A council worker who says his life was ruined by a newspaper article falsely linking him to a paedophile ring has been awarded a six-figure pay-out.
Wajed Iqbal, 44, settled out of court with Associated Newspapers Ltd, after suffering “huge and continuing distress”, following a two-page article in the Mail on Sunday in 2017 about South Ribble Council’s taxi licensing scandal.
Mr Iqbal, a father-of-four, was employed by South Ribble Council between 2014 and 2017, where his work concerned the granting and renewal of licences to the drivers of Private Hire Vehicles, known as minicabs.
The Mail on Sunday article wrongly implied he had a link to the Rochdale grooming gangs, which Mr Iqbal believes was because of his Pakistani Muslim heritage.
He had previously worked as a licensing enforcement officer and nationality checking officer for Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council between 2005 and 2012, and as a licensing enforcement officer for Leeds City Council from 2012 to 2014.
South Ribble Council made headlines when concerns came to light in 2016 that taxi licences had been issued without proper documentation or driver checks.
On May 14, 2017, the Mail on Sunday published a two-page article with the headline ‘Scandal of the mini-cab predators’, with the same words published on the MailOnline website.
A statement made in the High Court, London, this week said: “The article made a grave allegation that the claimant (Mr Iqbal) was a ‘fixer’ for cab drivers in Rochdale who were committing crimes against young girls. The article also alleged that the Claimant was given a warning by his employer, South Ribble Borough Council, for the alleged deficiencies in his working practice as a licensing officer.
“These allegations were false. They have caused huge and continuing distress to Mr Iqbal. Nevertheless Mr Iqbal is satisfied that the Defendant has come to court to offer its sincere apologies to him for making the allegations complained of and to acknowledge they were false.
“The Defendant has agreed to pay Mr Iqbal substantial damages and has agreed not to republish the allegations complained of.”
It is noted that Associated Newspapers Ltd offered its “sincere apologies” to Mr Iqbal.
DMG Media, which took over Associated Newspapers Ltd, told the Post it would not be commenting further.
Speaking outside court, Mr Iqbal said: “I feel great, I feel I can move on. It’s been a terrible ordeal for the past two-and-a-half, three years.
“I’m glad to see the end of it and move my life on.”
Mr Iqbal, from Nelson, said he struggles to get permanent jobs, having had his contract with South Ribble Council terminated shortly after the article was published.
The council said it was unable to comment on any employment matters relating to individuals no longer employed by them.
Mr Iqbal said he has been put on anti-depressants and sleeping tablets because of the ordeal, and worries about the safety of him and his family.
He added: “It’s had a lot of knock-on effects for me and my wider family. My eldest son is at uni and he’s had a lot of aggro from fellow students. I hear people sniggering about me in the local community.
“It was a double-page spread and people have shared the online version on Facebook.”
He added: “It’s affected my health quite a bit. I can’t sleep because I’m so worried.”
Mr Iqbal said he had been contacted by a Mail on Sunday journalist about a month before the article was published, but declined to comment as his contract barred him from speaking directly to the media.
He first became aware of the article when he woke from a night shift working as a doorman. The article used a photo of him sticking his tongue out, taken from his Twitter account.
He said: “I was inundated with calls from family, friends, people in the community and colleagues.
“I had to deactivate all my social media, my Facebook, LinkedIn, everything. I’ve had to put CCTV up around my house, because I’m fearful, basically.
“The article came out a few days before the Three Girls programme (a docudrama about the sex-abuse scandal in Rochdale), and you heard about reprisal attacks such as the one on the Finsbury Park mosque.”
Speaking about the picture, he said: “That was taken from my Twitter account and it was taken on holiday with my youngest son. I was worried that he would be on it. Of all the pictures to use of me... It was to create a bad image of me.”
Mr Iqbal said he was glad the case was settled without the need for a trial “as that would have meant the Mail were still fighting”.
He said: “I think they thought, ‘A guy from Lancashire ain’t going to be suing us’. I think they thought, ‘He won’t have a clue’.”
PANEL: Why was South Ribble Council in the headlines in 2017?
It came to light in 2016 that South Ribble Council’s taxi licences had been routinely issued without proper documentation; problems with a new IT system meant proper checks weren’t made about drivers, investigations into concerns about taxi drivers lacked structure and record keeping was poor and liaison with other agencies “lacked structure.”
The council was accused of not carrying out appropriate investigations into allegations of child sexual exploitation by two male taxi drivers and faced intensive criticism after renewing the licence of a driver who had been convicted of assault on a 13-year-old autistic passenger.
South Ribble Council has made a series of changes to improve its licensing proceedures and now has a new administration leading the council.