Young Robert comes from Poland, a country where you take care of yourself, no vast welfare state to fall back on.
He lost his job just before Christmas and with it his accommodation. He didnât trot off to the DHSS and demand a four bed-roomed house in the centre of the city â he moved into the communal area of a block of flats, and bedded down for the night out of sight of the tenants.
One of the tenants had a Christmas party, the door was wide open. Robert was amongst those who wandered in â did he help himself to some food and drink? We donât know, we only know that he picked up a set of keys whilst he was there.
One count of theft so far. Value of keys unknown.
A few days later, the party giving tenant went off with her suitcases to visit her family for Christmas.
Back in the apartment block, the temperature plunged to minus 10 in the coldest winter Europe has known for 300 years.
Robert remembered the keys and let himself into the flat. Over Christmas he watched TV, fed himself, scrupulously cleaned up the kitchen after himself, and was careful to disturb nothing. He stole nothing else, although in four days he could have cleaned out the apartment, had he been so minded.
Another count of theft of small items of food, gas, and electricity. Value unknown.
And one of Trespass, a civil tort.
When the tenant returned, Robert was apologetic, but didnât attempt to run away.
She was annoyed, I would have been. She called the Police.
The police charged him with theft and unlawfully taking possession of the property.
The District Judge has just sentenced him to six months in prison. He is appealing but canât have bail â because he doesnât have an addressâ¦â¦
I havenât been very sympathetic to Ken Clarkeâs desire to see less people in prison, but is sentencing the tax payer to six months of the cost of keeping this man in prison really the best way of dealing with Robertâs actions?
In France, you cannot evict anyone from accommodation on any grounds, between the months of October to March. They might be the worst tenant in the world, you might need the accommodation for yourself, but if they have managed to get a roof over their head by fair means or foul, on October 1st â there they stay until the cold weather is over in March. There is also considerable judicial sympathy for the crime of ânecessityâ.
A good friend of mine is the proud owner of an industrial generator, a relic of his business interests in England. It is a mammoth affair that requires two or three people to lift off the ground, a separate flue to disgorge the fumes, and is wired into the mains â a simple flick of the switch brings the house to life in the (all too frequent) power cuts we endure.
Last time we had a ten day power cut, he was away from home. Returning on day two, he found he could not gain access to his garage. There was a new padlock fitted to the door. Not his. He eventually got into the garage through a window, and discovered the generator was missing. In its place was a note on the stand bearing a handwritten note. Madame Pompadour or whatever, and an address.
Thinking she must have been a witness to whatever occurred, he set out for her address through the pitch black streets. Impossible to miss her house, it was lit up like a Christmas tree, music blared out the door and a party was obviously in progress. Rather than tackle a strange situation that he was increasingly unsure of, he called the Police.
Some hours later, the Police called on him as he huddled over a candle, trying to breathe life into an ancient wood burner. Yes, indeed, Madame Pompadour did have his generator. The ironmonger next door to his house had lent her a set of bolt croppers to take his padlock off the door (!!!) but she had replaced it with a new one and here were the keys.
âNever mind the keys, whereâs me fu**ing generatorâ he exclaimed.
âBut Monsieur, the Madame has five children in that house, and the children of neighbours, we canât remove the generator whilst the temperature is minus 12â, they replied. âShe hasnât stolen it; she has just borrowed it out of necessityâ. They meant it too.
Sure enough, eight days later, the power came back on, and two of Madameâs friends arrived with a truck with the generator on the back and ceremoniously replaced it. Fortunately, my friend was out at the time (buying more firelighters!) and there was only his gobsmacked wife to witness the return of the generator, so no one was charged with murder â or anything else.
Somewhere between jailing a man for six months for letting himself into that apartment, and taking no action whatsoever when someone blatantly breaks into your property and steals something you had provided for yourself in the event of an emergency that has just occurred, there has to be a happy medium.
We all need warmth and shelter, more so in this mini ice-age. Students are rioting over their ârightâ to a free education â and yet we calmly accept that we have no automatic rights to free warmth and shelter.
Anybody care to suggest where the legal parameters of private property should fall when it is patently obvious that you cannot exist without warmth and shelter in these temperatures?