Briefing paper on potential changes to the laws regarding squatting

rachelsunrising rachelsunrising at
Thu Apr 21 14:02:15 BST 2011

Current situation

There has been much made in the press – in particular the Telegraph – about squatting. Before the 2010 election, the Conservatives had originally published plans to create a new criminal offence of `intentional trespass'. This meant that "Trespassers who refuse to move after being asked to do so by a uniformed police officer will face arrest. This will allow both squatters and travellers occupying property without permission of the landowner to be removed quickly" (Open Source planning document). Bob Neill and Andrew Stunell, ministers in the Department of Communities and Local Government, said in November 2011 that the Coalition Government were not proceeding with criminalisation of trespass with regard to unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller encampments. These proposals got shelved with the Coalition agreement. However, there are new proposals regarding squatting in the pipeline, and it would seem that the criminalisation of trespass is back on the agenda. These are likely to impact on Gypsies and Travellers as well as squatters of buildings.  

The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Justice have published what has been described as "strengthened guidance". This is in fact the existing law, as any changes which involved the criminalisation of an offence would require an Act of Parliament. This guidance can be found at:  
 What is likely to be proposed?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Crispin Blunt, made a speech on the 30th March 2011 on the potential changes to the law. The debate was suspended so only a minimal amount of information was revealed. The Minister made the following statement;

"It is because we are aware of the misery that squatters can cause that we intend to strengthen the law, and consider how to strengthen its enforcement. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me, however, because we are yet to complete the cross-departmental process of analysing our own Ministry of Justice internal suggestions before publishing a formal consultation. We are going through the internal agreement processes". 

The full criminalisation of squatting?
Mr Blunt: "That is, of course, one of the things that we are considering, and it has been pointed out that in Scotland squatting is a criminal offence. That offence, however, is extremely widely drawn and for that reason the tariff of punishment is extremely low. It is at the very bottom of the scale-a level 1 offence-with a fine not exceeding £200".

Possible proposed amendments of sections 6 and 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 
Section 6 - Section 6 of the 1977 Act states that it is an offence for a person to use violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry:

"One option that we have been considering, therefore, is whether section 6 could be amended to give non-residential property owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers to break back into their property. We think that that would effectively render section 6 notices meaningless". 

Section 7 - an offence that is committed where a squatter refuses to leave a home when required to do so by a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier of the property. Under the current law, the squatter has a defence if they can prove either that they did not believe that the person requiring them to leave was or was acting on behalf of a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier, or that the premises were not used mainly for residential purposes and that they were not on any part of the premises used wholly or mainly for residential purposes:
The minister is investigating whether  "this offence could be strengthened to protect other types of property owner, so that owners of non-residential property would have the same protection as displaced residential occupiers. At present it is an offence, for example, for a squatter to refuse to leave somebody's home, but it is not an offence for them to refuse to leave a person's place of work". 

What happens next and what needs to be done?

Due to the Parliamentary recess and a number of other factors, no proposals are likely to be published before the end of May 2011. However, the Ministry of Justice is currently compiling a list of key stakeholders who will be sent consultation papers. It is worth writing to the Ministry of Justice in order to be added to this list:
Ministry of Justice
102, Petty France
United Kingdom
DX 152380 Westminster 8
Telephone: +44 (0)20 3334 3555
Fax: +44 (0)20 3334 4455
general.queries at

When the proposals are published, there will be more precise details of where to send your submissions to. It is important that anyone concerned about the implications of these proposals gets involved in the consultation. It may also be helpful for any organised groups to make submissions, as this is a more effective way of responding to legislation, but this shouldn't put off individuals who want to get involved.  

What can be said in response?
There are a number of different arguments that can be taken against these proposals, but before they are published, it is difficult to suggest how to construct a response. However, the Minister pointed out some of the potential problems with any changes to the law in the following statement: 
"Each option that I have described could have an impact on the criminal justice system. For example, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service might incur additional costs if asked to enforce new offences. The criminal courts might have to process a greater number of cases, although the impact might be partially offset by a reduction in civil claims. Depending on the penalty imposed for any new offence, there might also be an impact on the prison population. In the current economic climate, we must ensure that such impacts are carefully assessed and shown to be affordable". 

Whilst there are going to be objections that can be made on Human Rights grounds, it is important to remember the financial and resources based arguments that can be made. In the age of austerity, introducing the changes to the law outlined above is going to cause an extra financial burden on the state. In addition to this, extra pressure will be placed on the Police. These are both powerful arguments to make. 

The law as it stands offers a series of measures that can be taken against trespassing, and it can be argued that these are proportionate; i.e. they balance out the interests of the land owners, whilst protecting the rights of the trespassers (this is a pragmatic argument to make, as it is highly unlikely that any improvement to the law can be made!). 
Useful sources

UK Human Rights Blog – Search for "No more squatting?" March 21, 2011 by Adam Wagner
Nearly Legal blog -  Search for On the naughty step: Bait and Switch

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