Plymouth man is first squatter to be jailed under new law
A SQUATTER has become the first person to be jailed under new legislation.
Plymouth man Alex Haigh, 21, left his home in July to find "opportunities" in London and worked for a time as an apprentice bricklayer.
His mother Janet, who lives in Plymouth with husband Peter, said she only learned of his offence when he called her from Wormwood Scrubs the night of his arrest.
Haigh pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 weeks after police found him at a property in Pimlico.
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Michelle Blake, 33, arrested with Haigh, awaits sentence and possible jail, while Anthony Ismond, 46, was fined £100. Both also admitted squatting. They are the first people prosecuted since ministers acted to turn squatting — which could previously only be tackled by civil action — into a crime under new legislation which came into effect at the start of this month.
The law was brought in amid a squatting crisis in London as organised eastern European gangs and other squatters targeted family homes.
Haigh's parents said they were "devastated" by his imprisonment and insisted he was a "well brought-up" young man who had taken "the wrong road" after going to the capital.
She said: "We are worried that Alex is in prison. Both of us are absolutely devastated. He comes from a really normal family and has been brought up really well.
"He has taken a wrong road and we are extremely concerned about him. I have spoken to him about getting a solicitor but he says he is fine. Whether he will appeal or not, I'm not sure."
Haigh's father Peter, who runs his own construction business in Plymouth, 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 tax into Dartmoor Prison."
The arrests came after Met officers called at the housing association flat in Cumberland Street on September 2, the day after the new anti-squatting law came into effect, to find Haigh and Blake inside.
Police say they were told the flat was being used as a squat by Ismond. He had given it as his home address after being arrested on an unrelated matter by officers investigating a burglary elsewhere in London.
Both Haigh and Blake told police they were squatting at the home and did not live there — but were arrested after being informed that the law had just changed to make their action illegal.
Haigh was jailed by West London magistrates, while Blake was sent to prison to await sentence after failing to attend a previous hearing. Ismond was recalled to Wandsworth Prison for breaching conditions of a release on licence from a previous drug offence.
The squatted Pimlico terrace flat — owned by housing association L&Q and spread over ground floor and basement — has been boarded up.
The last tenants moved out in 2011 and most residents were unaware squatters were living there. L&Q said it began civil proceedings against the squatters in August after going to the property with a prospective new resident and discovering their presence.
Squatting was not a criminal offence then so no complaint was made to police. The association added: "The police informed us of the arrest of these individuals at this property. Prior to these arrests, we had already begun taking action to seek their removal."
The Crown Prosecution Service confirmed the successful actions for "squatting in a residential building contrary to Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012" — and said it was the first known case under it. The law makes it an offence to occupy a residential property without the owner's consent. Any-
one convicted faces up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine.
Housing charities and other campaigners claim that the reform — introduced after a spate of London cases in which squatters occupied and damaged homes — is unnecessary and will unfairly criminalise the homeless.
But ministers urged the Met to be "robust" in enforcing the law, saying swift police action will protect householders from the trauma of seeing their homes "stolen" and be a deterrent.
Ex-justice minister Crispin Blunt this month said it 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.