The report examines the initial lessons identified by the landlord following Awaab’s death, and actions since the inquest, to make more than 20 recommendations for improved practice including disrepair, resident engagement and organisational learning.
The Ombudsman reviewed complaints determined in the previous four financial years to the start of 2023. The Ombudsman also made 15 findings in several cases investigated since the inquest and found maladministration for 10 of them – a maladministration rate of 67 per cent including three findings of severe maladministration.
This includes a resident reporting concern after her young son developed chest problems which she believes is because of severe damp and mould in her home.
A statement from the social housing Ombudsman says: “The landlord has proactively engaged with the Ombudsman during the investigation, including meeting with the Ombudsman to discuss the themes identified and actions being undertaken.”
The Ombudsman identified seven key themes and set out a series of recommendations.
Finding its silence - The landlord did not go far enough to find where residents were not reporting damp and mould issues. This included flawed reviews that did not uncover the damp and mould that was present on various estates. This further highlights the risk for other landlords of relying on one method and one-off exercises to identify the extent of problems – finding the silence is not easy and requires a range of methods, using skilled professionals, to be effective.
The Ombudsman’s recommendations include formal hazards assessments being introduced for damp and mould inspections. Action should also be taken when reletting homes and consideration taken of when residents should be moved to another property.
Treat residents fairly - As part of the investigation, the Ombudsman looked at the responses the landlord gave to our call for evidence as part of the Spotlight report shortly after the death of Awaab Ishak. Much of the language used was tenant blaming, using lifestyle and cultural barriers as key reasons for the issues.
The Ombudsman’s investigations found that the dismissive and discriminatory attitude towards residents was not restricted to Awaab Ishak’s family, nor complaints about damp and mould – with issues arising in cases involving general repairs, the ending of tenancies and anti-social behaviour.
This strongly indicates that unsympathetic, inappropriate, or even heavy-handed behaviour towards residents is present throughout the landlord’s interactions. While all staff were provided with ‘Respect’ training at induction there is no evidence this is repeated.
Proactive communication strategy - Communications by the landlord about damp and mould are at times scant. Website information does not cover how the landlord will tackle the issue, instead addressing what the resident should do.
The Ombudsman recommends the landlord further engage residents from across its diverse population in the co-design of new information to ensure it is accessible, impactful and effective.
Record keeping - This is a key theme running through Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s complaints, including missing repairs records, different systems holding different information, repairs information logged against the wrong address and key details being stored on individual staff computers.
The Ombudsman also found that the landlord lost most of its email data in 2020 and there was evidence of a lack of synchronisation between multiple databases.
Damp and mould strategy - The landlord aims to have a dedicated damp and mould strategy in place by April 2023, in line with the recommendation of the Ombudsman’s Spotlight report, and is deploying technology to monitor humidity in their homes.
The landlord has introduced a priority system for assessing how long a mould repair could take but the Ombudsman feels it did not sufficiently recognise the severity of the mould or whether the location is critical, only how relatively widespread it is.
While the landlord created a damp and mould taskforce last year, the Ombudsman has concerns about its training, which seems to concentrate on the technical requirements on a landlord and whether it needs to concede liability when a disrepair claim has been submitted.
Empower staff - The landlord’s staff did not have the sufficient training to explore reports of damp and mould, make the right decisions on how to handle damp and mould reports nor the empowerment to challenge appropriately if they felt the response inadequate.
The Ombudsman says: “It is also clear some staff did not feel comfortable raising their issues through the whistleblowing process in place within the landlord, opting instead to talk directly to the Housing Ombudsman.”
Organisational learning - Until the inquest, the landlord did not show a strong ability to learn from its mistakes or take opportunities to improve from them. There were several issues with the landlord’s complaints policy from 2022, which did not include an emphasis around equality – which is particularly concerning as many of the issues the Ombudsman identified in its investigation concern the fair treatment of residents, particularly those with protected characteristics.
The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord update its complaints policy and self-assess against the Code.
A statement from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing says: “We would like to thank the Ombudsman service for its very thorough and balanced report. The findings in the report are sobering but not unexpected. There has been significant learning from the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, which highlighted key areas of concern within RBH.
“We have recognised that too often damp and mould was not seen as a serious issue and was attributed to a resident’s lifestyle.
“At RBH we have taken significant steps since December 2022 to tackle this across our homes. But it is fair to say that this work should have started much sooner and that the scale of the issue in our homes means it will take us time to complete.
“The report also highlights concerns with the way in which residents were treated. Our residents have the right to be treated with respect and listened to and too often this wasn’t happening. We will put this right and have begun a culture shift programme across the organisation.
“There are wider lessons that we need to act upon, around the investment in our existing homes, and how this is balanced against the desperate need for more homes.
“Issues of overcrowding in homes have a detrimental effect in a lot of areas and is a significant issue within Rochdale but also across the country, with insufficient family homes to move people into. However, this should not excuse us from trying to find solutions, investigating the root cause of the damp and mould and taking action to treat it.”
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