Shelina Akhtar: Tower Hamlets councillor still in office despite being jailed for benefit fraud

A Tower Hamlets councillor is still in her job after receiving a three and a half month jail sentence today for benefit fraud.

Shelina Akhtar, whose ward is Spitalfields and Banglatown, was handed a 16 week prison sentence, half of which she must serve, at Snaresbrook Crown Court, this morning.

The sentence came after she had pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to notify a change in circumstances, when claiming housing and council tax benefits for a property in Blackwall Way, Poplar.

The court heard that Cllr Akhtar sub-let her Swan Housing Association flat for �1,000 a month without permission, while living with her parents and continuing to claim the benefits. She also referred a tenant to another housing association flat registered to her sister, Hazera Akhtar, the court was told, and another �1,000 in monthly rent for that flat also went into to the councillor’s bank account. Court charges against her sister were dropped.

The court only dealt with the benefit fraud as subletting is a civil matter that would have to be dealt with separately.

Cllr Akhtar falsely claimed a total of �1,085 in housing benefit and �29 in Council Tax during two periods between November 2009 and September 2010.

Prosecuting barrister Michelle Fawcett told the court: “Cllr Akhtar deliberately defrauded the council only months after being elected to the very same local authority despite having been convicted of a similar offence already. She sublet her flat for sheer profit.”

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Defence barrister Edward McKiernan urged the judge not make an example of Cllr Akhtar because of her position.

“We have a lot of testimony to say she has been very active in the community and did a lot of hard work as a councillor,” he told the court. If possibly she would like to continue as a councillor or to play a role in the community,” he told the court.

He also pointed out that Cllr Akhtar accepted what she did was “unacceptable” and that she had repaid all the money wrongly claimed in benefits to the council.

But sentencing her judge John Lafferty told Cllr Akhtar she had put the reputation of the benefit system in danger by making “hard working” people pay for her benefits.

“We have a benefit system for those who through no fault of their own fall on hard times.”

“You deliberately defrauded the system. As a prominent person you should have lived up to the highest standards.”

Cllr Aktar stood as a Labour councillor but later defected to become an independent and is counted as belonging to Tower Hamlet’s Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s inner circle.

Under the Local Government Act a councillor is automatically disqualified from office if a custodial sentence of more than three months is received.

In a statement the council said: “But that disqualification does not take effect until the opportunity for appeal has expired, which is 28 days after sentence.”

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