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Squatting law change

November 03 2012
First person jailed under this autumn’s new anti-squatting legislation

A 21-year-old man has become the first person to be jailed under new anti-squatting legislation that was introduced on the first of September.

Alex Haigh was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison after pleading guilty to occupying a housing association flat in Pimlico, central London, without permission. Haigh, an apprentice bricklayer who had moved to London hoping to find work, was arrested alongside two other squatters the day after the new law was introduced. Michelle Blake, 33, awaits sentence and possible jail, while Anthony Ismond, 46, was fined £100.

Squash (Squatters' Action for Secure Homes), a group that campaigned against criminalisation, condemned Haigh’s sentence as "deeply disproportionate and unjust", and pointed out that the flat had been empty for a year before Haigh moved into it.

Haigh's father, Hugh, said: "They have made an example of him. To put him in that prison environment, I don't understand it. If he broke the law, he should be dealt with, but it is like putting someone who has not paid their taxes into Dartmoor prison."

The new legislation criminalises squatting in residential premises, imposing punishments of up to six months' jail and fines of up to £5,000. Previously, squatters occupying empty buildings could only be removed through the civil courts.

Squatting in commercial properties remains a civil matter, and is not affected by the new law. Housing charities have warned that the legislation may trigger a surge in homelessness as squatters are forced on to the streets in order to avoid a criminal record.

But government ministers called on police to be “robust” in enforcing the law, saying swift action will protect householders from the trauma of seeing their homes “stolen” and will be a deterrent.

Ex-justice minister Crispin Blunt said that the new legislation was intended to show that “squatters’ rights have come to an end”. The government estimates that up to 4,200 squatters could be prosecuted each year.

Evictions have been carried out across the country under the new legislation, with a squat in Brighton raided just days after the law was passed. Three suspected squatters who glued themselves together in the loft of the building were arrested after being removed by police. Two men who were on the roof of the building made their own way down and were not arrested.

Five people were arrested for allegedly occupying a house in the Somerset town of Street.

Squatters have also been warned that they will be arrested under the new law in Birmingham, Bristol and Chichester, and across London. Many have moved out of buildings that they were occupying following these warnings.