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Death of Awaab Ishak and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022

[Relevant document: First Report of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Regulation of Social Housing, HC 18.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

I rise to speak in what is probably one of the saddest debates that I have had to take part in. It concerns the death of Awaab Ishak, a young boy whose tragic death was made more tragic by the fact that it should never have happened.

In a way, it is easy on these occasions to look round for where for where responsibility lies, and I will do that in a few minutes, but I want first to record the dignity of Awaab’s family, who have made it very clear that all they seek is to ensure that this can never happen to another family or another child. I pay enormous respect to the family for precisely that level of dignity, and I stand with them even now, two years on from the death of their child, because of course a child is irreplaceable.

We now need to ask what went wrong. On many occasions I have risen from these Benches and criticised the Government for funding lapses, but this case is simply not about funding. It is about a housing association that did not do its job. We know that some of the factors that led to the death were things that simply should never have happened.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and for his tireless efforts. Awaab’s death was an avoidable tragedy, and I am sure that Members from across the House have casework where tenants in both the social and private rental sectors are too often left in terrible conditions similar to those that caused this incident. Will he join me, in thanking the Manchester Evening News for its important campaign with Shelter to bring back regulation on consumer standards for social housing? Does he also agree that we must strengthen the rights of all tenants, regardless of whether they are living in the social or private sector? Finally, does he agree—

Order. I cannot hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying because he is facing away from the Chair. If he spoke to the Chair, we could all hear him.

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. Finally, does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of this systemic failure, the whole board is in an untenable position and must go?

I will deal with my hon. Friend’s initial points a little later, but on the question of the board, I do think that we now have to question the way it has operated. To allow the chief executive to cling on to his job until public pressure made that impossible is an indictment of those who sought to give him that cover.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while it is welcome that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing has apologised, that is not good enough in these circumstances? It has admitted to making assumptions about lifestyles and therefore not dealing with the issue, which has cost such a young life and shows an inherent lack of leadership. The law has to be changed to make sure that landlords, both social and private, cannot ignore the health risks of damp and mould.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. The reality is that blaming lifestyles in a case like this is ridiculous; we know that the things that went wrong go way beyond individual decisions and lifestyles.

As I was about to say before my hon. Friend intervened, it is ludicrous to say to people that painting over mould is the answer. In my dim and distant youth, I lived in accommodation with mould, and when you walk into a building like that, you can feel it on your lungs. We know that children have much more sensitive lungs, so that combination cannot be blamed on lifestyle. The ventilation in the flat in this case was inadequate, but things could and should have been done about that. We know that the response of the housing association, RBH, was slow—as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) knows, RBH’s responses are customarily slow.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this very important debate, and I agree that it is probably one of the more distressing debates that any of us has had to participate in. He has made an extremely important point: tenants repeatedly have to report issues to RBH, and sometimes those issues simply are not logged. In fact, I have an example from just today. Yesterday, I asked two members of my team to visit people who had made complaints about RBH. We wrote to RBH about those specific complaints, and today it acknowledged the complaints—which had been lodged four times by the tenant—and said that it had now opened a case. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is absolutely ludicrous that tenants are not being listened to by their housing association, and have to come to their Member of Parliament to get basic, decent housing standards?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. Sadly, that kind of response—among other things—is what led to the death of Awaab; that failure to do the basics right is at the heart of what went wrong. I also had a response from RBH this week regarding a constituent, telling me that it had dealt with the mould problem in her property. One would think that at the moment, mould would be so high on Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s agenda that it would be its No. 1 priority, yet the tenant has come back saying that far from the work having been done, the mould is still there. She has sent photographs to confirm that point.

When the Ishak family went to a solicitor because they could not get justice directly through the housing association, RBH used a legal block, which automatically put a block on repairs. Most of us would regard a policy like that as ludicrous, but in this case it was more than ludicrous: it was dangerous. We know that many, many things went wrong, but the thing that probably got me most was that a letter from a health visitor was lost through bad IT. The health visitor recommended that the family be rehoused, yet that recommendation was never acted on. That is—well, people can choose their own words as to what it is, but it is pretty devastating.

We know that many things have gone wrong. I say to the Minister that there needs to be an inquiry into RBH, even though we are two years on, because both the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton and I are of the view that RBH is simply not up to the job that we expect of it. That is not a criticism of many of the staff there: it is a criticism of the most senior managers, and indeed of the board. We need an investigation; even in recent days, whistleblowers—former employees—have talked about a culture of cost cutting at every turn, of bullying, and of failure to prioritise repairs. There is also the question of whether racism was involved, either institutional or more deliberate. Things like that have to be investigated.

This is not just a local issue. Mould does not exist just in homes and houses in the Rochdale borough; it is a nationwide problem, and we need nationwide solutions. The Secretary of State told us the other day that he believes that

“there are at least 2.3 million homes that fail the decent homes standard”—[Official Report, 16 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 714.]

We have to do something about that. There are 800,000 homes with damp, of which 400,000 are in the social rented sector and 400,000 are in the private rented sector. It is a problem with social landlords and private landlords, and we have to deal with them both.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) says, we need to look at having an Awaab’s law to say that certain things must be done, including automatically treating mould as a potential health hazard. When mould or damp is reported, that should lead to an immediate response from the landlord. Anything else would be ridiculous. When the duty to repair comes in, there has to be a recognisable timescale. It is basic good housekeeping and we should put it on the statute book, because we know it is not happening. I can tell the House that it will be very popular, because 120,000 people have signed the petition that the Manchester Evening News has launched. I applaud those people and the MEN for taking up the case, and I applaud the fact that now the case has been raised, we are beginning to address the issues that the family want addressed.

We also need to look beyond the immediate legal framework for housing associations. We have to ensure that if they fail to do the job we ask of them, other mechanisms will come in. Public health authorities, the local authority, the Regulator of Social Housing and other agencies all need to be involved. We have to ensure —this is a matter for the Minister and the Government—that they are properly resourced to do the job of controlling that we ask of them. We must not give them a legal duty and legal capacity unless we also give them the resource to undertake their role.

One thing is bizarre. Supposedly, the Regulator of Social Housing is there to protect our interests by ensuring not only that housing associations are run with financial prudence, but that they conform to the standards that we expect. However, six months after Awaab died, the regulator did an in-depth assessment of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. It gave RBH’s governance a G1—the best grade it can give, which is a little surprising —and said:

“Based on the evidence gained from the IDA, the regulator has assurance that RBH’s governance arrangements enable it to adequately control the organisation and to continue meeting its objectives.”

My goodness—I am glad that it is not in control of anything that affects me directly this very day.

The regulator needs to up its own game. I say again to the Minister that we must give regulatory authorities the powers and the duties of the role that we need them to perform if housing associations and private landlords fail, but let us make sure that we give them the capacity as well. That means money, by the way, because without money we cannot employ qualified, competent staff.

I turn to the role of the Secretary of State, who is in Rochdale today. It will be nice for him to hear this from someone on the Opposition Benches: I applaud the fact that he has been proactive in the days since the coronial inquest report. He has done a number of things that we all agree to be progress in the right direction, but I am a little uncomfortable about one thing, if I may say so.

When the Secretary of State and I had an exchange in Parliament earlier this week, he spoke about the possibility of fines when housing associations go wrong. He was reported today as saying that he intends to take £1 million off RBH, from the affordable homes programme. It turns out that that may have been misreported, so perhaps it is important to set the record straight. I understand that what he proposes is simply that the money will be there for Rochdale but not for RBH; if so, I would be grateful if the Minister clarified that. Fining housing associations never seems to me to be the brightest way forward, because it penalises tenants. For residents in my constituency, it means repairs are not done and the homes they need are not available.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

It is rather nice to hear the chime of the Whips twice.

The important point I was making is that fines do not do the trick, so I hope the Secretary of State and the Minister will think again, because there are other ways around this. For example, it is right and proper that we look at the role of the controlling mind—the senior officers. Clearly, we can have different responses.

It is reasonable for the regulator, if properly structured, to be able to bring in disciplinary charges against senior managers. That is probably right because, as we know, the salary of the former chief executive went up to £170,000 a year at a time when the repair budget went down. It might have been sensible to consider cutting the salaries of senior officers on such occasions. When public money is involved, that is not an unreasonable proposition.

In the end, it may well be that in the most egregious cases the criminal law should be involved, but not for the charge of corporate manslaughter, which is directed only at the organisation, so not properly at the controlling mind. I have always thought that was a weakness in such a proposition, because we need those who are in control and make decisions to concentrate on what needs to be done. Certainly, the investigation into RBH needs to take place. We then need to think about right and proper controls on the controlling mind. In the end, the structure of RBH is simply not up to it. It cannot be in anybody’s interests to have a faceless executive board that has no reference to the wider public.

Let me share something with this packed Chamber. When I was about to complete my term as Mayor and police and crime commissioner of Greater Manchester, the chief executive of RBH approached me to see if I would think about taking on the role of chair of the board. Contemplate that: the chief executive instigating the appointment of the chair, who is responsible for discipline, pay and, ultimately, the hiring and firing of the chief executive. It is a very circular and dangerous little route, and I think we have to look at that structure, which is simply not fit and proper for the tenants we represent—the people of Rochdale. We must do better.

There is a good case now for saying that the executive board has had its time and ought to go. Those on the board did not do the job that we expected of them. They did not scrutinise, and after Awaab’s death they did not insist on the kind of change that I would have expected. I have asked them for a timeline and have seen what they did, and frankly, it does not give them any cause for credit. In that context, we need to look at the temporary way in which that important housing association, which serves our community, is structured. In the longer run, the local authority has offered to take back control. That is supported not just by Rochdale Council’s controlling Labour group, but by the Conservative opposition group, and it certainly has to be looked at. In the end, the advantage of a council is that it has elected people, not faceless bureaucrats, and we can challenge and get rid of elected people.

There has to be something about the tenants’ voice. There has to be something that allows tenants to have a voice that is amplified and heard, so that when things are going wrong, they can be dealt with and taken up.

Those are a few semi-lengthy remarks. I could go on at greater length, but I will not. I will finish on this point: in the end, a little boy died. That is a little boy who should have been out playing in the streets, the parks or wherever in Rochdale, or wherever the family next move to live. That little boy should never have died. That little boy died because of an inadequate care of detail, and detail in this case really did matter. We must make sure it never happens again. Whether we call the legislation Awaab’s law or not—I hope we might think about doing that—is an open question. What I do know is that the only way we can say to the family that we have really learned the lessons, and not just as the formulaic words “We have learned the lessons”, is to show that we intend to take the actions that will make a permanent change so that this can never happen again.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this incredibly important debate and for his heartfelt contribution. Seeing a case like this has shocked all of us right across the country. To have it happen in his constituency must feel incredibly personal, so I am grateful to him for raising it with the House today.

I know that Members across the House and people right across the country were, and still are, completely horrified by the monumental failings that led to the death of a small boy before he even reached his second birthday. As Members have rightly highlighted, Awaab’s parents had repeatedly raised their concerns about the dire state of their home with their landlord, the local housing association Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, only for those multiple and repeated complaints to fall on deaf ears. Instead of acting on the clear evidence of damp and mould, Awaab’s family were given no choice but to raise their young boy in a mould-infested flat. Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s failure to heed the family’s pleas—pleas made by Awaab’s father as early as 2017—was an awful dereliction of duty. If that failure in itself was not bad enough, the apparent attempts by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to assign blame for the damp to the actions of Awaab’s parents were insensitive and deeply unprofessional.

As was raised by the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), the comments about “lifestyle” were completely unacceptable. The housing ombudsman was absolutely right to squash that assertion, reiterating that damp and mould in rented housing is not a lifestyle issue. Members today have highlighted that prejudice. It is our duty, as Members of this House and as Government Ministers, to call out any behaviour rooted in ignorance and prejudice. I take this opportunity to extend my sincere thanks to the coroner, Joanne Kearsley, who undertook a vital public service in her meticulous piecing together of the facts behind this devastating incident.

Nothing will bring back the life of Awaab, but this investigation has given us all a chance to deliver some small justice to the parents of this young boy and to enact reforms that help us provide the high-quality social housing that this country desperately needs. I know I speak for everyone when I say that blaming nuances and technicalities will not wash. What took place in Rochdale were monumental, inexcusable failings. As the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told the House last week, we have acted quickly and decisively off the back of the coroners’ findings and are continuing to push for urgent explanations and action from those involved.

First, we demanded answers from the chair and the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. Much of the accountability clearly sits with the leadership of RBH. My right hon. Friend was spot on when he said that it “beggared belief” that the now former chief executive Gareth Swarbrick attempted to stay in post. While it is right that RBH recognised that the chief executive’s position was no longer tenable, the housing mutual still has serious questions to answer about the basic condition of its housing stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) said that even today he is still discovering new cases of terrible conditions within that housing stock. I would be grateful if he, and other Members with such examples, shared them with us in the Department.

We are very much in the same place on this. What is astonishing is that, two years on from Awaab’s death, one would think that mould in these properties would be such a high priority that it would be hard to find. In fact, if the Minister walks around the estate with me or the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, she will see that mould is still there in huge quantities.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If we can gather further examples of this, it will help us in the Department.

Secondly, we have asked to see what concrete steps RBH is putting in place to immediately improve the living conditions of the tenants for whom they are still responsible. Thirdly, our ministerial team is planning to meet not only Awaab’s family but those who live on the Freehold estate to stress the fact that Government are in their corner. Fourthly, the Regulator of Social Housing is considering whether this landlord has systematically failed to meet the standards of service required to provide for its tenants. The hon. Member for Rochdale asked whether this would constitute an inquiry. I would not want to commit another Minister, given that this would fall within their brief, but I will take this away and raise it with them urgently, and I am happy to engage with the hon. Member further on that point.

While our focus is absolutely on delivering justice for Awaab, all of us recognise that this is not an isolated incident; the problem is much bigger than one flat in Rochdale. As we gather here today, thousands of people across the country are stuck in homes that are not fit for human habitation. I believe the coroner spoke for everyone when she said that it was scarcely believable that a child could die from mould in 21st-century Britain. It was a damning statement that reinforced the urgent need for the kinds of reforms we have been working hard to get on to the statute book.

The reforms we are bringing forward—measures designed to hold landlords to account and make sure their tenants are treated with fairness and dignity—can help us make Awaab’s death a watershed moment for housing in this country. And we are making progress. A fortnight ago, this House debated the Second Reading of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which is designed to learn some of the incredibly painful but necessary lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017—a tragedy that shone a terrifying spotlight on the dreadful experiences of tenants in that tower block ahead of the fire.

Grenfell tenants had spent years lobbying for basic changes to their building to make their homes liveable and safe. Their voices, like those of Awaab’s family, were kept on mute before disaster struck, so we set about making sure that that never happens again, with a strengthened housing ombudsman service to empower tenants by making sure their voices are truly heard. As part of that, we changed the law so that residents can now complain directly to the ombudsman, instead of having to wait eight weeks while their case was handled by a local MP or another designated person.

It is one of the main jobs of the housing ombudsman service to make sure that robust complaint processes are in place, so that problems can be resolved as soon as they are flagged. In cases where landlords have clearly mistreated their residents, it can order landlords to pay compensation. If necessary, it can refer cases to the Regulator of Social Housing. Through the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, we are strengthening the powers of the regulator, so that where there is a serious risk to tenants and the landlord has failed to take necessary action, it can issue unlimited fines to rogue landlords, enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice and make emergency repairs, with landlords footing the bill. The hon. Member for Rochdale asked about resourcing for the regulator. In this financial year, we have put in an additional £4.6 million to ensure that the regulator can operate, with more funding to come as we go further in designing how it will operate. I hope that provides him with some reassurance.

But all the reforms in the world will be worth nothing if people do not know that they have rights to begin with. Awaab’s case, which never went before the ombudsman, shows that we can and must do more as a Government to promote this service and make sure it reaches those who need it. The Government have already run a nationwide “Make Things Right” campaign to raise awareness and tell social housing tenants how they can go about making complaints, and that has now reached millions of social housing tenants. We are working up another targeted, multi-year campaign, so that everyone living in the social housing sector knows their rights and knows how to exercise them. Where some providers have performed poorly in the past, they have been given plenty of opportunities to change their ways and start treating residents with the respect they deserve. I think that we are all in agreement that the time for empty promises has to be brought to an end.

The Department will help to do that by naming and shaming those who have been found by the regulator to have breached consumer standards or who have been found by the ombudsman to have committed severe maladministration. I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen that that work is already well under way, with the Secretary of State writing to all local authorities over the weekend to set out the expectation that they will act quickly to resolve poor housing conditions in their area. He also separately wrote to all providers of social housing and made it abundantly clear that our expectation is that they will take all complaints about damp and mould seriously, act swiftly to rectify them, and be prepared to respond to a request from the Regulator of Social Housing on the extent of damp and mould issues.

Finally, I will touch on standards. Although the pictures of damp and mould in social housing across the country leave us in no doubt that many properties fall well below the standards that we expect social landlords to meet, Awaab’s death has made it painfully clear why we must do more to better protect tenants. Our Social Housing (Regulation) Bill will bring in a rigorous new regime that holds such landlords to account for the decency of their homes.

In the months ahead, we all have a chance to upend the appalling status quo and deliver a new deal for social housing tenants in the UK. I want to be clear that this is not about bashing all landlords and tarnishing them with the same brush—we have many fantastic landlords and housing associations in this country that treat tenants with the kindness and respect they deserve. It is about raising standards across the board and ensuring that every tenant has the chance to live in dignity.

I echo the praise of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for the incredible work of the Manchester Evening News in raising awareness. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said at the end of his speech, we have to do everything we can to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.