.

There are no valid arguments in defence of squatting. It represents the seizure of another's property without consent. It can cause distress to lawful occupants both by the deprivation itself and afterwards when the property is left in a squalid state. No matter how compelling the squatters' own circumstances are claimed to be by their apologists, it is wrong that legitimate occupants should be deprived of the use of their property. The paper which I am publishing today is not concerned with spurious arguments which claim to justify squatting. Rather it considers the various remedies which are or might be available to dispossessed owners.

Squatters can prevent houses from being sold after the owners have moved away and need to sell in order to pay for a new home. People are often intimidated by squatting in nearby houses fearing that their home may be next. Squatters may be unruly and disturb the tranquillity of peaceable and law-abiding neighbourhoods. Small private landlords who rely heavily on rent may be denied that through squatting.

A new practice of shop-squatting has also developed over the past few years where squatters occupy an empty shop, offer shoddy goods, provide unfair competition, and usually disappear very quickly before the law can catch up with them.

The Criminal Law Act 1977 covers the worst cases where an owner-occupier and some tenants are made homeless as a result of squatting. In other cases, it is unlawful for the owner to use or threaten violence. This means that the Act prevents an owner from breaking a pane of glass in his own front door to obtain entry to his own property.

Apart from the changes in the 1977 Act owners and lawful occupiers have to look to the civil courts to uphold their rights to their own property. There are accelerated procedures in the civil court to secure repossession in urgent cases, but the cost of such actions could be between £500 and £800. With the exception of the powers under the 1977 Act, in cases of squatting the police can intervene only if there is a criminal activity such as causing damage, threatening behaviour or the use of drugs.

The present state of the law is patently unsatisfactory. We have been reviewing the criminal law and civil law remedies available to protect innocent people and to enable them to regain the use of their property.

The law in this matter is most complex. Some cases of squatting are clear cut, but not all. Genuine disputes occur between landlord and tenant. To accept in principle that the criminal law should go further to deal with squatting is not enough without careful definition of where it should stop. We do not want the law against squatters to spill into other types of property disputes.

Any changes in law must be practical and enforceable. I am, therefore, publishing today a consultation document which explains what the present remedies are, discusses the weaknesses in them, and sets out some ways of moving forward. We are seeking views from as wide a range of interested people as possible by the end of March 1992.

The Government have decided that the law needs to be changed to safeguard the rights of owners. We want to move forward with the widest possible agreement, based on consideration for other people and respect for their property. Squatting can have very damaging effects on the lives of its innocent victims. I hope that the House will welcome the process of change which I have set in hand today.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

The Opposition share the view that action is necessary to reduce and eventually eliminate squatting. We shall certainly co-operate in the consultation exercise which the Home Secretary proposes. We shall offer our proposals for what he describes as the "widest possible" area of agreement on the subject. I shall begin that exercise by asking him to clarify the Government's position.

The consultation paper asserts that there is a strong case for bringing squatting within the criminal law. In his statement the Home Secretary took the argument further with the sentence that began, To accept in principle that the criminal law should go further". Have the Government already decided that the criminal law is the right remedy? If so, inevitably the area of consultation will be restricted.

Secondly, what does the Home Secretary propose to do about some, not all, of the causes of squatting, which are certainly far more complex than the "self-gratification" —his words—to which he attributes the phenomenon in paragraph 63 of the consultative paper? As is the case with the ever increasing crime rate, it is important to condemn unlawful behaviour and simultaneously to take action against its causes. In squatting, as in other matters, we do not have to choose between taking tough action against unlawful conduct and removing the conditions in which unlawful conduct is encouraged: we should do both simultaneously.

If the Government are serious about ending squatting, they need to take some action to reduce homelessness, which has increased from 56,000 families in 1979 to 145,000 families in 1990. If the Government are serious about taking action against squatting, they need also to take action to restore income support to 16 and 17-year-olds, the removal of which has driven so many of them into shop doorways and cardboard shelters.

The scandal of homelessness affronts all civilised people. Although I share the Government's view that action should be taken against squatting, the Government are only nibbling at the edges of the problem if they do not deal with the root cause, which is homelessness. Since the Home Secretary has chosen to make this statement today, may we be assured that the fundamental cause of squatting—homelessness—will be the subject of a statement tomorrow?

Mr. Baker

I hope that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) will support the process that I have set in hand. I confirm that the Government accept dot there is a case for change and that there must be an extension of the criminal law in this respect. We want to consult widely upon this issue because some cases are immensely complicated as they involve the landlord and tenant and we do not want such cases to come under the squatting provisions.

On the general point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, squatting is no answer for the single homeless. We have other proposals and measures to deal with that problem and I should like to remind the right hon. Gentleman of some of them. In London this year we are making available substantially increased investment in hostel accommodation. Over the next three years in London alone we are committing such sums of money to deal specifically with the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. We committed £15 million last year, £38 million this year and we shall commit £43 million next year, together with assistance to the voluntary organisa-tions. That is equivalent to £100 million on hostels in London alone.

On other measures for the homeless, no doubt the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the announcement that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made last week. He announced a scheme worth £25 million to enable local authorities to bring back into use some 100,000 empty properties above shops in high streets.

I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome such announcements. He asked for positive measures to deal with the homeless and we have a whole range of positive measures. The right hon. Gentleman should not use the argument of homelessness for not being fully committed to doing away with the evil of squatting. That is what we will do.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

May I assure my right hon. Friend that his statement today will be warmly welcomed by many people, including constituents of mine who have suffered from the reprehensible activities of squatters?

Will my right hon. Friend accept that extending the criminal law to give adequate protection to those people who are trying to sell their empty houses as second homes or retirement homes—they do not have such protection at the moment—is crucial to the success of any moves to tighten the law? Will he confirm that taking such action would minimise the time that squatters remain unlawfully in those properties and the damage that they can cause, with the ensuing misery and cost to the owners?

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend is right. He has brought to my attention cases of his constituents who have tried to sell a house that has been left empty after they have bought another house. The house that those people have tried to sell has then been occupied by squatters and there is no effective remedy other than through the civil courts, which takes a long time and is an expensive remedy. That is simply not fair. We are changing the law for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has cited.

Mr. David Bellotti (Eastbourne)

My party supports the Home Secretary's statement. The right hon. Gentleman stated that the Government accept that there is a need for change in the way in which central Government deal with local authorities, which, in turn, can deal with some of their housing problems. If the consultation procedure confirms that, will the Government be prepared to change their policies to deal with the problem of squatting?

Does the Home Secretary agree that the problem of squatting in shops is now so serious, given that people are able to break into property and change the locks so that the owners are unable to get into their property, that waiting for the consultation period to finish next March will not help to overcome it? On that score we do not want consultation; we need action today.

Mr. Baker

I am quite sure that if there had been no consultation procedure the Liberals would have been the first to say that we needed a consultation procedure because that is their stock in trade. We are not proceeding slowly as the consultation process will cover a short period, but it is sensible to proceed in that manner. I want to formulate the proposals as soon as that consultation period is over and I want to bring them to the House as soon as possible because there is a wrong that must be righted.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the incidence of shop squatting has increased. It increased substantially just before last Christmas, and I expect that it will increase again. The present law is inadequate to deal with the problem, and that is why I intend to introduce new proposals.

On the question of local authorities, I should remind the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Belotti) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) that, apart from the assistance to hostels of which I have reminded the House today and the scheme announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning last week, we are spending £300 million on the homelessness initiative. That is targeted on areas of particular risk, especially London and certain other inner conurbations. That initiative will provide a great deal of accommodation, precisely the sort of accommodation that many people living in squats will want.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

I assure my right hon. Friend that his statement will be warmly welcomed in my constituency. As well as consulting with the local authorities of Brighton and East Sussex, will my right hon. Friend also contact Sussex university where some of the homelessness problem arises?

Mr. Baker

Yes, I shall certainly do that, and I am willing to receive representations from any area. We deal specifically in the consultation document with squatting in certain other premises, beyond residential and commercial —in universities and industrial premises—but we are not proposing to take action in those areas. We propose to take action in the areas to which I referred, which are residential and commercial.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The right hon. Gentleman's announcement will be greatly welcomed in my constituency. Does he have any proposals to deal with a particular form of the problem, which is that of habitual squatters who squat for many months in one property, at great inconvenience to the owner, the neighbours, the police and the council, and, as soon as they are moved out, immediately move into another squat? Will the proposals include a provision, perhaps an injunction procedure, to stop repetition of the offence?

Mr. Baker

Injunctions usually represent a slow and elaborate procedure for dealing with issues such as this. It will become an offence to move in the way the right hon. Gentleman described. At present, squatters can move from one property to another, and unless they move into one that is occupied by the residential owner at the time the owner cannot do anything about it. But if we change the law in the way I envisage and create an offence with a penalty—the present penalty is six months' imprisonment or a fine of £2,000 rising to £5,000—it will act as a major deterrent.

I welcome the support that the right hon. Gentleman has offered, and I hope that that degree of support will continue as the consultation process continues.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be warmly received throughout the country and particularly by ordinary people who are the principal victims of squatting misery. Is he aware that many of those who engage in squatting—whether they occupy a shop in Oxford street and sell shoddy goods before they decamp or occupy homes and flats—are often intolerant, aggressive and intimidating?

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend. The problem has got out of hand and often people of modest means are deprived of their property. Earlier this year I received a letter from a lady in the west midlands. She wrote that her father had worked for 60 years in a local factory and that when he died her mother went to live elsewhere. She wrote: Last May, mum passed away, leaving her cottage as an investment for her four children. The house was emptied of all her personal possessions and I put it up for sale. All her furnishings, carpets and crockery were left in the house and every few weeks I would go over and clean the windows, hoover and keep the garden looking nice, because it was always the pride of her home. Three weeks ago, five squatters moved in and they have taken complete charge of our house, having had the electricity and water turned on again"— as might happen in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). The lady ended her sad letter by saying: The law is unfair to the working people who keep this country going and something must be done to get the law changed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it would have been more appropriate had he made a statement today about the need for permanent accommodation to be built by local authorities? Is he further aware that much of the problem is due to the fact that many local authorities are not, and have not been for years, in a position to build accommodation for people? I agree that many aspects of squatting are undesirable, as the letter from which the right hon. Gentleman read made clear. But even more undesirable are the appalling problems faced by people who cannot find accommodation. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that not simply the homeless but many of our constituents stand no chance of being offered rented accommodation because the Government have not allowed local authorities to build?

Mr. Baker

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the £100 million being spent on hostel accommodation in London alone, of the £300 million being made available for the homeless initiative, and of the initiative announced last week to bring flats above shops back into use. If the hon. Gentleman wants to give a lecture on this subject, he might lecture local authorities about the 100,000 empty council houses and flats, of which 24,000 have been empty for more than a year. They should be brought back into use.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be warmly welcomed in my constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there can never —repeat never—be any excuse for squatting in someone else's property? Does he accept that, in my constituency and elsewhere, innocent householders, shop owners and people who live next to open spaces that have been invaded have been very worried in the past, feeling that the remedies available to them at civil law have been too slow and too expensive? May I urge him to bring the matter within the criminal law—and congratulate him again on an excellent statement?

Mr. Baker

I thank my hon. Friend, in whose constituency squatting is quite common. He has already brought cases to my attention, and it is clear that something must be done.

As I have said, the sheer complexity of the law has made us rather reluctant to deal with the matter in the past. The law is indeed complex, but it is clear that the criminal law, as it was extended in 1977, must be extended again. When a civil remedy is changed to a criminal remedy, it is right for the House of Commons to be told and consulted and for wider consultation to take place as well.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the impact of the recession has left many more high street shops empty to be squatted in by unscrupulous cowboy traders? Does he understand that both traders and trading standards officers are worried about the impact of the problem in the Christmas period? Given that background, why cannot he deal with this narrow and specific aspect of the problem more swiftly than he now proposes?

Mr. Baker

I must resist the temptation. It is a complicated change of law; it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We are dealing not only with the law of landlord and tenant, but with the legislation relating to commercial lettings. I entirely accept, however, that the matter must be put right, and I want to do so as soon as possible.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the consultation process will include the question of squatting on land as well as that of squatting on property? No doubt his officials have let him know what has happened during the recess in Sandhurst, in my constituency, where so-called travellers have been squatting on land, causing terrific damage, nuisance and an environmental health problem. Each time that they are moved on, they move to some other land just down the road. They are beating the law. The law no longer works. My constituents no longer have faith in the law, and it must be changed.

Mr. Baker

I am well aware of such problems. The paper that I am publishing today, however, concerns squatting on premises; it does not consider unlawful occupation of open land, as is explained in paragraph 2, which raises different questions of law and practice and is subject to separate legislation—in particular the Public Order Act 1986. Following a public review of section 39 of that Act, which deals with aggravated trespass on land, the Government announced on 22 May that no change in the law was required. My hon. Friend should know, however, that I have issued guidance to the police about how they should handle incidents similar to the one to which he has referred. I shall send him a copy.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement. Is he aware, however, of the problems created by private landlords, such as the ones who bought British Coal houses of ex-miners for next to nothing, and then deliberately refused to put tenants into them when they had become empty? On the Townville estate in my constituency, 48 per cent. of the 270,000 houses are now empty. The landlords, the London and Gloucester property company, never attempted to put tenants into them.

We must not support squatting, of course, but it is very tempting to do so when we imagine ourselves in the position of a family with kids and no shelter, given that all those houses are empty.

Mr. Baker

I understand that. However, the hon. Gentleman's example goes rather beyond the matter with which I am dealing. [Interruption.] Yes, it does. Here we are dealing with the unlawful and illegal occupation of residential or commercial properties. I gather from what the hon. Gentleman told us that that did not occur in the case that he cited.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many million more home owners will be pleased by today's initiative than when the matter was last addressed, in 1977? A high proportion of those people are elderly, and they have always considered that there is something wrong with a criminal law that appears to protect the squatter against the lawful owner.

Will my right hon. Friend give particular attention to one problem that has come to light? It arises when a squatter has actually been invited into a house by its owner under some pretext, and can therefore be evicted only in the event of violence, which most people are reluctant to use. Will my right hon. Friend consider that matter when the consultation process comes to an end?

Mr. Baker

I shall certainly make sure that my hon. and learned Friend's latter point is considered. If there is an agreement between a landlord and a tenant and the tenant has entered improperly into possession, that is not a matter of squatting. It is when the tenant commits an act of trespass.

I could not agree more with my hon. and learned Friend's first point. As a result of us being in power for the last 12 years, home ownership has increased dramatically —by well over 2 million. Therefore, many more people are likely to benefit from the proposals than, say, 12 years ago.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Why does the Home Secretary refuse to extend the legislation to open spaces? Is he not aware of the problems caused by gipsies and travellers, particularly in my constituency, who for 15 years have squatted on parks, car parks, school playing fields and derelict factory sites? As soon as they are moved on, after lengthy court hearings, they come back again to another place. Why does the Home Secretary not accept that this is a bigger problem for working class people living in council houses? They have to live next to these gipsies, with their generators going every night, with their horses, their health problems, their dogs and their threats of violence. It is every bit as big a problem for these people as it is for people with property in Kensington. Why does not the Home Secretary extend the safeguard to open spaces?

Mr. Baker

I am well aware of the troubles caused by gipsies. I am aware of them in my own constituency, which is moving towards becoming a designated authority under the Act. That is the best way to deal with it. Once an authority becomes designated, it is much easier to move the gipsies on. I have already said, however, that my proposals today specifically deal with squatting and the illegal occupation of premises rather than with land.

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider including new rights for the owners of some commercial properties other than shops? I am thinking in particular of district health authorities where property has previously been used for residential or treatment purposes.

Mr. Baker

If there are such cases—one has not come my way—where property, which is empty and which is owned by a public institution prior to being sold or disposed of, is squatted, we shall certainly consider doing that under the change of law that we envisage.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the problem of squatting, which I do not condone, is likely to worsen in student areas as a result of the punitive measures that the Government have imposed on students? Why did housing benefit for students have to be abolished? What proposals will the Government make to restore housing benefit and improve the housing position of thousands of students?

Mr. Baker

I do not accept the premise behind the hon. Gentleman's question. Squatting has been a problem for society for a very long time. That was what led the Labour Government in 1977 to bring residential squatting within the criminal law. The problem has been with us for a very long time, and it is about time that the nettle was grasped and the matter sorted out.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, but is it not clear to him that there is a widespread feeling on both sides of the House that the proposals must be extended to the illegal occupation of land? The point that he made, with every justification, about the squatting of property surely applies just as much to the occupation of land. My right hon. Friend should take action. People who go in for this practice cause absolute misery to decent folk living in the area, as well as to the owners of the land. He must surely think again.

Mr. Baker

I understand the concern expressed by Members on both sides of the House. I dare say that if I came up with proposals on this matter they would not be so widely welcomed on all sides. It is a controversial area. I should be happy to consider the general law of trespass on public land. It has wide ramifications. The law is infinitely more complex than the law relating to premises. However, I have an open and a welcoming mind and always want to extend the protection of property, which has been one of the abiding interests of our party over the centuries.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Does the Home Secretary realise that the law of criminal trespass works effectively only when the police exercise the power of arrest? Does he also realise that arresting people and keeping them in police cells or perhaps in prison is not necessarily a cheaper process? Does not he think that we should speed up court procedures and make them simpler and perhaps give magistrates courts a civil jurisdiction rather like the ouster jurisdiction that they have in matrimonial cases? That might be better than involving the police, who are already overburdened in these matters.

Mr. Baker

I agree with half of what the hon. Gentleman said about speeding up the processes, but I do not think that this matter can be resolved without creating a power of arrest for the police. I am sure that that will be one of the conclusions of the consultation process.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement will be warmly welcomed in my constituency in Bournemouth where there is a serious problem, as there is in many other south coast towns? It affects not just second homes or properties that are for sale but the property of elderly people in nursing homes. Does my right hon. Friend accept that we need to extend the power further to local authorities? There are many examples of listed buildings or buildings within conservation areas that have been severely damaged by the occupation of squatters, and there is sometimes a suspicion that developers may have connived at the occupation so that the property is so severely damaged that it can be demolished. That is a matter of considerable public interest, and I believe that local authorities should be given powers to protect buildings and communities.

Mr. Baker

That is dealt with in paragraph 39 of the consultation document. My hon. Friend is suggesting that, while increasing the power of the residential owner to call in the police to deal with squatting, neighbours and the local authority should also be able to exercise that power. It represents a substantial change in British law if we give to a local authority a property right that is conveyed only upon the owner of the property. None the less, my hon. Friend's comment about the possible danger to listed buildings and buildings of architectural interest is interesting, and I shall ensure that it is considered during the consultation process.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

In his statement, the Home Secretary referred to the cost of civil proceedings. Is not the problem here the fact that increasingly legal aid is not assisting the persons of limited means who are often the victims of squatting? Should not that be addressed? Also, if the Home Secretary is considering extending the criminal law to deal with this matter, will he consider extending to Northern Ireland the Criminal Law Act 1977, which he believes to be inadequate?

Mr. Baker

I shall not be drawn on the hon. Gentleman's latter point. The proposals that I have announced today relate only to England and Wales. There is something in the hon. Gentleman's initial point.

Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley)

May I express the welcome that the people of Yardley will give to the consultation paper? I urge my right hon. Friend to look at one of the underlying principles, which is that a squat in one property in any local authority area would be a squat in all properties in that area. That would cover the points mentioned. I have a letter from Tracey Smith and her husband of 65 Yardley road, Acocks Green. She is expecting a baby shortly, but was denied a flat by the Labour authority in Birmingham because it was occupied by squatters. The proposals will help tremendously.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider the position of travellers? They are unlicensed, non-tax paying scrap metal dealers who tow their squats behind them, despoiling the parks and residential amenities in my constituency in a regular routine year after year. May I add my voice to those——

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is three points. I think that that is enough.

Mr. Baker

I quite understand that several hon. Members would like the law on gipsies to be reconsidered. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is responsible for such matters, I shall ensure that that is drawn to his attention. The powers of local authorities will be increased and enhanced to deal with squatting. It is unfair that local authority properties should be squatted when there are such long housing lists in certain areas. It is incredible mismanagement that so many council properties are still empty.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Home Secretary accept that there is a close link between the many homeless people in London and the problem of squatting, and that hostels are not the answer? The answer is a massive purchasing and building programme to enable housing associations and local authorities to house the homeless. In London in particular the problem is not so much empty local authority property as large areas of speculatively built luxury homes that are deliberately kept empty for private gain. The right hon. Gentleman should be addressing those issues rather than taking a punitive approach, which does not solve the problem.

Mr. Baker

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's views are not entirely shared by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. I remind the hon. Gentleman that 50,000 hostel places are available—we have increased them substantially—and that many squatters are single people. We are committing £100 million to hostel spending in the next three years, in addition to an expenditure of £300 million on the homelessness initiative. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows if he follows these matters, capital spending on housing will increase to £2 billion next year.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

May I join in the welcome for my right hon. Friend's statement? If an Englishman's home is his castle, is not it high time that squatting was made criminally illegal and not only unlawful? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing number of professional squatters in desirable residences, not only in London but throughout the country? It simply is not enough to rely on hoping to call in the police if there is damage after the event or on embarking on a costly eviction process. Change is needed and, as the Government have proposed to spend much money on substantial measures to deal with homelessness, it is high time to crack down on squatters.

Mr. Baker

I am glad to have my hon. Friend's support. The measures that I have announced will apply to all parts of the country and all types of squatting. I am glad to see such widespread support across the House for them. Perhaps the consultation period could be a bit shorter as a result.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The twin evil peaks for many residents in a densely populated constituency such as mine—three quarters of my constituents are tenants of the local authority—are anti-social squatters as neighbours and empty property. Will the Home Secretary investigate whether proposals that have been put on an all-party basis to Ministers at the Department of the Environment over the years to give people a right to take over not the ownership but the occupancy of publicly or privately owned property could be included in legislation to deal with squatting? They both need to be dealt with at the same time.

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is sitting next to me and has heard the hon. Gentleman's point. I am not sure that that is the right way to handle the problem, but one of the problems in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which is shared by many inner-London Members, is anti-social squatting and the disturbance that it creates for many peaceable and law-abiding people. That is what we shall try to address.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the increasing incidence of squatting in my constituency has not been related to homelessness but has been organised by groups of people determined to take over different properties, thereby causing much distress? Will he take on board the point that where there has been occupation of open space, which has occurred in my constituency, there has been an accompanying increase in crime and vandalism in surrounding areas? He could kill two birds with one stone by including in the consultation paper legislation to deal with open-space squatting.

Mr. Baker

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I assure him that I shall bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Is the Home Secretary aware that one of the primary causes of squatting by young people, particularly the under-18s, is the fact that the Government changed the rules to deny them access to income support and therefore to any help with the costs of rent and housing? Will he approach the Secretary of State for Social Security and insist that youngsters of 17 should again have access to income support?

Mr. Baker

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's analysis. Squatting did not suddenly start in 1986 or 1987; it goes back to the 1960s and 1970s. That is why the Labour Government had to take a half-hearted measure against it in 1977. We shall do the job properly.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Although I welcome the discussion paper, I do not believe that it goes far enough and, for once, I must disagree with my right hon. Friend. The discussion paper appears to give protection to those who own property in which squatters are living but no protection to property owners when squatters are on the land outside. There will be grave disappointments at the fact that we have not taken on board the problems faced in particular by many businesses when travelling families move on to land and they cannot get them off. The law as it stands is an ass. I urge my right hon. Friend to bring forward soon another discussion document that addresses itself to this great problem.

Mr. Baker

Following the Public Order Act 1986, I issued guidance to the police force on how to handle these incidents which continue to occur around the country. It is my responsibility as Home Secretary to deal with such matters. If there is a demand for public discussion on the law of trespass in general, particularly on gipsies, I shall draw that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Home Secretary admit that the increase in squatting is largely due to the Government's policies? People were told to get on their bikes and find work. They came to London and some squatted. Benefits were withdrawn and some more people squatted. The poll tax was inflicted on them and some more squatted. If the Government want to resolve the problem, they should do two things—release the 35,000 Government-owned houses, one quarter of which are under the control of the Home Office, and allow local authorities to use the money that the Government are stopping them from using in order to build houses again and get back to the targets that we used to have.

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman is as misguided as the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). It is absurd to say that squatting has increased because of Government policy. There has been squatting because certain people wanted a squatting lifestyle. Squatting existed in the 1960s and 1970s, and there were some dramatic cases. The Labour Government tried to deal with it, but their measures were not effective. Our proposals would be much more effective.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall endeavour to call those hon. Members who are standing. I propose to allow questions on the statement to continue only until 4.20 pm, as there is a ten-minute Bill to follow and the House should move on to the defence debate at 4.30 pm. Brief questions, please.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that these measures will help those Labour councils that have so lost control of their housing stock—mainly through pathetic management—that they do not know who is inside the properties that they are renting out? Those councils do not control their properties; key money changes hands; councils are not collecting rents; people are squatting; and councils do not know who is in their properties. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that councils help, or, if they do not take advantage of these measures, will he remove ownership of such properties from local authorities and give it to housing associations so that that stock can be brought back into use?

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is sitting beside me and has heard all my hon. Friend's advice. My hon. Friend referred to errors and mistakes in management. All the lists which I have seen show that the 10 local authorities with the worst-managed housing stock are all Labour.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be extremely welcome in Canterbury and Whitstable, where we have had two unpleasant squats by young and violent criminals. Will my right hon. Friend ignore the blandishments of the civil liberties lobby which will start from the moment he walks out of the Chamber? Will he listen to the strongly worded views expressed in the House today and ensure that we have the most watertight and the toughest possible law to deal with this important matter?

Mr. Baker

I assure my hon. Friend that that is exactly what I intend to do. This grievance hurts many innocent victims. We should do something about it within the time scale announced. This is a short time scale for legislation on trespass and squatting.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

In the context of this welcome statement, will my right hon. Friend at least not rule out the possibility of looking again at the Public Order Act 1986? Is he aware that the sort of squatting by which people in Teignbridge have been plagued is gangs of brigands descending on open land? As there is an insufficient number of motor vehicles in the area, the law is virtually powerless to touch them. I accept entirely that the law is a difficult and complicated area, but I must say to my right hon.. Friend that that is a small measure which would require a simple and straightforward change in the law. For many people in rural areas, it would be invaluable.

Mr. Baker

I hear what my hon. Friend has said. Let me say at once that I am not unsympathetic to that. The law on trespass on land is immensely complicated. Clearly many hon. Members of all parties have said, not only today but repeatedly, that the law on gipsies is unsatisfactory. As I have said, I will draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Does he agree that it will not only be beneficial to the owners of property in which a squat is taking place, but will be widely welcomed by the neightbours on each side of such properties? Their lives have often been made absolute hell as a result of squats. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the statement should be widely welcomed in the appallingly ill-managed London boroughs of Hackney, Lambeth and Southwark, which account for 65 per cent. of the present squats in London?

Mr. Baker

I am quite sure that the statement will be welcomed in those three boroughs, and it is badly needed in those three boroughs. However, it will also be welcomed in constituencies such as my hon. Friend's because squatting is very anti-social and can disturb the neighbourhood and the street. The neighbours of a squat can be just as angry as the person who is deprived of his home.

Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South)

May I re-emphasise to my right hon. Friend that revised police guidance will not be enough to control the nuisance of itinerants? In Warrington, we have, not a temporary, but a permanent nuisance. It takes a long time to move such people on, they leave a lot of squalor behind them, and they move just a mile up the road.

Mr. Baker

I hear what my hon. Friend has said, and I repeat what I have said in reply to other colleagues this afternoon.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his announcement today will be welcomed, but that what will really be welcomed is, at the end of the consultation exercise, a robust and effective use of the criminal law, unlike section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986? Avon has decided not to use that section and, consequently, those who are really affected—not the landowner, but the people who live around the land that is being squatted on—have misery, degradation, dirt, squalor and crime on their doorsteps.

Mr. Baker

I can assure my hon. Friend that the whole thrust of the proposals that I have brought to the House this afternoon is to extend the criminal law in the areas that I have described. I hear what he says on the other matters.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

My right hon. Friend obviously understands that, in seaside economies, there is a lot of empty property during the winter. Will the Bill, when it is brought before the House, address two specific points?

First, the citizen expects the police to be able to act and the police are frustrated because they cannot do so. That leads to a general deterioration in respect for the local police. Secondly, Mr. Christopher Cox, whose case has been drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention, has been the victim on the Isle of Wight of a criminal gang who go round squatting in premises and using blackmail. They ask for up to £2,000 to vacate the property. That is becoming a thoroughgoing racket, and I believe that it is prevalent not only on the Isle of Wight but throughout the south coast. It must be stopped.

Mr. Baker

On my hon. Friend's second point, I suspect that it is already a criminal offence. On the first point, I agree entirely that the whole thrust of my proposals is to give a role to the police in dealing with the matter because at the moment they are frustrated. They are often called to a squat and can do nothing about it because of the limitations of the Criminal Law Act 1977. The proposals that I have put before the House today will change that.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does the Home Secretary agree that squatters want a free ride, and that they do not wish to pay rent to anybody or to pay community charge to anybody? If it is unlawful to break and enter and to take charge of a motor vehicle, it must be unlawful to break and enter and to take charge of somebody's dwelling. On travellers, let us have a revision of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 by the Department of the Environment.

Mr. Baker

I am glad that my hon. Friend stopped short of the advice that he gave me at the Tory party conference to deal with the matter. I can assure him that he will not be disappointed by the robustness of the proposals as they are carried through and developed in the next few months.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)


Mr. Speaker

Was the hon. Gentleman here for the statement?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I have been here since 2.30 pm, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

But was the hon. Gentleman here for the statement? Did he hear the statement?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I have been here since 2.30 pm, Sir.

Mr. Speaker

Did the hon. Gentleman hear the statement? That is what I am asking. Did he hear it or did he not?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

As I explained, Mr. Speaker, I have been here since 2.30 pm.

Mr. Speaker

That seems a pretty qualified response, but I shall call the hon. Gentleman nevertheless.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

There was no qualification in my response, Mr. Speaker. I have been here throughout, and I was here for the statement.

May I ask the Home Secretary a simple question? Has there been an increase in squatting in private residential property in recent years?

Mr. Baker

May I first confirm that the hon. Gentleman was here during my statement—indeed, he was squatting there throughout.

The question of numbers is dealt with in the consultation document and, according to one estimate, there could be as many as 50,000 illegal squatters at the moment.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps I should have phrased my question in the hon. Gentleman's own words. I should have asked him, "Yes or No?"