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Picture of Richard Blakeway Housing Ombudsman standing at an electronic screen

We were really pleased to host the Meet the Housing Ombudsman session last week (rescheduled after bad weather prevented him from coming)

Members of the audience included Community Housing customers and Tenant Voice Members plus representatives from other Social Housing Providers - Squared Housing, Bournville Village Trust, Platform Housing, BDHT, Bromford Housing, Citizen Housing, Solihull Community Housing and New Outlook Housing.

Richard Blakeway spoke about the function of the Housing Ombudsman and his team before answering questions and asking customers to share their experiences.  You will find an extract of the Questions & Answers below or can watch a recording of the full session from our YouTube channel.

The visit compliments our continued support for the government "Make Things Right" campaign which encourages tenants to complain to their landlord when they are unhappy about the condition of their home or the service they receive.

 

A bit about what the Housing Ombudsman is:

  • Impartial, free to access, independent body that can resolve disputes.
  • Different to court process – think about what’s fair, not just what the law says.
  • When decision is reached, they can make orders to get things done or changed.
  • Set complaints standards for Social Housing landlords England.
  • Want to support landlord to resolve issues. 
  • When they see repeating patterns of complaints, they will approach landlords to ask what changes need to be made in policies or practices to prevent issues happening again.
  • May also look at the housing sector as a whole on cases, such as damp and mould and challenge them – “this approach is not working, it’s not fair or reasonable it needs to be taken seriously and addressed with urgency”
  • Groups of residents who are experiencing the same issues can make a group complaint and ask the Ombudsman to investigate as a group but they will look at individual circumstances – how has the person been affected by the same incident. May be very different.
  • All decisions are published including recommendations for what needs to be taken.
  • Landlords need to keep good records and do what they say they will do when they are responding to a complaint initially. This could avoid complaints escalating.

   

 

Questions & Answers

Q – What is the correct procedure and timescale for a tenant when they first launch a complaint to the timescale when it can be raised with the Ombudsman?

A – From 1 April 2024, there is a statutory code for landlords to follow. It has the universal definition of what a complaint is. Landlord has 5 working days to acknowledge the complaint and clarify what it is, then 10 working days to resolve the issue at Stage 1. If it is going to take longer than 10 working days, landlords should let the tenant know. This would be a maximum of 10 additional working days. At the end of  Stage 1, the landlord should put in writing what they have done  to investigate, what their opinion is  and how they are going to resolve the complaint. If the tenant is not satisfied with the outcome, they can request that the complaint is escalated to Stage 2. The landlord has 5 working days to acknowledge and the response should come back within 20 working days with an additional 20 days if the investigation is technical or detailed. So, with maximum timescales, Stage 1  & 2 complaints could take 70 working days. Then it can come to the Ombudsman.

 

Q – What is the timescale for the Ombudsman to investigate?

A – We’ve seen a significant increase in complaints and so our timescales are not where we want them to be. So it’s an average of 10 months from when you come to us to investigate.  To bring timescales down, we’ve brough in new colleagues to investigate. We had 600 cases last month which last year, would have been the entire number in the year. We do pick out any serious cases that come in, especially to do with damp and mould where health is affected and we will give them priority. We recognise the consequences of these could be detrimental to health.

 

Q – Why has there been an increase in the number of complaints to landlords and to the Ombudsman? Are tenants being more vocal or are the properties worse?

A – Probably a combination. There has been a lot of media attention which has increased  people’s awareness, plus the Government’s Make Things Right campaign to encourage tenants to complain  and not put up with things they shouldn’t have to.  Some housing stock is getting older and needs investment to bring it up to standard. The Complaints Handling Code is now statutory and so this may have increased the number of complaints coming to the Ombudsman.

 

Q – Clarification about the initial contact with the customer – is it 5 days from when the call comes in to a call centre who then passes it on or 5 days when the colleague receives it from the call centre and recognises it as a complaint?

A – From when the call is received. The complaint should be acknowledged within 5 days but you don’t need to wait 5 days before starting the investigation as the aim is to resolve complaints as quickly as possible. The 10 days starts when the complaint is acknowledged with the tenant.

 

Q – In the past, there was a feeling of “blaming the tenant” especially with damp and mould and we were fobbed off. It’s the landlords house at the end of the day, you would expect them to want to look after it.

A – Landlords need to be transparent and clear with the tenant about  when there is a repair issue. With damp and mould, there may be a process of investigation needed – trying to find out the cause which may take time. But there needs to be good communication so the tenant knows what is happening, what approach is being taken. We see cases where there are delays or that work is done and the damp reoccurs, but no one goes back to see what’s happened. We say to landlords to look at their processes so that people don’t have to raise complaints.

 

Q – In the past, they have tried to do the cheapest options to solve problems, patch things up but it wastes money because they have to keep coming back. Do it properly the first time.

A – This is a concern and we are seeing it in our casework. Some improvement works undertaken a few years ago under the Decent Homes Programme now need repairs, or major works programmes and investment. Because landlords are under financial pressures, perhaps work has been delayed. However the tenant is still affected and there’s often no timescale for when the major works will be carried out.  Landlords have to manage responsive repairs and not use major works programmes as an excuse not to do the repair.

 

Q – Is there a league table of landlords who cause the most work for the Ombudsman?

A – About half of Registered Social Landlords do not have a case registered with us during the year.  This may be good or bad as not having complaints is not always a sign of good practice – complaints may not be treated seriously or accepted. There are 13 landlords who have more than 100 cases with us and 3 landlords with more than 250. Typically, those tend to be larger landlords with a lot of properties. But we’ve also looked at what percentage of residents are bringing cases to us and there are again about 13 who have high percentages of tenants coming to us. We are consulting on our Business Plan at the moment and one of the questions is should there be a “polluter pays” model? The way we are funded at the moment is there is a levy based on the number of homes – a flat rate. Should this be a differential rate for those who bring proportionally more complaints to us? The pros and cons for this. We don’t want it to drive down complaints because if you don’t want to pay more as a landlord you might report fewer complaints. But equally, is it fair to those who don’t end up with cases for investigation but still have to pay.

Q – Should the persistent offenders be put on a “yellow card”

A – Are we seeing the same landlords with the same service failures? Yes, absolutely. We have a suite of different powers and can do a systemic investigation, looking at the cases and patterns and bring it to the landlord, their board or even the Regulator. It can be impactful. It can also help the landlord, particularly their complaints handlers to bring about changes in the organisation.

 

Q – Are the increase in complaints all about a similar issue? For example about mould?

A – The lion share we see is about responsive repairs and then anti-social behaviour. But after that it could be complaint handling itself. Damp and mould is a big feature in the repairs complaints. A couple of landlords have service changes issues and have more complaints here compared to other service areas.

 

Q – They want to close my complaint down because they feel they have answered it but I don’t trust the work will be done when they say it will. Can I insist that the case stays open until the work is finally done?

A – If the work has not been done, the last thing that should happen is that they have to go back into the complaints system again…unless there is a significant gap from when the complaint was first dealt with and then it needs to be raised again. If the landlord hasn’t done what they say they are going to do, you shouldn’t have to go through the complaints process again. We do get people who come to us with exactly this and the issue is still outstanding.

 

Q- what are the Ombudsman’s powers

A – We can do systemic investigations – such as what we did with damp and mould.  We then give advice and guidance across the sector. We also look at individual landlords, diving down to see what’s going wrong with particular issues. We have the statutory Complaints Handling Code setting standards and alongside that, from 1 April 2024, we have under law a duty to monitor compliance to the Code. We also have Wider Orders and this is where we see problems not being handled repeatedly and we can make recommendations for changes to policies or training of staff or bring in an independent investigator to see what’s going wrong.

 

Q – How enforceable are your powers? Are you a government organisation?

A – we are part of government but we are independent so the Ombudsman can make his decisions and no one can sway him on what he decides. We are accountable to government to make sure we are delivering value for money.

 

Q – How are your decisions enforced?

A – At the end of an investigation when we decide something has gone wrong, the Housing Ombudsman can make orders for things to be put right. Other ombudsman can only make recommendations. The orders range from apologies, fixing the problem or compensation. The Orders are tracked to make sure that they are carried out. We have 100% compliance with the Orders. If a landlord doesn’t comply, it can go to the Secretary of state to take it to court…but that’s never happened in the 28 year of the service. Compensation is difficult to put in to value. We have thought very carefully about this and what we do is look at our remedies guide and we look at detriment and impact and there is a range of what the compensation could be.  For loss of enjoyment of the home, we look at a proportion of rent paid over the period of service failure and reach a financial remedy based on that. We have been challenged by landlords about the amount of compensation we award but we say to landlords to learn the lessons from the cases so that money can go in to improving rather than addressing service failures.

 

Q – Do you punish landlords when they do something wrong?

A – We’re not punitive. We try to redress and put the tenant back in the position they would have been if things hadn’t gone wrong. It’s the Regulators job to do fines etc.

 

Q – What do you think of Community Housing?!

A – (laughs) We are very strict, and we try anonymise cases so there is no bias. We use case numbers and refer to “the landlord” We want to be fair and reasonable.