UK: The First Squatter Is Jailed

This afternoon, on my way back from a disturbing bike ride around Mayfair, where money is almost literally oozing out of every orifice of those who find it easier than ever to enrich themselves at the expense of society as a whole, I arrived back at Charing Cross, to catch the train back to south east London, where I was confronted by the front page of the Evening Standard announcing, “London Squatter First to Be Jailed,” which threw me into an angry depression.

The squatter in question — actually a 21-year old from Portsmouth, Alex Haigh, who only arrived in London in July — is indeed the first person to be jailed for squatting since the law on squatting was changed on September 1, transforming it from a civil to a criminal offence, punishable by a six-month prison sentence and a £5,000 fine.

Haigh was given a 12-week sentence after pleading guilty to squatting a property in Pimlico owned by the housing association L&Q (London & Quadrant), which, ironically, is supposed to be in the business of providing homes to those in need, like all providers of social housing. He is now in Wormwood Scrubs, where his accommodation for the next three months will be provided by the British taxpayer. Depriving people of their liberty costs, on average, between £27,000 and £29,000 a year, and £2.2 billion is spent in total on the 80,000-plus prisoners in England and Wales.

Surely, if we are faced with such a pressing need to cut costs, as the government asserts with grindingly monotonous regularity, it would be worthwhile not spending around £7,000 on depriving a 21-year old of his liberty for having stayed in an empty flat. Haigh’s father Peter, who runs a construction business in Plymouth, accurately told the Evening Standard, “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 tax into Dartmoor Prison.”

The right-wing spin on the story has been predictable. The Evening Standard — which is the only excuse for a newspaper in the whole of London — claimed that the new law “was brought in amid a squatting crisis in London as organised eastern European gangs and other squatters targeted family homes.” This managed to play a racist card, and to stir up unwarranted fears about squatters taking over people’s houses while they popped out to the shops for a pint of milk, which are totally unfounded and/or dangerously inflammatory.

The truth is that the processes that were in place to deal with squatting before September 1 were perfectly adequate, and what the new law, which was designed to appeal to right-wing Tories, does is to protect those who sit on empty properties while there is a genuine housing crisis — one in which, to cite the example of London, a huge number of people find it impossible to pay the astronomical rents that unprincipled and unregulated landlords are charging.

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, tonight, must be fearing the worst. While the criminalisation of their need for shelter ought to appal anyone who believes that homes, rather than prisons, are suitable places for the homeless, the cheerleaders for adding to Britain’s overcrowded prisons by stuffing them full of homeless people have also not done their sums. As the Guardian reported in March this year:

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 a newly published report.

The study, commissioned by Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (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.

The Can We Afford to Criminalise Squatting? report, published on [March 16, 2012], finds the total costs of the law — clause 136 in the Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Lapso) — could run to between £316.2m and £790.4m over five years, depending on the number of squatters in England and Wales. This compares with the £350m in savings the MoJ hopes to make by cutting the legal aid budget.

Every time I wake up and ask what’s happening in my country, I find that the Tory idiots who claim to be in charge are almost unable to sleep, as they’re kept so busy rushing from one group of vulnerable people to another, making sure that all of them get a good kicking.

Squatting is based on need — a need for shelter, which is a fundamental human right. There may be the odd example of opportunism, and even of pointedly bad behaviour, but the law that has just imprisoned a 21-year old — and very possibly ruined his future — for something that could have been sorted out without him getting a criminal record is a cruel law indeed, and one of which all decent people should be ashamed.