Shapps: 'Landlords can legally use force on squatters'

Housing minister says householders can employ violence to evict unwanted occupiers, but critics warn of vigilantism
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The Independent Online

Homeowners who are victims of squatters can use violence to break in and forcibly remove them, ministers have claimed. Squatters who retaliate or defend themselves will face tough criminal sanctions under measures planned by the Government.

The anti-squatting package is designed to curb a growth in commercial and residential properties being taken over by well-organised squatters who exploit legal loopholes to take possession of hundreds of empty buildings.

Critics claim the new measures will encourage vigilantism and result in increased violence.

The Housing minister, Grant Shapps, denied they were advocating vigilantism, adding that the use of physical force to break down front doors of occupied homes is already permitted. "It's physical violence against property, not the person. That may leave a gap in terms of a difficult and dangerous situation, which is why the Government is now considering whether that situation should be criminal," he said.

Criminalising squatting in England and Wales would mean the police could be called if confrontations led to further violence, he said.

Andy Slaughter, the opposition justice spokesman, said the moves were ill-considered. "They're saying at the moment there's nothing to stop you breaking into your own home. But then what? At the moment, the police will not get involved because it is a civil matter. We all think squatting is an appalling, parasitic business, but this sort of inflammatory incitement is highly irresponsible because it is quite likely to lead to a violent confrontation and possible injury."

Mr Shapps and the Justice minister, Crispin Blunt, have dismissed the idea that homeowners and landlords are prevented from re-taking their properties by "so-called squatters rights" – a reference to Section 6 of the 1977 Criminal Law Act, which has been interpreted to protect squatters from violent entry into properties. Many squatted buildings have Section 6 warnings displayed prominently to deter owners taking back their properties. The Act states it is an offence for a person to use violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry. A reluctance of police to become involved has lent strength to squatters' position.

Mr Shapps said: "Section 6 was set up to stop unscrupulous landlords using violence or intimidation. That's very different from a homeowner coming home and finding the house has been occupied and incorrectly believing they can't use a sledgehammer to crash through the front door. It's their home and they are perfectly entitled to."

He said it was "common sense" to make squatting a criminal offence because the current position flies in the face of natural justice. "What squatters have done is to use and misquote it, to regularly shove it up on a door."

The ministers' move has been welcomed by the National Landlords Association. Chris Norris, its policy manager, said the association supports the Government's steps to clarify the law on squatting.

He said: "We support moves to make it clearer and easier for landlords to get a vacant possession back more quickly, before any damage is done, and particularly before any financial hardships are incurred."

Mr Blunt said that ministers were seriously considering extending the right to take back a property forcibly to the owners of commercial buildings. "One of the options I am considering is whether to extend it to other types of property owner, such as commercial property owners. This would effectively render "squatters' rights" notices stuck on the door of any property meaningless."

In Scotland, squatting is a criminal offence under the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865 and can lead to a £200 fine or 21 days in jail.

John Hamilton-Brown, 36

Director of a graphic design company

After buying a £1m five-bedroom house in Archway, north London, he went on a two-week holiday last January with his wife and two young daughters. They returned to find 12 squatters had moved in.

Before the eviction two months later, he was reduced to begging through his letterbox to ask them to leave.

"My initial reaction was panic and fear. Squatters don't have the best reputation, so it was scary. My wife was very upset. I tried to appeal to their decency, but they didn't give a damn. On the day of the eviction last month the squatters calmly waltzed out. There was no consequence or deterrent. They can squat without prosecution, leave a horrid mess and walk around the corner to start the same problem with somebody else."

Steve Cross, 54

Head of security for Ballymore, a property development firm

Squatting and squat parties have cost the company more than £1m in damage and lost revenue at properties in Luton and London, particularly in Battersea, on the proposed site of the new American Embassy. "They run squat parties and charge on the door. We deal with complaints from neighbours over drugs and the continual boom-boom from 48-hour raves. The police are very dismissive and cite Section 6, saying go through the civil courts."

Jason Ruddick, 22

Unemployed, from Latvia

After being evicted from a £10m townhouse, he is squatting in a four-bedroom house in Hampstead, north London, with 10 others from Lithuania, Poland and the UK. He left Latvia in 2009 after learning it was easy to squat in London.

"In Latvia, it's very difficult to find a proper job. It's totally better here. When I first came I didn't find a job. But I get everything for free. Plenty of houses in this area are empty, and if you can put them to good use, why not? I go to the back of the shops and look in the bins to get food for free. If it's not out of date and the packaging is not broken I take it, cook it and eat it."

What the law says

Criminal Law Act 1977, Section 6 Violence for securing entry:

(1) Any person who, without lawful authority, uses or threatens violence for the purpose of securing entry into any premises for himself or for any other person is guilty of an offence, provided that:

(a) there is someone present on those premises at the time who is opposed to the entry which the violence is intended to secure, and:

(b) the person using or threatening the violence knows that that is the case.

(1A) Above does not apply to a person who is a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier of the premises who is acting on behalf of an occupier.

But Section 7 says:

Adverse occupation of residential premises.

(1) Any person who is on any premises as a trespasser after having entered as such is guilty of an offence if he fails to leave those premises on being required to do so by or on behalf of:

(a) a displaced residential occupier of the premises; or

(b) an individual who is an occupier of the premises.