Squatting in the UK will become a criminal offence (Reuters) Reuters

Squatting in the UK is set to become a criminal offence as the government looks to close the door on the practice.

As of the start of September, squatters rights will be removed when it becomes illegal to squat in a residential building in England and Wales.

Those who break the new law will face a maximum penalty of six months in jail.

Squatters could also be fined as much as £5,000 in a move that ministers claim will "slam the door shut on squatters once and for all".

Housing minister Grant Shapps said: "For too long, hardworking people have faced long 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."

The move has been criticised by homeless support groups, including Catherine Brogan from the campaign group Squatters' Action for Secure Housing, who told the BBC: "What we need is to tackle the housing crisis and not criminalise some of the most vulnerable people in our society."

"There was already legal provision that police and councils could, and should, have used to remove individuals in the rare instances of squatting in someone's home," said Leslie Morphy, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis.

"And the new law also applies to empty homes - of which there are 720,000 in England alone, including many that are dilapidated and abandoned - criminalising homeless people when they are just trying to find a place off the streets.

"It will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place - their homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. Ultimately the government needs to tackle why homeless people squat by helping, not punishing them."