I am the housing ombudsman. I am not part of the emergency services, but that is what it has felt like over the past week. In the aftermath of the terrible revelations about Awaab Ishak, and the horror of a two-year-old boy dying from exposure to mould in his home, referrals of cases to me have leapt by 33%. That should give us all pause.
When I heard Awaab’s father give evidence at the coroner’s inquest and recall the desperate attempts he had made to get help for his son, I heard the despair that has prompted anger and disbelief around the country.
But it was more than that; sadly, what I heard echoed the despair and the missed opportunities I see repeated daily across my casework. What he described was perhaps not a single moment of failure, but a series of mistakes and flawed processes.
This cumulative impact causes profound distress for the residents whose cases I investigate as housing ombudsman, but for Awaab it led to a preventable tragedy.
And the sad truth is that I have acute concern this could happen again. Look at some of my published cases. The 83-year-old woman left without heating for almost three years. The woman suffering a serious medical condition who reported domestic violence but remained in the home, only to end up homeless. The woman who experienced “extreme stress” because of a leak unresolved for about seven years.
These are some of the more severe findings, but alongside them are thousands of cases of excessive delays, inadequate policies, lost records, ineffective repairs, poor communication and more. Half our investigations do not find fault, but these are rarely examples of glowing performance.
As everyone reflects on the lessons from Awaab’s case, what might they be? For me, achieving greater access to our service is key, because three-quarters of residents knowing that we can help them isn’t good enough when the most vulnerable may not. It is important that residents know there is an independent, impartial ombudsman there, providing a genuine alternative to the courts and seeking to ensure that there is accountability and that lessons are learned.
For government, the coroner’s call to strengthen the redress available to tenants in the private rented sector is important. But, fundamentally, this is about the role of landlords. Culture matters, and the way some of them behave towards their tenants must change.
It must be genuine change. Complaints are an indicator of culture; and some of the behaviour I see, including in response to some of our decisions, can be poor. Poor Awaab’s health was fatally undermined by mould. My report in October 2021 on damp and mould was called “It’s not lifestyle” because of the dismissive, stigmatising and sometimes discriminatory way too many reports of mould have been handled. This report was not only about systems and services, it was about attitude.
Similar behaviours were apparent at Grenfell too. Fundamentally, communication with residents needs to be more effective and express more empathy. Among the 4,500 rulings I made to put things right last year were orders for landlords to apologise. I shouldn’t have to do that.
Landlords should not obfuscate their responsibilities. I often see landlords attempting to shift responsibility on to others; a contractor, a freeholder, even the resident. This can be fundamentally unfair. I experienced some resistance from landlords to my report in May 2021 on cladding complaints, but at a period of great anxiety and uncertainty for leaseholders, how could it be fair for them to be told to talk to someone else. There is a perfect storm of challenges facing landlords, and I know pressures mean staff are stretched. But that does not remove the need for accountability.
As regulation strengthens, landlords must focus on learning too. It is not good enough for social landlords to say they are better than the worst parts of the private rented sector. Landlords are not the only organisations to sometimes be defensive when things go wrong. However, if I get tired of hearing our cases dismissed as isolated or historic, imagine how residents feel.
The tragedy of Awaab Ishak highlighted a family’s pain and a flawed system. It must compel us to build a better one.