Eviction of squatters to be speeded up: Home Secretary's measures are condemned as 'Draconian' by representatives of homeless people. Terry Kirby reports

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The Independent Online
TOUGH measures to strengthen the criminal law against squatting and speed up evictions were announced yesterday by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

The measures were strongly criticised by lawyers and organisations representing the homeless as 'Draconian' and doing nothing to ease the housing crisis.

They follow Mr Howard's '27 points to beat crime' speech to the Conservative Party conference last month and are expected to be included in this autumn's planned Criminal Justice Bill.

Mr Howard said the new measures were designed to end the lengthy delays before evictions could be mounted and were particularly intended for those denied income from property, including shops, occupied by squatters.

He said: 'Squatting can never be justified. There can be no excuse for seizing someone else's property for however short a time. Thieves already face tough criminal sanctions - squatters should too. When people find squatters in their homes, they don't want lengthy court proceedings. They want something done about it straight away. That is what my proposals will achieve.'

It is estimated that there are about 60,000 squatters in the country, with at least 12,000 in London. The majority are in local authority- owned property and more than half are believed to be under 25.

Under the proposals, the owner or occupier of a property can apply immediately to a civil court for an interim possession order - without the squatters being present.

Procedures will be speeded up to ensure that cases are dealt with swiftly, ending the present lengthy waits for hearings. Squatters failing to comply within 24 hours would be liable for eviction, arrest and prosecution with a maximum punishment of six months in prison and/or a pounds 5,000 fine.

To counter accusations that the measures are a charter for unscrupulous landlords, safeguards will make it a criminal offence to give a false statement for a possession order and will allow evicted defendants a full hearing, with the possibility of reinstatement and damages.

Despite Mr Howard's attempt to underline the toughness of the proposals, he has stepped back from the idea, canvassed in a consultation paper, of creating an offence of criminal trespass.

Currently, squatting is dealt with largely under civil law, unless an obvious criminal offence is committed. It is an offence to drive someone from premises if it makes them homeless, but fewer than 100 such prosecutions are launched annually. About 10,000 people each year seek expulsions through the civil courts, which can be time-consuming and costly.

The Law Society criticised the new procedures as being open to abuse with insufficient safeguards; it would be asking the Home Office to justify and clarify them.

Jim Carey, spokesman for the Squatters' Action for Secure Homes group, said: 'Mr Howard would like to paint squatting as a self-gratifying lifestyle course. That is wrong - these people are simply homeless with nowhere else to go. The debate is being confined to criminality and does not address the lack of affordable housing.'

Char, the housing campaign for single people, said the measures were 'Draconian'.

It said: 'They are being applied to all squatters, even though most squatters occupy local authority housing that would otherwise remain empty.'

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