Mike’s Speech on Squatting

Mike has given a speech in Parliament concerning squatting. The text of his speech is as follows:

“Mr Brady, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.

I will start with a quote. “This place isn’t nice enough for me. I want somewhere posher, with a swimming pool if possible.”

No, this is not someone complaining about the House of Commons gym facilities. These are the words of one of London’s most prolific squatters about his latest free home in Hampstead as reported in the Evening Standard last week.

We are all covering his council tax contributions. We are all covering his electricity and gas bills. And we are all paying for police to investigate each time a new break-in is reported.

Mr Brady, as my Honourable Friend the Minister stated in a recent letter to me, squatting is, and I quote, “the unauthorised occupation of property belonging to another person and amounts to trespass on land”. Some forms of trespass are criminal, such as those which take place on licensed aerodromes and railways, but I am focusing today on all of the other forms. It relates to offices, flats and houses. It relates to empty and occupied buildings. And it relates to private and public property. These forms are unlawful but not criminal.

Squatting is a huge problem in my Hove and Portslade constituency and I have been campaigning on the issue since I was elected. I am delighted that the Minister and our Rt Hon Friend, the Minister for Housing, have made joint announcements on the issue. I am grateful also to organisations such as Landlord Action that have helped me to raise awareness of the issue around the country. Indeed, the Ministers’ announcements will be widely welcomed by those who have been adversely affected by squatters. I will be making the case today that time is of the essence – the problem is getting worse, not better – but also that there are two sides to this and getting to the crux of the matter is not just about cracking down on the trespassers themselves.

I wish to dispel the myth once and for all that squatters and homeless people are one and the same. My Hove and Portslade constituency has both wealth and deprivation. It is a mecca for every character imaginable and that is what makes it such a wonderfully diverse place in which to live. Homelessness is an issue and we have a fantastic support network of local charities, including Emmaus, Brighton Housing Trust, Off The Fence and the YMCA, which look after a great number of vulnerable people. It is our duty to look after such people and I fully support the excellent work being carried out in this area.

Tackling homelessness is a high priority too for Brighton & Hove City Council. The council is working hard to reduce the number of empty properties in the city and, last year alone, 168 long-term empty private properties were brought back into use. In 1997, 200 council-owned properties were long-term empty but this is now down to just 28. But having to put considerable resources into removing squatters and paying for the damage which they cause inevitably puts strain on all council services. In the past 18 months, there have been 10 instances of squatting in council-owned properties which has cost the people of Brighton & Hove over £30,000 in legal bills alone. One particular property was left with a £40,000 repair bill; again, to be picked up by the residents of Brighton & Hove. Squatters are damaging buildings which are in the process of refurbishment and this only exacerbates the housing shortage.

In my experience, squatters do not fit the profile of the kind vulnerable people that we should be looking out for. I am generalising of course but, for the purposes of this discussion, I want to make a point. Serial squatters know the law. They submit Freedom of Information requests to councils to find out where there are empty buildings. They are web-savvy and highly resourceful. They run rings around the law. And what these professional squatters lack in respect for other people’s property, they make up for in guile and tenacity. They are organised and frequently menacing.

I mentioned that squatters know the law well but it is absolutely the opposite when it comes to the public in general who would be shocked if they knew just how powerless they are to take on squatters. Many don’t find out until it is too late. Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to use violence, or threats of violence, to gain access to premises when there is someone on the premises who is opposed to such entry. This is what is usually referred to as squatters’ rights. I don’t believe that the clause exists to assist squatting. It is in place to prevent unscrupulous landlords from using violence or intimidation to evict legitimate tenants. Squatters, therefore, only have such rights by accident.

A local resident asked of me in my local paper, The Argus: “If squatting is a practice that is socially unacceptable, how is leaving a property empty for more than a year any more acceptable?”. My answer is simple. It isn’t acceptable at all and I have contacted my local council on the issue of empty buildings belonging to exploitative developers on a number of occasions. We should be careful though not to embrace squatting on the principle that our enemy’s enemy is a friend. We must get tough on bad landlords, and soon, but buildings can be temporarily empty for all sorts of reasons and many are entirely acceptable.

Take the case of 40 Wilbury Villas in Hove. As I mentioned, Brighton & Hove City Council is carrying out a huge refurbishment project on a number of properties. They are public assets which should be in use and let to those who have been deemed in most need of them. 40 Wilbury Villas is one such property and works were planned. When a particularly vigilant neighbour spotted the locks being changed, he knew that something was up. Straight away, a notice appeared on the door listing the rights of squatters. It was downhill from then on as an endless stream of professional squatters turned up for their share of the spoils.

It’s interesting that the notice on the door was selective on which laws it mentioned. Many of the crimes that go hand in hand with squatting were conveniently left off. There was nothing on the subject of breaking and entering. There was nothing on breach of the peace. Nothing on misuse of drugs. Nothing on criminal damage. Nothing on anti-social behaviour. Nothing on non-payment of council tax. Nothing on arson. Nothing on robbery. Nothing on unauthorised works to listed buildings. Nothing on using utilities without contacting the suppliers. And there was certainly nothing on fly-tipping.

I have discussed the issue with Sussex Police and their powers are limited. There are not always witnesses so arrest is often difficult. Protected Intended Occupiers and Displaced Residential Occupiers do have some protection but not enough.

Incidentally, members of the same group then took over another property nearby, Park House, where, again, a historic building was damaged. Refurbishment will now be that little bit more expensive as a result.

Mr Brady, please forgive me when I say that I was sceptical when I read that my Hon Friend the Minister for Justice and my Rt Hon Friend the Minister for Housing had jointly released the guide “Advice on dealing with squatters in your home”. It is actually very good and to the point and I would recommend it to anybody who owns a property which has been invaded by squatters, or neighbours of properties with squatters. Squatters won’t need to read it. They have their own guide, the Squatters’ Handbook, which, like the notice on the door, is sadly very selective when it comes to rights in both law, and morality.

As I alluded to previously, I have little sympathy for landlords who use loopholes in the planning system to run-down buildings or who simply don’t care that their properties are in a state. When compared to other countries though, the UK has very few empty buildings. In Spain and Italy, over 20% of the sorts of properties that we are discussing today were empty in 2009. In Germany, it was 8.2%. In France, it was 6.1%. The UK is currently between 3 and 4 %. Of comparable countries, only the Netherlands and Sweden were lower at 2.2 and 1.7% respectively. We can do better, of course, but the problem is not one of empty buildings. Business rates, council tax, enforcement and compulsory purchase are all deterrents to leaving properties empty and there is plenty of scope here to improve the system.

My recent Early Day Motion, 1545, calls for squatting to be criminalised and has attracted cross-party support. Members of the public are getting tired of hearing that squatters are getting so much for free when they are struggling to get by. They are fed up too with the anti-social behaviour and general mess caused by squatters. High profile campaigns run by the Telegraph and Evening Standard are certainly helping to highlight what is really going on.

The extent of the problem was highlighted in a Parliamentary Question that I asked recently to determine which government departments have been affected by squatting. A number of departments have fallen foul to squatters – including the Ministry of Justice. One of that department’s buildings was occupied by squatters, twice, in one year. Interim possession orders were sought to remove the squatters on each occasion. If the Ministry of Justice has problems, what chance have the rest of us got?

Fortunately, we don’t need to look far for a solution. In Scotland, this form of trespass is already a criminal offence. I am aware that the Government has the matter under review but I am concerned that what is proposed won’t go far enough.

Mr Brady, I welcome the announcement that squatting is likely to be criminalised but the devil will be in the detail. Properties can be destroyed very quickly. It should be possible to remove squatters instantly as any delay simply results in further damage and destruction. There should be tough penalties and a criminal record.

I’ll end with a worrying quote from our friend in Hampstead who wants a free swimming pool: “Law changes will never stop us. The Government can say all they want but squatting will still go on. There is nothing they can do.” Mr Brady, I hope that he is wrong.”

Correction: There were 200 long-term empty council properties in 2007, not 1997, as Mike suggested.