Apsana Begum's court ordeal is an indictment of Tower Hamlets council

It could have been a John Grisham novel set in the Chicago of yesteryear. Apsana Begum, Britain’s first hijab-wearing MP, was acquitted last week of three counts of housing fraud in a failed prosecution by her own Tower Hamlets council.

Nobody involved in pursuing this trial seems to have found it remotely odd that the complaint was made by the brother-in-law of Begum’s ex-husband – the ex-husband himself being a councillor in a position of political oversight. The jury found Begum not guilty of all charges; in the eyes of her detractors, Begum’s true crime may have been that she was a leftwing Muslim female MP.

The council alleged that Begum had lied in order to jump the queue for social housing, costing the taxpayer £64,000. It’s not known how much public money Tower Hamlets has spent on the prosecution, but it would not be surprising were the figure in the region of many tens of thousands of pounds. Questions must now asked about why the council brought the case against Begum in the first place.

Begum’s story is complicated. While studying for a BA in politics at Queen Mary University, she lived at home to care for her father through an extended period of dementia. His death in 2012 hit her hard, and it was during this time that Begum got to know the man who would become her husband. Ehtasham Haque, who had already been married twice, was apparently fascinated by Begum’s political acumen and ambition. Begum’s family did not approve of their relationship; during the course of the trial, she said they went as far as locking her in a room so that she had to call the police to aid her escape. She reported her fears of honour-based violence to the police .

Begum moved in with Haque. She told the court her husband was “controlling and coercive”, and had taken over her finances. Haque published a statement via Twitter after Begum’s trial stating that he completely denies ever having behaved inappropriately to her during their marriage, and that their separation had been amicable. This version of events was not pressed by the council during the trial. Whatever the reality, Begum left him, returning to her mother’s home. Haque campaigned unsuccessfully against her selection as the parliamentary Labour candidate for Poplar and Limehouse.

Shortly after Begum was selected for the Labour seat in 2019, allegations of fraud made against her began to emerge that had been briefed to the media. The local authority alleged that her mother’s home had four, not three, bedrooms, and that Begum had failed properly to inform them about her turbulent comings and goings between her marital and family homes in order to jump the queue when making an application for social housing.

At Snaresbrook crown court last week, Begum told the court she had notified the council of her movements for council tax purposes, and that her “coercive” husband had taken control of her affairs during this difficult period in her life. Nonetheless, the prosecutor seemed to suggest that Begum, as an “organised and capable young lady”, could not have been under the control of her husband.

The prosecutor also implied that Begum, who worked temporarily as a council administrative assistant after graduating, had detailed knowledge of the social housing system. Begum’s counsel, the barrister Helen Law, pointed out that making tea and filing do not make you a municipal mastermind. In a striking moment of cross-examination, Law confronted a council investigations officer with the minutes of an audit strategy meeting in which he had reported to Begum’s ex-husband.

During the last two years, Begum has endured Islamophobic abuse and death threats over social media, leading the judge, Mrs Justice Whipple, to issue stern warnings for Begum’s protection. Her online treatment should anger everyone, particularly self-identified feminists – yet it has received surprisingly little condemnation or even attention.

That a case with such curious origins was ever pursued points to an urgent need to examine the independence of Tower Hamlets council and the reasons it sought to investigate Begum in the first place. A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets says that “justice has run its course” and “the matter is now closed”. Yet this judgment cannot be left to a council that has shown itself to be so riven with conflicts of interest.

More generally, we must ask whether local bureaucrats are ever independent enough of politicians to be trusted with parking fines, let alone imprisonable offences. At the very least, serious investigations should be left to the police and CPS. As for Apsana Begum, she enlarged Labour’s majority in her East End constituency in 2019, and remains one of the bravest and most articulate advocates for vulnerable people in the House of Commons.

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