Leading Article: While the law is an ass squatters are sitting pretty

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The Independent Online
IT IS easy to see how it happened. Before the war, poor families who were behind with the rent could be forcibly evicted at a moment's notice by a slum landlord, and left to wander the streets at night. Successive governments therefore laid down formal legal procedures that landlords must follow before they can evict; and they drafted other, compensating, provisions to protect householders from trespassers. Sadly, they did not succeed. Well-informed squatters are making an ass of the law.

Every year, tens of thousands of people break into empty council properties and move in their belongings. When the council realises what has happened, the door has a new lock - and a notice explains politely that squatters have moved in. Because it is hard to prove that they broke in, rather than entering after someone else did, they cannot be arrested. Instead, the council must issue a formal notice to quit. If the squatters ignore that, it must seek a court order; if that fails, the council must ask for a formal eviction order. Even then, it may be weeks before bailiffs are available to enforce it - by which time the squatters may have moved on.

In theory, simpler procedures apply when the owner of the property either has nowhere else to live, or is a local council that has a tenant wanting to move in. But even in these cases, squatters who can show that they were let in to the flat by a former occupier (something that is surprisingly common) are hard to move on.

Many professionals involved - whether lawyers, police, civil servants, judges or local government officers - agree that the situation is absurd. There are thought to be some 60,000 squatters across the country, a quarter of them in London; about 90 per cent of them live in council houses, with 9 per cent occupying shops or offices, and only 1 per cent in privately owned housing. In the Sixties and Seventies, when many councils were embarking on ambitious new building programmes, they could afford to take a relaxed view. Now they cannot; particularly in London, where every place occupied by squatters means another family condemned to the misery of bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

This autumn, the Home Office hopes to legislate to speed up the civil process of eviction, and to stiffen the penalty for ignoring a court order. Yet this alone cannot be enough. For fear that radical change to the law could bring back the cruelty by landlords that the original rules were intended to prevent, the Government has held back from declaring squatting itself criminal. Even if civil proceedings are greatly speeded up, illegal occupiers will still be undisturbed for weeks on end.

If the problem is to be properly tackled, squatters must be prevented from gaining entry in the first place - and removed speedily if they do. The police need to respond more quickly when they are alerted to the arrival of squatters, and to treat the problem with the seriousness it deserves. Councils need to keep their property better secured and maintained. It is no coincidence that it is usually the worst-managed councils that have the most squatters.