Housing complaints ignored due to prejudice, says ex-children’s commissioner

Former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has said that prejudice is a factor in how complaints from social housing tenants are treated.

An inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak prompted an outcry this week after it 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.

The inquest into Awaab’s death heard concerns were repeatedly raised to landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) about mould in the flat on the town’s Freehold estate.

Awaab Ishak inquest
Two-year-old Awaab Ishak (Family handout)

As a result of the inquest’s findings, Gareth Swarbrick, the chief executive of RBH, was removed from his position on Saturday.

Speaking to the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme on Sky News, Ms Longfield said that prejudice is a factor in how families are treated.

“Well, it’s a very, very common message from families that they ring, they complain, they get ignored, they have to wait months and years and nothing happens and if it happens it’s not fixed properly,” she said.

Awaab Ishak inquest
Gareth Swarbrick, former chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH)

“There does seem to be a mix, certainly and also there is the element of prejudice which is raring its ugly head in this too but expectations just aren’t high enough, we should demand more.”

While acknowledging that money is in short supply, she said that customer care needs to improve.

“Yes, of course, cash is stretched but that is absolutely no excuse,” she said.

“There has to be much more of a focus on what tenants are saying and that customer care, which seems almost non-existent.

“There is almost this feeling that they should take it or leave it and I’ve spoken to families where they have had to sofa surf with children, be in temporary housing, move across parts of their area and of course, that has an impact on not only their physical health but their mental health, their schoolwork, family relationships and stresses.”

It comes after Housing Secretary Michael Gove wrote to every English council leader and social housing provider as he warned that deaths like that of Awaab’s must “never be allowed to happen again”.

Addressing the latter, he said that the country needed to “raise the bar dramatically” on the quality of social housing and “empower tenants” to ensure “their voices are truly heard”.