Squatting in residential property in England and Wales will become a criminal offence on Saturday 1st September 2012, with squatters facing a jail sentence or a fine.
Ministers believe the measure will offer better protection for property owners and “slam shut the door on squatters once and for all”.
The maximum penalty for committing the offence will be six months in jail, a £5,000 fine, or both.
However, campaigners have warned that the new law could criminalise vulnerable people and cause a rise in rough sleeping.
Currently, squatting is considered a civil matter and property owners – including councils and housing associations – must go to a civil court to prove that the squatters have trespassed before they can be evicted.
From Saturday, it will be a criminal matter and property owners can complain to the police, who will take action and arrest the squatters if satisfied that the claim is genuine.
The legislation also protects owners of vacant residential buildings, such as landlords, local authorities and second-home owners.
The police must prove that a squatter has knowingly entered the premises as a trespasser and “is living or intends to live” there.
Tenants falling behind on their rent or remaining in a home at the end of a tenancy are not committing an offence under the new law, although the measure will apply to existing squatters, to “stop trespassers rushing to occupy residential buildings before the offence comes into force”1.
Housing Minister Grant Shapps states: “For too long, hardworking people have faced legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.
“No longer will there be so-called squatters’ rights. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.”1
However, the law has faced opposition.
Catherine Brogan, of campaign group Squatters’ Action for Secure Housing, insists: “What we need is to tackle the housing crisis and not criminalise some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”1
And Chief Executive of homelessness charity Crisis, Leslie Morphy, says the new measures “will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place – their homelessness and a lack of affordable housing”1.
Crispin Blunt, the Justice Minister, reports that homelessness is at its lowest level for 28 years, and the Government is spending £400m on homelessness and £164m on bringing 10,000 empty homes back into use.
Chief Constable Phil Gormley, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Lead on Uniformed Operations, welcomes the law, saying police can “now act immediately and remove squatters directly from properties”1.
Squatting is already a criminal offence in Scotland, where the property owner has the right to remove squatters without serving a notice or applying to a court for an eviction order. Squatters in the country can face fines of up to £200.
The Labour Party has supported the new law.
Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter comments: “Homeowners around the country are concerned about squatters and rightly want assurances from this Tory-led Government that their properties will be protected.
“The distress squatters can cause to families, as well as the financial damage they do, is completely unacceptable.”1