Online guidance on squatters launched

An online guide offering advice to people wanting to stop squatters from entering their properties was published today.

It details homeowners' legal options if squatters move in.

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said: "I want to shut the door to squatters once and for all, and for homeowners to know their rights just as well as those looking to take over their properties.

"That's why today I'm publishing advice making clear how the law is on their side, and that there are steps they can take to take back their home quickly and effectively."

But squatters' advice charities branded the move "alarmist".

There are thought to be at least 20,000 squatters in the UK.

Mr Shapps has criticised the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) which he claimed in some circumstances acted like an estate agent for squatters.

He told the BBC: "It's wrong, it's unfair. People find their properties have been occupied and it can be quite difficult to rectify the situation.

"Most people would be pretty surprised to learn that there is an office to help squatters, an advisory service.

"But the difference now with online services... their forum, you will see people saying 'I've got one we are going to occupy. Anyone want to come and join us? It's a very nice home in Surrey' and I think it is just wrong that there is no contrary advice out there."

Katharine Hibbert, who works with the service, denied people were advertising squats to occupy via its forum.

She told the BBC: "It's really unnecessarily alarmist to talk about people's homes in this kind of context."

She added: "You have to find a place that's empty and the law as it stands really does protect homes that are in use as homes."

The guide highlights that anyone looking to remove squatters from their home can apply for an Interim Possession Order.

This requires squatters to leave the property within 24 hours, or they are committing a criminal offence and can be arrested and face up to six months' imprisonment.

It is also then an offence for the squatter to return to the property within 12 months of the Interim Possession Order being issued.

Homeowners can then apply for a Final Order of possession, legally returning the property to its owner.

The guidance also makes clear that owners may need to provide evidence that the property is theirs if it is taken over by squatters.