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Britain is a liberal, tolerant, sensible and largely law-abiding country, and I’m thankful for that, but its legal establishment and I part company on the increasingly contumacious issue of squatter’s rights. 

A family in Walthamstow, an east London suburb, last week learned (from the lady next door bearing a welcome gift for what she thought were her new neighbours) that their house, empty pending a sale, had been occupied by a family from Moldova, a country they may be forgiven for not having heard of.  These cheeky Moldovans – as the tabloids might depict them – having evidently scoured the area for empty houses to occupy, broke in through the back door. 

The response of the investigating police was that this was a ‘civil matter’.  The local council, conceding the point, will now presumably be going to court to secure an eviction order.  As the owners point out, this could take months.

The question that I, and just about everyone I know, would like answered is simple and goes to the heart of this and similar recent cases: why is breaking into a man’s house a civil rather than a criminal offence.  It’s not as if the Moldovans found the back door open and naively interpreted this as a sign that squatters might be welcome.  They didn’t walk into the house – they broke into it, using force.  They are, in a word, burglars. 

Actually, they’re worse than burglars.  Burglars nick the valuables and scarper.  These people haven’t nicked anything in the accepted sense of the word, but they have purloined the remaining contents of the house for their own use, have caused damage to the property and are plainly trespassing. 

Or are they?  Not under English law, as it presently stands.        

These cases bring out the worst instincts in us all, say the property-is-theft brigade, scorning the outraged cries of citizens that it is their ownership rights that are being trampled on, not those of the intruders.  But the ‘worst’ instincts in this and similar cases are surely the appropriate ones, even if the Daily Mail agrees with us. 

If a citizen can’t leave his own home, for whatever reason, confident that he won’t return to find it occupied by people who have full recourse to the law to prove him wrong, then what can he have confidence in?

This government, like its predecessors of various stripes, has promised to change the law.  It’s about time it turned promises into action.

And now I’m going to sign off and check by world atlas, to find out exactly where Moldova is.

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