A Labour MP conned a local authority out of £64,000 in benefits by ‘deliberately and dishonestly’ obtaining social house, after using her connections as a housing advisor to ‘jump the queue’, a court heard today.
Apsana Begum, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse in east London, claimed she was living in ‘overcrowded conditions’ with her family when she was in a four bedroomed house with three other people, jurors were told.
Snaresbrook Crown Court heard the 31-year-old was a former housing officer at a group working with the local council and because of this she ‘had a good understanding’ of the system.
She successfully gained a social housing tenancy in under four months, rather than the average three-year wait, due to her claims, jurors were told.
Prosecutors also alleged that she made other fraudulent council house applications, though she claimed they had been made without her knowledge by her ‘controlling’ former husband.
Begum, who was elected as an MP in December 2019, denies three counts of fraud.
The alleged incidents relate to periods between January 2013 and March 2016, in which the London Borough of Tower Hamlets alleges housing Begum cost £63,928 in rent.
Begum said she ‘vigorously contests these malicious and false allegations’ that she failed to tell the council that she was no longer living in overcrowded conditions when she made her claims.
The prosecution admits that while the MP did inform the council of changes to her circumstances, she did so to the wrong department.
James Marsland, prosecuting on the opening day of her trial, at Snaresbrook Crown Court said: ‘In July 2011, Ms Begum applied to join the social housing register for London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
Apsana Begum (pictured left), the MP for Poplar and Limehouse in east London, claimed she was living in ‘overcrowded conditions’ with her family when she was in a four bedroomed house with three other people, jurors were told. Snaresbrook Crown Court heard the 31-year-old (pictured right in a court sketch) successfully gained a social housing tenancy in under four months, rather than the average three-year wait, due to her claims.
‘She remained on the register until March 7, 2016 when she was awarded the tenancy of a studio flat.
‘The basis of her application was that she was living in overcrowded conditions in her family home.
‘In making the application, Ms Begum was under an ongoing duty to inform the relevant department of London Borough of Tower Hamlets of any changes in her circumstances.
‘The Prosecution case is that over three distinct periods of time, Ms Begum deliberately and dishonestly did not inform London Borough Tower Hamlets Housing Options of significant changes in her circumstances.
‘The Prosecution say the reason she didn’t tell London Borough of Tower Hamlets Housing Options was that she knew that, if she did, it would negatively affect her application.
‘She withheld the information in order to gain a social housing tenancy. The defence response, in a sentence, is that at no point was she acting dishonestly.
‘She said she kept London Borough of Tower Hamlets informed as best she could, including whilst going through some difficult moments in her life, including in relation to her family and partner.’
Mr Marsland told the court the politician before she was a sitting MP, worked at social housing group Tower Hamlets Homes 2013 and 2016, including as a housing advisor.
He told jurors that, because of her position, she aware of the banding system and how she was able to manipulate it to ‘jump the queue.’
He said: ‘Ms Begum worked for Tower Hamlets Homes, a public organisation set up specifically to work with London Borough of Tower Hamlets in relation to social housing.
‘Ms Begum work in roles including as a housing advisor. The position of housing advisor was to provide a first point of contact for residents contacting Tower Hamlets Homes.
‘The prosecution say that, in undertaking that role, Ms Begum must have had a good understanding of the social housing system and how it operated.
‘Indeed, investigation into her work email accounts held with London Borough of Tower Hamlets showed examples of her working in relation to queries specifically related to banding, including overcrowding, as early as 2012.’
The prosecutor said it was clear when Begum applied to join the housing register at 21 years old, it was accurate at the time that she was living in overcrowded conditions, a three-bedroom property in Poplar, with her mother, father, brother, aunt and sister.
She said in her application that her bedroom consisted of a bunk bed and a single bed that she shared with her siblings.
She signed a declaration that included the statement: ‘I understand that it is my responsibility to tell you immediately if there are any changes in any circumstances that may affect the priority awarded to my application.
‘If I am not sure whether the change will affect my priority I will assume that it does and tell you about it.’
But in January 2013, it appeared that Ms Begum’s father had died and aunt had moved out and the living room had been converted into a fourth bedroom.
Mr Marsland said: ‘If the prosecution is right about that, she had a bedroom to herself at that time, she was in a starkly different position to the one set out in her application in relation to overcrowding.
He told jurors that, because of her position, she aware of the banding system and how she was able to manipulate it to ‘jump the queue’
‘The prosecution says it would have been obvious to her it would have been a change of circumstances for her.
‘And it wasn’t that Ms Begum had simply forgotten about her application. Between January and May 2013, Ms Begum was routinely making bids on social housing properties on the strength of her Band 2- overcrowded status.
‘The prosecution say that it would have been obvious to Ms Begum that she needed to inform London Borough of Tower Hamlets Housing Options about those changes in circumstances.
‘However, it would also have been obvious to her that it would negatively impact her application if she did so.
‘And so prosecution, in summary, says the reason she did not inform the council was that she was deliberately and dishonesty not doing that, and did not want to give away any information that would negatively impact that application.’
The second charge of fraud relates to when Begum moved out of the family home and went to live with her partner at the time, Ehtashamul Haque, in Poplar between May 2013 and March 2014.
Mr Marsland said in July 2013, by telephone and email, Ms Begum had informed Council Tax Services that she moved into the flat with her partner.
He said: ‘The prosecution say what she didn’t do was inform Housing Options. Ms Begum knew full well that she had to inform Housing Options of the updates that she needed to make in any changes of circumstances, such as things that had improved her position.
‘She was not overcrowded in [the Poplar flat].
‘The prosecution say there can be no doubt that Ms Begum would have known this would have been a material change that would have negatively affected her application.’
He continued: ‘Social housing bids citing overcrowding continue. Members of the jury, the prosecution say far from updating Housing Options the fact that she moved house, she continued to bid on social housing just as she did the five months prior.
‘What does the defence say in relation to those bids?
‘Ms Begum denies making any bids on social housing property after moving to [Poplar].
‘She says I did not make any bids when I moved [to Poplar]. She says that they must have been made by someone else without her knowledge; likely her partner at the time Mr Haque, whom she says was controlling.’
The prosecution’s case also says, after the breakdown of Begum’s marriage in 2015 and 2016 she moved back into the family home, that she failed to inform the council’s housing department about this either.
Jurors were told this amounts to the third charge of fraud.
Mr Marsland said: ‘The prosecution say that Ms Begum was not the victim of the same omission being made over two years apart; rather she simply did not inform LBTH Housing Options on either occasion.
‘By this time, Ms Begum had been employed in housing-related roles for around two years.
‘When she asked for the review form, she knew exactly who she needed to speak to.
‘The prosecution say that Ms Begum, once again, deliberately and dishonestly didn’t notify Housing Options about her years at [the Poplar flat] because she knew it would have negatively affected her application.
‘She knew she would go back of the queue and the waiting period would be measured in years.
‘If her true preference date had been known, she was looking at years of waiting. If she withheld that information, she got social housing tenancy in four months.
‘In a letter dated 5 February 2016, Ms Begum was informed by the local authority’s lettings service that she was been nominated as the first nominee in relation to a property that she had bid for.
‘The paperwork for that offer was on the basis of Band 2 overcrowding and then the tenancy began on 7 March 2016.’
Begum was one of 26 new Labour MPs elected in 2019, winning her seat with a majority of nearly 30,000.
A supporter of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, she has spoken in Parliament about the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minorities and sits on the Commons education committee.
She is also notable for being the chair of an all-party committee on domestic abuse and violence and has spoken in the House of Commons about being a survivor.
The trial, expected to last around eight days, continues tomorrow.