Those of a nervous disposition or with high blood pressure should not read on. The story you are about to read beggars belief. Even for a dysfunctional local authority like Tower Hamlets.
Many thanks to Cllr. Puru Miah (Labour, Mile End) and Cllr. Andrew Wood (Independent, Canary Wharf for their help in documenting what went on in Snaresbrook Crown Court, you can see their videos here.
And of course thanks to the omnipresent Cllr. Peter Golds (Conservative, Island Gardens) for his attendance at court.
Several deep breaths now. Calm? Got your tea and biscuits? Good, off we go but with one final warning that this sorry tale is almost too much to bear.
We should also emphasise that this does not attempt to be a comprehensive account of the trial in any way.
For those of you who are lucky enough to not live in Tower Hamlets or are not reliant on social housing here are some basic facts about the housing situation in our borough.
It sucks to put it mildly. Not enough places to rent privately, those that exist are priced for the typical Canary Wharf worker as are the new builds which do not have enough social housing components.
Want to join a band?
As the LBTH social housing page states ‘Most people who join the housing register will never be offered a social housing tenancy.’
Those that do apply will have to wait a very long time. The council Affordable Housing page: ’There are more than 19,000 on the waiting list for housing but the council can only grant 1800 new tenancies a year at the moment.’
You can do the sums.
Once on the list applicants are categorised as Band 1 (high priority need such as social or medical requirements) , Band 2 (priority need including those in overcrowded conditions) or Band 3 (general housing options).
The overwhelming majority will be Band 3.
One wizard scheme to solve the housing crisis dreamt up by last year Mayor Biggs was to simply abolish Band 3. No Band 3 = No waiting list. Genius, huh?
For some reasons there was uproar from residents who had been on Band 3 for years and now found themselves being abandoned. The U-turn finally came in November.
If you are rich no problem of course. Or are an overseas residents who want to invest in a few flats in Tower Hamlets as savings, see The role of overseas investors in the London new-build residential market.
(An excellent explanation of the mess that is the London housing can be found in the book Big Capital Who is London for? by Anna Minton. Highly recommended.)
Young and single? Best you buy a tent
Where were we? Oh yeah! So the hard reality is that young single people stand no chance of ever getting social housing in Tower Hamlets.
Never ever happens.
Unless they qualify as Category 1 or 2.
Which is why when in November 2019 it was revealed in the national press that young single person Apsana Begum had somehow managed to get a council flat eyebrows were raised.
And why 18 months later our MP found herself in the dock at Snaresbrook.
The three counts of fraud that Apsana Begum faced relate to separate periods of time.
- January 18 and May 21 2013
- May 21 2013 and March 23 2014
- October 28 2015 and March 31 2016
Simply put the allegations were that Ms Begum applied for a council flat while living with her family in 2011, and in 2014 she moved in with her husband but they split a year later.
Within six months Ms Begum was offered a one-bed Isle of Dogs flat in a riverside block run by a housing association.
The prosecution’s case was that when Ms Begum left the family home in 2011 she did not inform the council of her change in circumstances (which she denied) and so when in 2015 she needed somewhere to live she appeared on the council system as being someone who had lived in overcrowded accommodation for four years. Hence the flat.
This is the case that the prosecution counsel failed to prove in spectacular fashion. Not even close.
Maybe Tower Hamlets council failed to inform their legal team what the point of the legal proceedings was?
Think we are joking? Read this. It’s no joke.
‘Ripped to shreds’
As this was a prosecution brought by Tower Hamlets Council, not the police, it used its own anti-fraud specialist Lino Messore.
During his work Mr Messore discovered an extremely worrying fact. This was that there was no agreement within Tower Hamlets council of what the term ‘overcrowding’ meant. Honest.
Moley took the fairly simple step of Googling ‘overcrowding’ and found these superb information pages by the lovely Shelter people. Well done Shelter.
On the Shelter site you can check if your home is overcrowded by law here or review the legal definition of overcrowding and action that occupiers can take if their home is overcrowded here or have a look at this page which provides the definition of statutory overcrowding. If none of this explains what overcrowded means in a housing context to your satisfaction then maybe this from the Government could be of use?
Or you could look at the photo at the top of the page. Those little fishies are very overcrowded.
According to Shelter there are two legal definitions of overcrowding – the room and the space standards. A dwelling is statutorily overcrowded if either or both of these standards apply.
According to the Government a household is overcrowded if it has fewer bedrooms than it needs to avoid undesirable sharing, based on the age, sex and relationship of household members.
Sounds simple but then it comes down to when is it correct to call a room such as a dining room a bedroom? Does that count and in what circumstances?
This can all get super tricky (everyone know what super tricky means? Good.) but the key point is that despite the warning by an experienced anti-fraud investigator that if the prosecution went to trial with the council being unable to define what overcrowded meant it would “get torn to shreds”.
But he was ignored.
And so it came to pass that the very capable defence counsel for Ms Begum, Helen Law of Matrix Chambers, did her job in court and raised this issue.
And shredded the prosecution duly was.
One analogy is somebody getting charged with speeding, arrested and charged only to find at court that there is no definition of the speed limit. If nobody knows what the speed limit is then nobody can be convicted of speeding.
While Mayor Biggs may be the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets Council it is the LBTH Chief Executive Will Tuckley who has to take responsibility for this as well as the Head of Legal (assuming there is one, natch).
To give the Council another headache it now faces the distinct possibility of anyone who has engaged with the council on any housing issue related to overcrowding and lost of challenging the decision.
That could be expensive.
Before your jaw bounces off the floor here is another example of gross incompetence that can be laid at the door of Tuckley and his staff.
After working for Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s office for a while Apsana Begum was employed at Tower Hamlets Homes between 2014 and 2015 as Workforce Project Diversity Officer.
Tower Hamlets Homes (THH) is the Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) that manages the 22,000 or so council properties, essentially it is the council housing department.
So working at THH Which would, whatever her job title, give Ms Begum a decent working knowledge of how the social housing waiting list works in the borough.
Fact is there are tens of thousands of ordinary residents who know only too well how the social housing waiting list works because they have been on it for years.
While working at Tower Hamlets Homes Ms. Begum used her married name of Apsana Haque (which makes sense ‘cos she was married to Ehtashamul Haque).
Odd thing is that when campaigning to become the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Labour she made no mention of her employment with THH.
Why so vague?
As we reported at the time Ms. Begum (as she now is) has made much of her local roots standing in Tower Hamlets but on her site she only refers to her employment at Tower Hamlets Homes as working in the public sector promoting diversity and inclusion and not ‘I worked at Tower Hamlets Homes as Workforce Project Diversity Officer’.
Here is the relevant section from the Why I Stand page of Apsana’s official campaign website.
“I’ve served as Branch Secretary, CLP Equalities Officer and CLP Secretary, overseeing the de-merging of the constituencies and campaigning to end special measures in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. I’ve consistently supported a new kind of politics: building trust among ethnically diverse and working class members, supporting a new generation of activists and engaging the wider membership. I’ve worked in the public sector promoting diversity and inclusion, and I’m a proud member of Unite and UNISON.”
No mention of her proper job at Tower Hamlets Homes.
We approached Labour Party HQ for comment on this at the time of our original story but are still waiting. We have contacted Apsana Begum’s office again today for her response. When we get it we will update this page.
The question was then and remains now why would someone running to be a Labour MP make no mention of working for an organisation that is at the very heart of the community she wishes to serve?
Doesn’t make any sense does it? Why keep working at Tower Hamlets Homes in 2014 – 2015 as a Workforce Project Diversity Officer quiet when campaigning to be an MP in 2019?
When Ms Begum worked at Tower Hamlets Homes she was a bit of a star as she was among five finalists in 24 Housing Magazine’s Young Leaders Award. Here’s the video.
Counsel for the prosecution alleged that Ms Begum “must have had a good understanding of the social housing system and how it operated” and that her work, including a role as a housing adviser, meant she had “significant involvement” with how social housing is allocated.
According to the notes made by Cllr. Wood in court Ms Begum denied this, saying that her work was mainly to do with recycling and Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) work.
Not a disaster. But not good
The reason for mentioning all this is the emails cock-up. Not quite as bad as the overcrowding meaning farce and not totally the fault of Tower Hamlets officers this time but still not at all good.
One of the basic tasks Lino Messore carried out was to check the contents of Ms Begum’s emails. The council email service was outsourced to an IT company as many of these functions are.
Once the investigator had done his task he contacted the IT company and asked them to please archive / backup / keep in a safe place the 14,000 emails received by her and the 13,000 sent so they could if necessary be referred to in court.
Some were printed out but not all 27,000 of them.
Court day looms and the IT company is asked by Lino Messore retrieve these very important evidential emails from the very safe place.
You guessed it, all the emails had been lost by the IT company.
Tried and found guilty in absentia
Last but not least we come to Cllr. Ehtashamul Haque. ex-husband of Apsana Begum.
It is not unreasonable to state that during the course of the trial Cllr. Ehtashamul had his name and reputation dragged through the mud.
Kind of odd as he was not on trial. He was not even called as a witness.
Our understanding is that this was on the advice of prosecution counsel although the logic behind this is beyond us.
Key issues surrounding the circumstances in which Ms Begum obtained the council flat on the Isle of Dogs all relate to Cllr. Ehtashamul but only on the word of Ms Begum.
Firstly the claim by Ms Begum that she was in a vulnerable and confused state after breaking up with Cllr. Ehtashamul, then allegations that he had harassed her.
The other fundamental issue which Cllr. Ehtashamul has, to use the vernacular, been put totally in the frame for is the bidding from Ms Begum’s account for council properties.
From 2013 until March 2014 someone was still bidding in Ms Begum’s name although at this time she was living with Cllr. Ehtashamul in his home.
During this period around 100 bids were made for properties on the Apsana Begum account.
Ms Begum completely denied that she was responsible for these bids and alleged in court that these bids must have been made by Cllr. Ehtashamul.
All interesting stuff but as Cllr. Ehtashamul was not in court, and certainly not as a witness, he had no possibility of responding to these allegations.
That seems wrong and against the spirit of justice in this country.
We have no idea how or if Cllr. Ehtashamul can get his own day in court, but we do think he should have the right to defend himself as Apsana Begum did.
Hopefully a legal expert could provide a view on this issue?
You can find the formal statements of those involved in the case here and please do watch the the videos discussing this case by Cllr Andrew Wood and Cllr Puru Miah, they contain far more information than we have squeezed in here.
Also you get to wonder who was ringing the doorbell.
Related Internet Links
- Apsana Begum – Wikipedia
- Labour MP Apsana Begum found not guilty on three count of housing fraud – Politics Home
- Labour MP Apsana Begum not guilty of housing fraud – Channel 4 News
- Tower Hamlets MP Apsana Begum charged with housing fraud East End Enquirer
- Labour’s Apsana Begum stays away from final Poplar & Limehouse hustings after housing and anti-Semitism issues – East London Advertiser
- Apsana Begum is told by Labour’s own Rushanara Ali to ‘rebuild trust after anti-semitic remarks’ – East London Advertiser
- ‘I needed housing’ Labour’s Apsana Begum tells Poplar & Limehouse election hustings after ‘queue jump’ claim – East London Advertiser
- Labour candidate faces probe over whether she wrongly secured £330,000 council flat – The Sun
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As community journalists we do exactly what it says on our tin – we work for the community.
In Tower Hamlets, which covers most of London’s East End, that means we spend a lot of time investigating allegations of political corruption.
It is an unfortunate fact that the poorest local authority in the country is still beset by the highest levels of corruption.
As Love Wapping we were instrumental in exposing the electoral corruption of Mayor Lutfur Rahman.