A Christmas Carol (in prose)

A guest post for Xmas from Bernard Crofton adding a seasonal spin on a topic previously reported on Red Brick here.

A Christmas Carol (in prose)…… being a …….. ghost story for Christmas. 

In November of 2010,  the two government departments facing amongst the biggest budget cuts, the Department for Communities and Local Government,  and the Ministry of Justice,  issued a new  guidance leaflet : “Advice on dealing with squatters in your home”   available as a pdf  download from  http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/advicesquatters,  where there is a helpful summary as well :-

There are an estimated 20,000 squatters in the UK. This guidance is aimed at homeowners and to make them aware of their rights where their property has been unlawfully occupied. It has been jointly produced with the Ministry of Justice which makes clear that it is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a residential property when required to do so by or on behalf of either a displaced residential occupier or certain other occupiers whose interest in the premises is protected under the legislation.

That stirred some queasy  questions about the “new” advice;  mainly “Why?”  and “Why now? “ .

However, when I clicked and the pdf started its weary download, I heard the rattling of chains in the cellar. Surely Jacob Marley has been dead these seven years (or 17  since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994).

The Advice starts with these words:

 “What can I do if my home has been taken over by squatters?

1                 If you return from holiday or walking the dog to find squatters in your home and they refuse to leave, you can call the police and report a criminal offence. “

I was fascinated by the imagery. Mainly because part of it was mine, come back to haunt me.  I was among the local government representatives consulted by the Home Office about the legislation. Actually the law, as laws of that era went, ended up quite fair. I never met any supporter of squatting who thought squatters should be able to move into an occupied dwelling and effectively evict the occupants.  Nor did I ever find a case where this had happened. Canvassing round the councils in London (where statistically almost all the squatting in the UK was concentrated) we couldn’t find a single case where that was  alleged to have happened.

We found a few cases where home-owners were trying to repair a newly acquired empty property before moving in, and it being squatted while undeniably unoccupied. We found very many parallel examples on council estates (and I managed a tenth of that national 20,000 squats figure) But the pubIic debate had far more of the tang of the illegal immigrants debate  It was about scroungers and spongers but with a more direct threat: they wouldn’t just take your money indirectly through the tax system, they would take your home and all that was in it!

One newspaper (I think of it as being the Daily Mail but I may just be prejudiced) ran a tale of a family returning from holiday to find their home squatted. “Vox populi” in the neighbourhood were said to be frightened to leave their homes unattended in case squatters moved in. We tried to find this example. The local council, where it reportedly occurred, only came up with a couple who lived abroad and owned several rented properties in the UK, one of which they found squatted on a visit back to the UK. They were certainly neither “displaced residential occupiers” nor  “protected intending occupiers” of the property.

So in discussions with the civil servants I pointed out that if I went out to walk the dog and found someone in my home when I returned, I would not find the Police reluctant to act on straightforward “breaking and entering” or even malicious damage grounds. My  sarcasm was effective. That “walking the dog” phrase alongside the “returning from holiday” one became shorthand for the fact the legislation was an over-reaction or a pandering to right wing prejudices. I still do not believe any owner-occupier was ever “displaced” by squatters while the kettle was still warm, or as Confucius say “swinging chain, warm seat”.

The issue, as local government and voluntary sector consultees all argued, was the time it took to get to court to repossess a squatted property. Ironically,court waiting-times  meant that if you bought an empty house that was immediately squatted, you were kept out of it for the full term of that other brilliant invention of the era: the shorthold tenancy.  So the law was eventually drafted to include the situations of both “a displaced residential occupier” and a  “protected intending occupier” of the property. And rather than put resources into reducing court waiting lists we got the “interim possession order”.

Now I never rule out the possibility there really was a case where people left their home to go on holiday and found it squatted on returning. I never completely rule out the possibility that somewhere there is a Big-issue seller who gets into his Rolls Royce at the end of the day. But I never met one remotely near that bracket, and so I remain sceptical. But as for home-owners being squatted while out for a walk with the dog, I never heard anyone ever suggest it has happened – except me as a sarcastic example of the hysteria over squatters.

Suddenly at the end of 2010, I find the example heading a new advice leaflet, not just from one but two government departments.  So I wrote to them both under the Freedom of Information Act (we didn’t have that when the 1994 Act was proposed, it was up to us to produce our own statistics). I asked: “Please supply me with any statistical information held or viewed by the Department or its predecessors, as to the number of owner-occupiers who have found squatters in their homes: a) on returning from holiday; b) after walking their dog.”

DCLG were first to respond, with the classic line from Fawlty Towers “ I know nuzzing”. The Ministry of Justice were more helpful.    The person with “responsibility for answering requests in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) which relate to civil (non family) law and housing possession related statistics which are to be handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)” told me : 

“I can confirm that the Department does not hold the information you have requested. MOJ does not record property owners or property occupiers who have found that whilst away from the property, for whatever reason, that it has been occupied by squatters.”

After advising me of the rights of the un-numbered disposed occupiers, he helpfully provided the following table which he was not obliged to do under FOI, as it did not directly answer my question. He hoped it would be of use to me, so I am using it below. He warned me :

Table 1 below shows the number of Interim Possession Orders and Possession Orders against trespassers made in the county courts of England and Wales for the past full five years. Please read the footnotes underneath the table which describe how the data were compiled. Please note in particular that the figures include cases where properties were occupied by types of trespassers other than squatters (figures for squatters alone could only be determined by inspecting individual case files at a disproportionate cost), involving non-residential properties; and also that not all such orders given result in actual repossession of a property from a trespasser.

Table 1 Number of possession orders and interim possession orders given for trespass in the county courts of England and Wales, 2005-2009

                  Possession orders          Interim possession orders

2005                  929                                            117

2006                 1036                                           114

2007                   752                                            154

2008                  626                                             164

2009                  653                                             136

Source HMCS manual returns

Notes:

1. Data from 2005 to March 2009 were gathered from the Dept’s Management Information System.  Data from April 2009 were collected from the courts online data monitoring system One Performance Truth

2. Quality assurance checks have been carried out to remove outliers.  However these decisions have not been verified by contact with the courts.  These figures should therefore be treated with caution.

3.  Orders against trespassers and IPOs can be given for the possession of both commercial and residential properties from trespassers.

4.  Not all orders and interim orders given for possession against trespassers relate to properties that are occupied by squatters.

5.  Not all possession and interim possession orders result in actual repossession of a property from a trespasser.                       

 

Now let’s ignore that the table includes squatted shop-units etc. and that not all trespassers are squatters.  The table shows possession orders against trespassers (I recall the definition used to be “against persons who entered as trespassers” but that may have changed).

I conclude from this table the following.

The number of full orders has declined significantly in the last five years.

The number of interim orders has started to decline, after a rise.

That at the current rate of full orders  it would take 30 years to remove the current number of squatters….if there were no new cases.

That at the current rate of interim (i.e. urgent?) orders it would take nearly 150 years.

No one seems in a hurry.

Is it me or is there something odd about the emergence of this new governmental advice from financially strapped departments just in time for the Xmas season? Conspiracy theories are accepted, but any genuine leaks as to why this ghost has been disturbed would be especially welcome.

Bernard  Crofton

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5 Responses to A Christmas Carol (in prose)

  1. Pingback: Is keeping your house empty a human right? | Red Brick

  2. inks2010 says:

    I’ve never come across anyone who’s had their home squatted while out walking the dog. However back in the 90s a friend, after spending a while keeping an eye on an empty looking flat, popped the lock and entered to check it out. The poor old resident watching telly out the back was surprised by the interuption.

    That table showing possession orders is interesting. I wonder how many Displaced Residential Occupier and Protected Intented Occupier certificates are issued each year? My impression is next to none, certainly I’ve never heard of an instance of one being issued.

    • Bernard Crofton says:

      I suspect that most of the court orders are for commercial premises. It is interesting that neither department records residential ones separately. I assume because it would be a wasted column in the tables (ie empty).

  3. Bernard Crofton says:

    Monimbo
    re @ Pickles “Councils that embrace the spirit of the season and bring Christmas to town, from luminous lights to competitively priced car spaces are likely to bring in revenue which helps support frontline services and keep council tax down.”

    Ignoring the dig at those councils (presumably LibDem) that put up lights that are not luminous, I wonder quite what brings in revenue. Could it be that christmas just costs councils money but the non-political civil servants put that bit in to try to justify an entirely political statement that should not have used taxpayers money?

  4. Monimbo says:

    Bernard
    This advice on squatting is not unlike the recent advice to local authorities that they should not interfere in the celebration of Christmas: http://www.communities.gov.uk/newsstories/localgovernment/1782781
    The claims that councils were ‘substituting’ Christmas with politically correct festivals such as ‘Winterval’ or ‘Winter Lights’ were found to be highly misleading, in that where these terms had been used they were for other reasons, and the usual Christmas festivities had been recognised in the normal way.
    Of course, the government wants to get into the newspapers for something other than its spending cuts. No doubt Don Quixote got similar media coverage for tilting at windmills in lieu of real giants. In fact, could it be that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are now in charge at Eland House?

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