Housing boss sacked following mould exposure death of Awaab Ishak

The chief executive of a housing organisation has been removed “with immediate effect” after a two-year-old boy died from exposure to mould.

Earlier this week, an inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak found he died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by mould in the one-bedroom housing association flat where he lived with his parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin, in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

Gareth Swarbrick, chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), has lost his position, it was announced on Saturday, however Awaab’s family said the fact it was a sacking rather than a resignation “speaks volumes”.

A statement read: “Our original instincts were for Gareth to stay on to see the organisation through this difficult period and to make the necessary changes, but we all recognise that this is no longer tenable.

Awaab Ishak inquest
Two-year-old Awaab Ishak who died in December 2020 (Family handout/PA)

“The coroner noted that RBH had made changes as a result of the tragic death of Awaab.

“Under new leadership, RBH will continue to embed these changes and to continue to drive further improvements to our homes and to our communications with tenants.

“We are committed to sharing what we have learnt about the impact to health of damp, condensation and mould with the social housing sector, and to supporting sector-wide changes.

“We will work with other agencies local and national and with central government in implementing the wider changes recommended to them by the coroner.”

RBH said it will work to appoint an external interim chief executive.

The announcement came at the same time as a vigil in Rochdale, during which the Greater Manchester Tenants Union called for Mr Swarbrick to go.

Christian Weaver, who is part of the family’s legal team, read out a statement saying: “Awaab’s family had hoped that following the remarks of the coroner at the closing of the inquest into their son’s death – namely that this should be a ‘defining moment’ for the housing sector – that immediate action would be taken by Rochdale Borough Housing (RBH).

“The family were deeply saddened that following this inquest, RBH did nothing but express their confidence in their chief executive Gareth Swarbrick, despite in the courtroom doing everything to indicate that significant changes would be made.

“The fact that RBH’s chief executive had to be sacked as opposed to resign, for the family speaks volumes. However, they find it wholly unacceptable that the board expressed confidence in him the first place.”

Rochdale Council leader Neil Emmott told Sky News it was the “right decision”.

He said: “He was responsible for the entire organisation, he was handsomely paid for that and I think it’s important to recognise that.

“I’m glad that the board of RBH has taken the right decision. It’s a strange decision because only 48 hours ago they were backing Mr Swarbrick to the hilt.”

Mark Slater of the Greater Manchester Tenants Union told PA: “My first reaction is it’s taken too long, this should have been straight after the inquest.

“Gareth Swarbrick should have attended the inquest himself just out of respect more than anything, after he didn’t do that it should come as no surprise that he didn’t resign immediately.

“I think it’s a gesture, they’ve removed him from position, but it was a position he was completely supported in 24 hours ago.

“It’s a self-preservation tactic, but there’s corporate responsibility here, these individuals won’t get away with cutting the head off the snake.”

Awaab’s inquest heard that concerns about the mould in the family’s flat had been raised with RBH a number of times, but no action had been taken.

In a statement released by their lawyers on Friday, Awaab’s family said: “Senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said that the tragic death of our beautiful Awaab should be a ‘defining moment’ for the housing sector.

“At present, we see nothing to indicate that the death of our son will, in any way, serve as a defining moment.

“Accountability must be done and be seen to be done.

“RBH have an opportunity to demonstrate to society at large, their residents and not least us as a family that they understand the gravity of this situation.

“We await further action from RBH.”

Amid calls for him to resign, Mr Swarbrick had apologised to Awaab’s family on Thursday, but said he would not be standing down from his position.

Earlier this week, Housing Secretary Michael Gove summoned Mr Swarbrick, who earned £170,000 in the year Awaab died, to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Mr Gove said: “Honestly, it beggars belief that this guy is still in office.”