Sunday, May 3, 2009

Shame on Baroness Paula Uddin!

Read an investigative piece by the Sunday Times, exposing grand corruption of Bangladesh-born British MP Baroness Paula Monzila Uddin. Our own MPs have been shaming the nation for so long, now we have another version of Bangladeshi corruption in foreign soil! Didn't she come recently in Dhaka and had an audience with our new PM? Here is the full story:

THE small two-bedroom apartment in a quiet corner of Maidstone had been a mystery to its neighbours for years. As far as they could see, it had been vacant and unfurnished since the day it was bought. Nobody had ever attempted to let it. However, after darkness fell last Sunday night a BMW 4x4 entered the gated apartment block and parked outside the flat.

A neighbour saw four people, including two women in saris, apparently carrying something into the house. “They were there for about half an hour,” said a postman who lives next door but one to the flat. “They did take in something: it was either a television or a computer screen.” By the next morning thick curtains protected the two bedrooms that had been visible from the street, a light was on in the hallway and a striped mat had been placed outside the flat’s front door. “I thought, ‘There’s a mat. Someone must have moved in’,” said Yvonne Adams, whose own front door is a few feet across the corridor. “No one’s been living there.”

What the neighbours did not know was that the property is owned by Baroness Uddin, 49, a Labour peer. She has designated the flat as her “main address” so she can claim almost £30,000 in accommodation expenses a year from the House of Lords while continuing to live in her London home.

The flurry of activity in the flat on Sunday night came after The Sunday Times had asked the baroness questions about her “main address” the previous day. Neighbours also report a brief visit by the same car the previous night.

Yesterday MPs and a peer called for a full investigation into the baroness’s expenses claims. She has received more than £100,000 (this figure includes an estimate for last year) since buying the Maidstone flat. She also claimed a further £83,000 for the same allowance from 2001, four years before she bought the flat.

Despite repeated questions, she has declined to discuss whether she actually owned or rented a main home outside London during this period. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader in the Commons, said: “I will be writing to the House of Lords authorities and the police and asking them to investigate this report.”

Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: “The system stinks. Peers should get a simple taxable daily rate instead of these allowances. An empty property can’t be a peer’s main residence. The Lords authorities must investigate.”

Born in Bangladesh, Manzila Pola Uddin came to Britain as a teenager and went on to become a community worker and social services officer while pursuing a political career that saw her rise to be deputy leader of Tower Hamlets borough council in the early 1990s. She was made a peer by Tony Blair in 1998 and took the title “Baroness Uddin of Bethnal Green in our London Borough of Tower Hamlets”. Aged 38, she was the youngest woman in the Lords.

As a campaigner on women’s and ethnic minority issues she has become part of the new Labour establishment, befriending Cherie Blair. Her Facebook friends include the cabinet ministers Harriet Harman, Hazel Blears and David Miliband and Alastair Campbell, the former spin doctor.
However, she has never forgotten her roots. Her Facebook entry lists London as her home town and she has continued to work and live there. She and her family have resided in the same three-bedroom house in Wapping since the early 1990s. A page entitled “my back-yard” on her personal website says: “I have a great sense of belonging to the East End which has been my home for over 30 years . . . it is where my professional and political career has taken shape, where my children have grown up, and also where I served as a local councillor for eight years.”

Yet she designated the family house in Tower Hamlets – where her children lived and went to school – as a “second home” and this allowed her to claim the cost of overnight accommodation in London.

The purpose of the allowance is explained in a House of Lords guidance note that says: “A member whose main residence is outside greater London and who maintains a residence in London for the purpose of attending sittings of the House may claim this allowance towards the cost of maintaining such a residence.”

In the Commons a “main residence” is considered to be the home where an MP spends most nights, but in the Lords there is no fixed definition. Mary Morgan, director of public information at the Lords, says: “A member will know what his main residence is. It’s where they live . . . For the purpose of claiming expenses, it’s where they travel to and from. There is no official definition.”

The Sunday Times began looking into Uddin’s expenses claims as part of an inquiry into peers who clock in to the House of Lords chamber briefly so as to claim overnight allowances. We photographed her going into the Lords through the peers’ entrance, saw her appear in the chamber for less than a minute and then leave the building. The whole visit took just three minutes.

In the latest published list (the year to March 2008) she claimed £29,600 from the Lords for overnight subsistence – one of the highest sums for any peer. She gave the location of her main residence as Kent.

This was curious because there appear to be no public documents linking the baroness to the county. The only reference is a speech to the Lords in 2006 which she began with the words “I am a resident of Maidstone borough council”. She is listed on the electoral roll at the Wapping address from 1996 to the present.

She has been a director of seven companies in the past 10 years and each time has said she lives at her Wapping home. The Companies Act says directors must give their “usual” address.
Uddin has a brother, Rousseau Khan, who lives in Bromley, south London. Khan owns the house and a neighbour said Uddin did not live there.

When a reporter rang her London home, her husband Komar picked up the telephone. He appeared confused about his wife’s “main residence” in Kent.
Reporter: “Have you lived there [the Tower Hamlets family home] for a long time?”
Husband: “Yeah, We came here in ’93.”
Reporter: “Ninety-three, I see. Am I also right in thinking you have a place down in Kent?”
Husband: “Sorry?” Reporter: “Do you have a place in Kent?”
Husband: “Kent?” Reporter: “Kent, as in the county Kent? No?”
Husband: “No.”

Minutes later the reporter spoke to Uddin about her three-minute visit to the House of Lords that day. She said she had been working on Lords business outside the building and had gone to the chamber but left quickly after realising she had another meeting.

The reporter attempted to broach the subject of her overnight expenses claim but she put the phone down. That evening she instructed Carter-Ruck, the libel lawyers, to speak on her behalf.
At the same time a reporter went to her London home. It is a three-storey building in a block of about a dozen flats built by Spitalfields Housing Association. The association’s housing stock is for people requiring affordable housing and the average rent for one of the association’s three-bedroom houses is £500 a month. The baroness is claiming more than £2,000 a month for running and maintaining a house in London.

Neighbours confirmed that the baroness shares the home with Komar, two of her sons and a daughter. Komar was outside the house smoking a cigarette. When asked where his home was, he said, “I live here”, apparently surprised by the obvious question. When reminded about the home in Kent, he added: “I live in both places.” Later Carter-Ruck said that he had initially answered “no” when asked on the telephone whether he had a property in Kent because it belonged to his wife.

Fozlu Miah, 28, lives next to the Uddins in the same building, having moved in with his parents in the early 1990s, about the same time as the baroness. “As far as I know she lives here,” said Miah. “I see her most days through the window, coming in and going out. I sometimes talk to her . . . I call her auntie.”

Rafique Uddin (no relation), another neighbour, has known the family for years: “We all moved in at the same time. I don’t know anything about a house in Kent. I’m surprised to hear that because almost every day when I’m parking my car I can see their car. The mum [baroness] is going in and out. They are continuously living here as far as I know.”

Her daughter Masuma Siddiqah, 17, is best friends with the baroness’s daughter. She said: “[The baroness] is always there. I hear her beep her car every day when she gets home.” Siddiqah added that Uddin’s daughter had never told her anything about the family having a home in Kent.

In a statement last Saturday, Carter-Ruck confirmed the baroness owned a property in Maidstone which is registered as her main address with the House of Lords. The solicitors also offered to disclose the Kent address if The Sunday Times undertook not to publish details or approach members of the baroness’s family at the address. We declined.

Where was it? Overlooking a nature reserve on the fringes of Maidstone’s central shopping area lies a block of apartments built in 2005. Land registry searches confirmed that Uddin owns a street-level flat there.

She bought it for £155,000 in September 2005, nine months after peers’ expenses claims for overnight subsistence were made public for the first time. There is a mortgage on it.
It has two small bedrooms on the roadside and a lounge incorporating a kitchen area at the back. It is part of a group of six apartments that all share the same main entrance.

The Sunday Times has interviewed residents from all five of the other flats and others living nearby. They all said they had never seen Uddin, who cuts a distinctive figure, at the property. The neighbours said the property had been left empty since it had been bought. Three remembered peering into the two bedroom windows at the front and noting the rooms were unfurnished.

The windows now have thick curtains drawn across them after last weekend’s visit. The postman said some of the people who entered the flat on Sunday had arrived in a BMW four-wheel-drive. His description of the vehicle, including two letters from its registration plate, match Uddin’s car.

He said: “Nobody has ever lived in there. If you’d have come down a week ago you could have peered in and said nobody lives there.”

Adams has lived across the corridor from the baroness’s flat for three years. “I can’t emphasise enough how no one has lived there. I know that for a fact,” she said.

“There was a time when they had a sheet or something at the window which had fallen down and the security light was coming on, just shining into a completely empty flat . . . No, there has never been a stick of furniture in there.”

Matthew Hollis, whose flat is directly above the baroness’s property, confirmed there had been no furniture in the bedrooms. When initially asked about the flat, he responded: “I don’t think anyone does live there. I’ve never seen anyone in there . . .”

Stuart Brown and his girlfriend Gemma Fox lived directly below Uddin’s flat for three years before leaving recently. He said: “We never had anyone living above.”

The other ground-floor neighbour, who requested her name be withheld, said: “I thought it was empty, too. I posted a note through there about two months ago because my friend was interested in renting.”

A woman in a house that looks directly onto the back of the flat said she often saw people on the balconies above and below the baroness’s flat. “That sweater has been hanging over that middle flat balcony probably since the end of last summer,” she said.

“Every few months some people would just visit, but you are talking 10 minutes max,” Adams said.

On Friday evening the baroness issued a solicitors’ statement saying: “I do not believe that I have done anything wrong or breached any House of Lords rules. Should the relevant House of Lords authorities wish to investigate the matter I will, of course, co-operate fully.

“The Wapping house is rented, while I own the property in Maidstone. The Maidstone property is furnished and I strongly deny that I have never lived there. Indeed I have stayed there regularly since buying it.”

Yesterday evening a reporter spoke to Mark Ryan, a plumber who had entered the flat last weekend to fix the boiler. He described how the property was covered in dust and sparsely furnished.

“I’ve been in more flats than I care to remember, but this place looked like someone had left it ages ago,” he said. “It was very dusty. There were odds and sods of furniture around. There was an old mattress on the floor of one bedroom. It wasn’t made up. There was a fold-up clothes dryer in the other bedroom.

“It didn’t look lived-in. It certainly didn’t look like a family home.They told me they were just moving in.”

— Born Bangladesh 1959
— Arrives in east London 1973
— Begins working for Newham social services 1988
— Deputy leader of Tower Hamlets 1994-6
— Fails to become Labour parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green 1997
— Made Labour life peer 1998
— Starts Jagonari Centre to train and educate Asian women 1999
— Meets Blair as part of delegation to tackle Islamic extremism 2005
— Made chairwoman of ethnic minority women’s taskforce 2008
Main address
Two bedroom flat
Bought three years ago
Neighbours have never seen her there and say flat was "empty" and "unfurnished"
Not registered to vote
Second address
Three bedroom house
Lived there for 15 years
Children went to school in the area
Neighbours see her regularly
Registered to vote at address