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Jail and fine: Squatting becomes criminal offence to protect homeowners – but will this mean more homeless?

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

Squatting is being tackled through new legislation that criminalises those who squat – but some campaigners are now predicting soaring homelessness figures and home eviction rates in Greater Manchester and nationwide.

The new law, which came into force on Saturday September 1, gave the police in the UK and Wales powers to tackle the problem of squatting.

They can now raid squats and arrest people who are unlawfully occupying abandoned properties.

The new offence will be punishable by a maximum prison term of up to six months, a maximum £5,000 fine, or both. Prior to the new law, squatting was a civil matter and occupiers could be evicted with a civil court order.

Now, homeowners can simply complain to the police that are entitled to take action and arrest offenders. The legislation relates to residential properties and not commercial ones and will also apply to existing squatters.

Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said: “For too long squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Not any more.

“Hard working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first – this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting.”

First police raids since the new legislation came into force have already been carried out in Brighton.

In its guidance, the Ministry of Justice explains that police forces must prove that a person knowingly entered a building as a trespasser and ‘is living or intends to live’ in it.

The new offence aims at protecting homeowners, legitimate tenants who have been excluded from their homes as well as people who own residential buildings such as landlords, local authorities or second home owners.

Campaigners and a number of charities however are criticising the legislation saying that it will not solve the problem but rather lead to rise in homelessness and home evictions across the country.

Squatters’ Action For Secure Homes (Squash) have teamed up with the Metropolitan Police, the Law Society and homeless charities to oppose the government decision.

Squash campaigner Joseph Blake said: “Squash strongly disagrees with the law. We think it is a really disgusting new law mainly because it is going to criminalise thousands of homeless people in the middle of a housing crisis.

“The law is actually not going to protect home owners. It is already a criminal offence to squat in someone’s home. But what this law does is it criminalises people who take over abandoned empty properties and bring them back into use.

“It is going to keep properties empty, and there are 930 000 in the UK – while at the same time making homeless people who squat criminals.

“We need to find a way of making sure that the properties are brought back into use and are available for homeless people.

“Traditional squatting is going into empty and abandoned buildings and bringing them back into use which is serving the society.

Mr Blake thinks that the legislation will have a negative impact on homelessness figures and eviction rates across the UK.

Latest figures for the UK released in July by the Communities and Local Government show that 12,830 homeless applications were accepted between October and December 2011 – 18% higher than during the same quarter of 2010.

Homelessness has soared by almost 10% in Greater Manchester. According to latest statistics more than 2,000 people in Greater Manchester are sleeping rough, living in shelters, or on the verge of being evicted.

Mr Blake questioned the aim of the law and said it would ‘only protect property speculators and unscrupulous landlords’.

“A government research on squatters showed that there are between 20 000 and 50 000 squatters in the UK and probably over half of them squat in residential buildings.

“The homeless charity did a research recently saying that 40 per cent of homeless people squat – as a last resort to get a roof over their heads,” he said.

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