New squatting law claims first victim.

Posted: October 3, 2012 in Squatting, UK

Alex Haigh, a 21-year-old man originally from Plymouth, has become the first person to be jailed under the government’s anti-squatting legislation.

Haigh, arrested at a flat in Pimlico, central London, has been sentenced to 12 weeks in prison after pleading guilty to occupying the long-term empty flat without permission. The flat in question is the possession of the housing association L&Q (London & Quadrant), which, ironically, is supposed to be in the business of providing homes to those in need.

The Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that Haigh was the first person to be given a custodial sentence under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force on the first of September, the day before Haigh’s arrest.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the new law is enabling “quick and decisive action to protect homeowners”. Squatting was previously treated as a civil matter. The maximum penalty is now six months in jail, a £5,000 fine, or both.

Throughout the country, there are almost a million empty properties, and a comparable number of people in need of shelter. At any one time, there are around 50,000 squatters, who, after this news, can only be fearing the worst.

The squatters’ rights group Squash (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes), which campaigned against criminalisation, condemned the sentencing as “deeply disproportionate and unjust”. It said the building the men were occupying had been empty for more than a year.

A study, commissioned by Squash and supported by academics and politicians including a former Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, finds that the Ministry of Justice’s new law fails to account for extra spending on housing benefit squatters will claim once they are evicted.

In fact The cost of a new law to further criminalise squatting could run to almost 20 times official estimates, wiping out government legal aid budget savings, according to the findings of the report.
Rueben Taylor, from Squash, said: “This marks a dark day for our country, as a young vulnerable person is being sent to prison simply for trying to keep a roof over his head.

“The real crime is the 930,000 properties sitting empty across the UK, not the people who are bringing these back into use. This crazy law is aggressively punishing the victims of our housing crisis, at massive cost to the taxpayer.”

Squash claims the cost of criminalising squatting will be as high as £790m over the next five years.

For advice and support to help hold on to your home and keep you out of prison you could do worse than the Squatters’ Legal Network.

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