The first squatter to be sentenced under the new squatting law has been imprisoned for twelve weeks after being arrested in a long-term empty flat in Islington, London on 2nd September.
21-year-old Alex Haigh had been living in the property for a couple of months before the law came into force, along with other squat-mates – two of whom are now facing the strong arm of law too. One received a fine while the other is awaiting sentence and a possible jail term. A long way from media caricatures of long-haired posh drop outs - Alex is an apprentice bricklayer from Plymouth and had moved to London looking for work
Neighbours had been unaware of the flat being occupied, while the owners, a London housing association, had known and independently started civil proceedings under the old system.
This didn't stop the pigs taking it on themselves to batter down the door and arrest the occupiers – only informing the owners afterwards. Since the government passed the bill, ministers have been urging the Met to come down hard on squatters to act as a 'deterrent'. The government says it expects around 4,200 squatters to be prosecuted each year. What's a few ruined lives when there are vacant buildings at risk of being occupied eh?
Danny Beltane of SNOB(aha) the Brighton squatters association. "This is a far harsher sentence than anyone expected - this smacks of the kind of punitive sentencing handed out after the riots. This is the real class war. How can they justify taking someone from a situatuation where they were provoding for themselves and forcing them into state incarceration at the cost of thousands a week?"
Alex and his friends were arrested around 24 hours before the first raid in Brighton that SchNEWS reported on, though overall the earliest eviction we know about (so far) was of a crew based in Street, Somerset. Despite living there for a couple of months and not causing any problems, bored local cops decided to kick in the door and arrest everyone inside at 9am on Saturday 1st September. If anyone can prove they were nicked under section 144 earlier, we'll send them a free graphics book.
With the wild variations in enforcement – stretching from a friendly bobby asking if you'd mind leaving, to three months inside (for a guilty plea!) – many squatters are looking towards the thousands of vacant commercial and industrial properties. Unsurprisingly the lobbyists behind criminalisation are already pushing for the law to be extended and backbench Tories are lining up to lend the latest bandwagon their support. Chatham MP Tracey Crouch snarled “it's important that we look into [non-residential squatting] and try and outlaw it as soon as possible” – no doubt before retreating to one of her taxpayer funded homes.
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.
Also in this week's SchNEWs: