Six months, no jail sentences: call for controversial squatter law to be axed

According to government figures 34,080 families were homeless in 2012, a 12 per cent rise
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Six months after new laws were introduced to “protect homeowners” from squatters, police have not arrested a single person for displacing residents from their home, leading to calls for the legislation to be scrapped.

Three people have been jailed since the new law criminalising squatting came into effect in September, and 33 have been arrested – but all involved squatters occupying previously empty properties.

A group of lawyers, campaigners and MPs are now calling for the “superfluous” law to be repealed. However, the Justice minister, Damian Green, said the Government had “no intention” of changing its position.

Squatting in a residential building was made a criminal offence last year after several stories involving homeowners returning to their properties to find squatters living there attracted widespread media attention. The Government argued that existing laws, which made it a criminal offence for trespassers to remain in a property only after being requested to leave by the occupier, did not sufficiently protect homeowners.

However, none of those arrested so far under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, had displaced someone from their home.

Andrew Arden QC, a leading expert on housing law, told The Independent that the new law “criminalises the most needy”.

“The only difference from the old law is that it wasn’t criminal before, until you were asked to leave,” he said. “It is a superfluous law that criminalises action taken by the most needy whose housing needs are certainly going to worsen.”

Mr Arden is one of 30 lawyers who have signed a letter to The Guardian calling for Section 144 to be scrapped, a call echoed by Squatter’s Action for Secure Homes (Squash), which carried out an in-depth study into the use of the new law.

The Labour MP John McDonnell, who has called on Parliament to repeal Section 144, said “vulnerable people” were suffering.

“There was no need for a new law,” he said. “It was put through on the basis of prejudice ... to pander to the media and the right wing of the Conservative Party. We’re now finding young homeless people being sent to prison at great cost to themselves and to the Exchequer. There was a complete failure to assess the legislation before they rushed it through.”

According to government figures released last week, 34,080 families were homeless in 2012, up 12 per cent on the previous year.

Metropolitan Police figures last week revealed that 41 of the 92 people prosecuted or cautioned in London under the new law were Romanians.

Mr Green said the law “is enabling the police and other agencies to take quick and decisive action to protect homeowners”.

He added: “We have no intention of getting rid of it. Squatters have been playing the justice system and causing homeowners untold misery in eviction and clean-up costs. It will not be tolerated.”