Leading Article: Why eviction is not the solution

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MICHAEL HOWARD does not seem to realise that governing the country is different from wooing the Tory faithful. After the party conference a Conservative home secretary is expected to pursue practical policies and not simply continue mouthing polemic. Mr Howard's announcement yesterday of a clampdown on squatters suggests that a tawdry Blackpool agenda is driving the Home Office.

The proposed new law is unnecessary. A battery of existing legislation already offers quick ways to evict squatters and lays down jail sentences or fines for those who refuse to leave. Mr Howard has set himself up as the saviour of families arriving home from holiday to find their homes occupied. But he must know the reality: such cases can be counted on the fingers of one hand and rapid legal remedy was enacted in 1977.

Instead of concentrating on a serious policy initiative, the Home Secretary has offered a knee-jerk reaction to a Tory myth. He might more constructively have announced extra funding for county courts where logjams are the main cause of delays in removing squatters. A comprehensive charter of obligations for squatters would have made the best of a practice that is unlikely simply to disappear.

Instead Mr Howard has proposed legislation with few virtues but several dangers. The most significant change from the status quo is that it would be possible to obtain an eviction order without an alleged squatter having been informed of pending proceedings. This lack of due process could open the law to abuse by unscrupulous landlords.

The Law Society has warned that bona fide tenants may find themselves labelled as squatters in absentia and face eviction. The legislation makes it a criminal offence to lie when seeking a possession order but tenants might find it hard to prove their status - there may be no record of payments. It is easy to imagine people with language difficulties departing quietly at the sight of the police.

The greatest failing of Mr Howard's approach is that he has not acknowledged that squatting is a symptom of homelessness. The lack of reasonably priced accommodation lies at the heart of this issue. That shortage will not be made up by turning squatters out on the streets. In any case, a third of them are families that would have to be housed in some other way.

The reason why up to 80,000 people are still occupying property without permission is not because of an inadequacy in the law. If owners want to remove them, they have the means. Most squatters are tolerated because they are in council properties that would otherwise be empty and derelict. Until local authorities can better manage and fund their properties, there is little point in eviction. Speeding up the legal process offers no solution.

Squatting is a form of theft and should not be granted moral approval. But Mr Howard, in failing to address the root causes of the problem, has offered no fresh remedies either to owners or squatters.

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