Squatters: “How are these people allowed to do this?”
“…Two retired nurses returned home from holiday overnight to find their north London house trashed by a Romanian family and their possessions looted” read the Evening Standard’s front page on Wednesday. “How are these people allowed to do this?”
Similar stories crop up relatively regularly, accompanied by rhetoric from government ministers vowing to bring in legislation to end the plague of foreigners; Italians, Romanians, Spaniards who don’t even speak English, who seem to be invading homes all over London. I must admit to feeling a certain amount of revulsion at the idea of returning from holiday to find foreigners, they’re always foreign, and their pets picking through my belongings. I can imagine it in detail, speaking through the letter box in broken Spanish, sleeping on a neighbour’s couch as European techno music reverberates through the walls. I brought up the subject with friends who pointed out that squatting, or trespassing, is a civil offence to be dealt with by the civil courts rather than the police, and that in other countries, including Scotland, things are different. It would appear that our laws are broken, that they defend the rights of others to break into our homes claiming the door was unlocked and declare the start of lengthy legal proceedings, otherwise known as squatter’s rights. Surely this amounts to nothing less than the legalisation of burglary.
A brief internet session revealed the crucial term ‘displaced residential occupier’. The direct.gov.uk website is clear on the matter, detailed in section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, that if you return to find squatters in your home you become a ‘displaced residential occupier’, for whom the ‘Squatter’s Rights’ laws which prevent forceful entry into an occupied property do not apply. In this case, you should call the police and report a crime. The important point is that to be a displaced residential occupier, the squatters must be in your home i.e. you must live there. If you can prove this to the police by common sense means, they may remove by force and arrest the people who have invaded your home immediately, without going to court.
This leads to the question, in the many reported cases of people returning from holiday to find their home occupied by squatters, such as the case of 55 year old Julia High of Leytonstone in August of this year, who found her house ransacked after a weekend away, why were the squatters not removed and arrested immediately? The first possibility is that the house was not in fact lived in, as is the case for many unoccupied second homes or buy to let investments gone sour; unlikely given that in this case the house is reported to have been filled with belongings. The second is that the police were not clear on the law and their abilities to enforce it. The quote from the Waltham Forest Guardian reads, “Because squatting is a civil offence the police said they can’t do anything more. I think it’s wrong to have knee-jerk responses in such situations but to make it a criminal offence would definitely help matters”.
The narrative from these terrifying stories of home invasion is not one of police inadequacy, or one of protecting the right to keep our second residential property unoccupied if we so choose. It seems to ignore that the law already allows the police to remove squatters from residential homes, and concludes that we should change squatting and by extension trespass into a criminal rather than civil offence. Who would have an interest in doing something like that?
To meet some squatters and hear what they have to say, click through to this interactive multimedia piece from South London.