Housing Secretary vows to hold landlords to account following death of toddler

Housing Secretary Michael Gove has vowed to hold landlords to account following the death of a two-year-old boy who suffered prolonged exposure to mould in a housing association flat.

Awaab Ishak, two, died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by mould in the one-bedroom flat where he lived with parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin, in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

At an inquest on Tuesday, senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said his death should be a “defining moment” for the housing sector.

In a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Gove said: “Awaab’s death does make painfully clear why we must do everything we can to better protect tenants. So, our Social Housing Regulation Bill will bring in a rigorous new regime that holds landlords like these to account for the decency of their homes.

“At the moment… the system has been too reliant on people fighting their own corner and we are determined to change that. So, the reforms that we’re making will help to relieve the burden on tenants with an emboldened and more powerful regulator.”

He said his department would “name and shame” landlords who had breached consumer standards.

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.

Mr Gove said: “We hope that we can end the scandal of residents having to live in shoddy, substandard homes, like some of those on the Freehold estate.

“We want to restore the right of everyone in this country, whatever their race or cultural background, to live somewhere warm, decent, safe and secure. A place that they can be proud to call home.”

Mr Gove said he would “act immediately” on the recommendations of the coroner and had been in touch with senior figures at RBH to “demand answers”.

He added: “Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s repeated failure to heed Awaab’s family’s pleas to remove the mould in their damp-ridden property was a terrible dereliction of duty.

“Worse still, the apparent attempts by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to attribute the existence of mould to the actions of Awaab’s parents was beyond insensitive and deeply unprofessional.”

Mr Gove said he had spoken briefly to chief executive of RBH Gareth Swarbrick, who was paid £170,000 in the year of Awaab’s death, and it became clear there were “systemic problems in the governance and leadership of that organisation”.

He also said it seemed to him that the family, originally from Sudan, were “victims of prejudice”.

He added: “They deserved better and their son deserved better.”

He said there would be a “targeted multi-year campaign” to promote the housing ombudsman and ensure those living in social housing know their rights.

Shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy said the case should mark a “real step change” in improving social housing stock.

She said: “It should also be a defining moment for us and a wake-up call that every single person in this House who has – in whatever limited form and to whatever extent – the power and the platform to make sure that this never, ever happens again.

“It should not take the death of a two-year-old boy in completely avoidable circumstances to get us to get together and act.”

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said Awaab’s death must become a “powerful catalyst” for change in housing standards.

He said: “Too many homes here and across England fall beneath the decent homes standards and too many landlords are being let off the hook.

“We have put forward specific proposals to tackle this as part of the Trailblazer devolution discussions with the Government and are encouraged by the positive response we have received from Michael Gove.

“Awaab’s tragic death must become a defining moment for housing in England – as the coroner so rightly said – and Greater Manchester stands ready to work with the Government to lead that change.”