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Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell appeared in court on Tuesday to support a Labour MP charged with three counts of housing fraud, praising her as a “hard working” and “very good person”.
He was questioned by prosecutors on the second day of Apsana Begum’s trial, amid accusations the Poplar and Limehouse MP jumped the queue by claiming she was living in “overcrowded conditions” when she was in fact residing at a four-bedroom house with three other people.
Ms Begum, who has held the east London seat since 2019, told jurors at Snaresbrook Crown Court she believed multiple bids for council properties carried out in her name were made by her “controlling” ex-husband.
She added that Ehtashamul Haque, from whom she split less than two years after the pair moved in together, often kept things from her, including his tendency to drink heavily.
Ms Begum acknowledged that she had moved in with ex-partner in June 2013 so no longer needed to apply for social housing, but jurors heard how offers for properties continued to be made on her housing account.
“I think it may have been my ex-husband,” Ms Begum said. “He did have access to a lot of my things by that time. I had taken a loan out for him [and] he did create an email address for me, and we had a password that was shared.”
When pushed by prosecutor James Marsland, she admitted that her ex “did know I had had an application for housing before”.
Taking the stand as a character witness for Ms Begum, Mr McDonnell said his colleague was so “hard working” that he considered offering her a minister’s position if Labour won the 2019 general election.
“I was hoping if we were elected, I would like to add her to my ministerial team … as a parliamentary private secretary,” Mr McDonnell said, adding: “I’ve worked with her quite closely in Parliament. I think she comes across as always wanting to do the right thing [and] I always describe her as a very good person.”
Mr McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, who was the shadow chancellor of the exchequer in the five years to 2020, said he met Ms Begum during her 2019 campaign to represent Poplar and Limehouse, which she went on to win.
“I thought she was a very straightforward, sincere, committed person, very keen to represent the local community,” he told the court.
Asked by Mr Marsland, the prosecutor, if Ms Begum was a “good political operator”, Mr McDonnell batted the term away and said “in some respects [it] would be derogatory”.
“I think she relates to people well and I think she can put a good argument,” he instead put forward to the court. “You have to win people [over] with honesty and sincerity, and I think that’s what she’s done, not just in my own political party but across the house as well.”
During her cross-examination, Ms Begum was asked why she thought her ex-husband would have made housing bids behind her back – to which the Labour MP repeated claims Mr Haque had knowledge of her passwords and was often dishonest.
“I don't know what his plans were or what was going on in his mind at the time,” she told the court. “I can’t fully explain about the social housing bids behind my back.”
She continued: “Over the years I’ve learnt more and more about what he is doing. [Some of it] is still a revelation to me. By 2015 … it became apparent to me that I didn’t know what he was up to.”
Despite claiming she could not “explain his behaviour”, the prosecutor said Mr Haque would not have been able to legitimately process any housing bids without Ms Begum’s help.
“Without you being in the process, Mr Haque couldn’t have achieved any [advantage] could he?” said Mr Marsland. “These are things that were gains in the potential or long-term future for you. And you were capable of making those gains.”
Ms Begum was later questioned about erroneous housing and council tax exemption forms, which Mr Marsland said were submitted by her mother and aunt – one in 2009, the other in 2013.
Both applications are said to contain lies about the number of bedrooms in the same property – at Woodstock Terrace, in Poplar – years apart.
“Your aunt made a housing application in 2009. In short, she said that at that point in time, the property was being used as four bedrooms,” Mr Marsland said. “Your mother in April 2013 made an application for council tax benefit. Is she wrong when she says four bedrooms?”
He continued: “Can you help us with why two people, years apart, applying for different things, have made the same mistake?” But Ms Begum said only she did not know and that the house “was always three bedrooms”.
She was also asked about her contact – or alleged lack thereof – with Tower Hamlets Housing Options (THHO), and the fact there is no record of the calls she claimed she made to inform the council of her change in address.
Ms Begum told the court she first called the service to inform them of the change – first when she moved to St Bernard Terrace with Mr Haque in June 2013 – and then again upon her return to Woodstock Terrace in 2015. However, the calls did not appear on the Camino workflow system used by THHO, Mr Marsland said.
“Is the position that, twice over two years, you have suffered the same problem of calling and, on two different occasions, someone has failed to log an action?”
Ms Begum replied: “I can't comment on what another person did or didn’t do. All I can say is what I remember. I called in 2015. I spoke to someone and filled in a form as a result. I can't say whether they have or haven't [logged] all I can say is that I did call.”
Ms Begum denies three counts of fraud, alleged to have taken place between 18 January 2013 and 31 March 2016.
The trial continues.
Additional reporting from Court News UK