Three investigations into landlord will be 'expedited' by ombudsman
17th November 2022

Three investigations into landlord of two-year-old boy who died from a respiratory condition caused by mouldy flat which parents repeatedly complained about will be ‘expedited’ by the ombudsman

  • Ombudsman expedites three investigations on Rochdale Boroughwide Housing
  • It follows the death of Awaab Ishak, two, who died from respiratory condition
  • He suffered from  prolonged exposure to mould in a housing association flat
  • Housing ombudsman Richard Blakely said he has been alerted to three ‘high or medium risk’ complaints involving the landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing

The housing ombudsman is expediting three investigations into the landlord of a two-year-old boy who died from a respiratory condition caused by a mouldy housing association flat which his parents repeatedly complained about.

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

Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) and its chief executive Gareth Swarbrick, who earned £170,000 the same year Awaab died, have come under fire after it emerged that his parents repeatedly complained to the landlord about the mould. 

Housing ombudsman Richard Blakely said he has been alerted to three ‘high or medium risk’ complaints involving the landlord and has instructed his team ‘to expedite these investigations’. 

Awaab Ishak died in December 2020, from a respiratory condition caused by a mould infestation, a coroner ruled

Senior coroner Joanne Kearsley argues the death of a toddler who suffered ‘prolonged exposure’ to mould should be a ‘defining moment’ for the housing sector 

Senior coroner Joanne Kearsley argues the death of a toddler who suffered prolonged exposure to mould should be a ‘defining moment’ for the housing sector

Awaab Ishak tragically died from a respiratory condition in December 2020, just over a week after his second birthday

In a written letter to Mr Swarbrick, Mr Blakely wrote: ‘Following the coroner’s verdict on the inquest involving Awaab Ishak, I asked my team to review open cases relating to the landlord, in particular damp and mould.’ 

Mr Blakely said he has instructed his team to use measures in the Housing Ombudsman Scheme to gather any information needed from RBH, ‘given my specific concerns about the circumstances of these complaints’. 

These include requiring the landlord to allow interviews with staff, provide information from third parties or former staff members and attend meetings with the ombudsman. 

Mr Blakely also told Mr Gareth he would be exercising powers to conduct a further investigation in relation to one specific complaint to establish if it shows wider failings within the landlord. 

‘I would welcome a meeting with you to set out our approach in more detail and respond to any initial questions you or your team may have,’ he wrote.

An RBH spokesperson said: ‘We can confirm receipt of the Housing Ombudsman’s letter and will meet with Mr Blakeway or a member of his team at the earliest opportunity to discuss these three cases.’

Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah has campaigned for clean air following the death of her daughter Ella in 2013, who became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death after a coroner ruled it had ‘made a material contribution’ to her death

Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, nine, who lived near the South Circular road in south-east London, died in February 2013 after a severe asthma attack caused a fatal cardiac arrest

Awaab Ishak’s death comes amid ‘dramatic increase’ in mould cases, says Housing Ombudsman

The ‘heart-breaking’ death of Awaab Ishak comes amid a ‘dramatic increase’ in cases of damp and mould, the Housing Ombudsman has said.

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

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway said: ‘This is an appalling, heart-breaking case but, sadly, the kind of failures that we saw here, whilst they may not have as tragic a consequence, they often happen and they often cause deep distress, profound distress to residents.’

He said landlords needed a clear, urgent and proactive approach to dealing with issues.

He added: ‘I think one of the issues that we’ve seen here is that landlords have not always prioritised or focused on issues like damp and mould and there’s kind of been almost a dismissive attitude by some, a kind of fatalism by some. You can see now the consequences of it.

‘I have seen a dramatic increase in the case work on damp and mould.’

Mr Blakeway said the law should change for those in the private rented sector, who do not have access to an ombudsman to independently investigate concerns.

He also emphasised the importance of Government policy such as the Decent Homes Standard, which sets the standards social homes should meet.

He added: ‘What you need is leadership that actually promotes learning, isn’t defensive and tries to identify how services can be improved when mistakes happen.

‘I also think that there is an issue here that some landlords simply won’t have the culture to be able to do that and so I think public policy, things like the Decent Homes Standard, which the Government has said they want to revise because it was written 20 years ago, are fundamental to make sure that right behaviours are happening.’

Housing Secretary Michael Gove called Awaab’s death an ‘unacceptable tragedy’ and said he had summoned the head of RBH.

Mr Blakeway said: ‘I’m not going to get into the response of the landlord. All I would say is I’m looking very carefully at the casework we have with that landlord and I will be in touch with them very shortly.’

On Wednesday a campaigner whose daughter died from toxic air called for Mr Swarbrick to resign over Awaab’s tragic death.

Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 after a severe asthma attack caused a fatal cardiac arrest, becoming the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death after a coroner ruled it had ‘made a material contribution’ to her death.

Her death spurred her mother, Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah to fight for answers and she now campaigns tirelessly for ‘clean air for all’.  

Speaking about the ‘terribly tragic’ case of Awaab, who died from a respiratory condition caused by ‘prolonged’ exposure to black mould, Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah blasted the ‘irresponsibility’ of RBH.

She told MailOnline: ‘This can’t happen again. It’s appalling. It’s very sad that the reason why this child is no longer here is because of mould.’ 

On Wednesday Housing Secretary Michael Gove accused the landlord of the Ishak family of a ‘terrible dereliction of duty’, amid plans to ‘name and shame’ bad landlords and impose unlimited fines on offenders. 

The toddler died in December 2020 from a cardiac arrest while living in a decrepit apartment in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, after his parents’ desperate pleas for help fell on deaf ears, a coroner ruled on Tuesday.

His father repeatedly raised the issue with RBH, with the family saying following the inquest ruling that they ‘shouted as loud as they could’. 

Speaking 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 announced plans to ‘name and shame’ landlords who had breached consumer standards.

The inquest into Awaab’s death heard concerns were repeatedly raised to landlord 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.

Awaab Ishak’s father Faisal Abdullah, counsel for the family Christian Weaver, solicitor Kelly Darlington and Awaab’s mother Aisha Amin (second right) outside Rochdale Coroner’s Court following the conclusion of an inquest which found Awaab died from prolonged exposure to mould

The coroner also criticised the medical advice given to the boy’s parents after he developed breathing difficulties, alleging it attributed to his cardiac arrest

Senior coroner Joanne Kearsley, presenting her findings at an inquest at Rochdale Coroner’s Court, said the boy’s father alerted the Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) of the mould problem in July 2020

Ms Kearsley said the mould was due to ‘normal daily living activities’ and a lack of effective ventilation

His condition was caused by mould in the one-bedroom housing association flat where he lived with parents Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin in Rochdale, Greater Manchester

The housing ombudsman is expediting three investigations into RBH. Pictured, Freehold Estate in Rochdale where Awaab Ishak lived in a one-bedroom flat with his mother and father

RBH and its chief executive Gareth Swarbrick (pictured), who earned £170,000 the same year Awaab died, have come under fire after it emerged that his parents repeatedly complained to the landlord about the mould

‘We shouted as loudly as we could, but nothing changed. We were trapped’: Heartbreaking statement from parents who watched their little boy die

Faisal Abdullah issued a statement, saying: ‘The past two years have been gruelling.

‘When Awaab died, our lives changed forever. Two years on, the coroner has found that our little boy’s prolonged exposure to mould led entirely to his death.

‘We still cannot get our head around the fact that despite all of the complaints we made to RBH, in addition to the information RBH received from an NHS member of staff expressing their concern for Awaab due to mould at the property, RBH did absolutely nothing to rectify the severe mould in our property.

‘We cannot tell you how many health professionals we’ve cried in front and RBH staff we have pleaded to expressing concern for the conditions ourselves and Awaab have been living in. We shouted out as loudly as we could, but despite making all of those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem. Nothing was changing.

‘We felt like we weren’t getting anywhere, and we weren’t. Often our calls weren’t even answered. We don’t feel RBH actually cared about us.

‘Awaab’s coughing fits would sometimes last two to three days. There were days we wouldn’t be able to take Awaab out of the house because of how bad his coughing was – but of course by him staying in the house, this made his coughing worse. We were absolutely trapped.

‘Living in these conditions affected every aspect of our lives. We didn’t feel at peace with ourselves when in the property. All the time we felt troubled.

‘We were anxious and fearful of what the mould was doing to Awaab. Whenever friends would come to visit, they would tell us that the conditions RBH were keeping us in ‘were not right’.

‘We have no doubt at all that we were treated this way because we are not from the country and less aware of how the systems in the UK work. RBH we have a message for you – stop discriminating, stop being racist, stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers, stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation. We were left feeling absolutely worthless at the hands of RBH.

‘If RBH ever come across similar issues again – we hope they deal with it in a more humane, efficient, professional way than how they behaved with us.

‘We want to end by telling you who our beautiful Awaab was. He was always full of smiles, he liked to joke and was full of life and laughter. He used to enjoy playing on his bike and with his ball. He always wanted to be with us. His absence leaves a huge void.

‘We would like to say a huge thank you for all the advice and support Farleys Solicitors and Christian Weaver of Garden Court North Chambers have given us throughout this difficult process. We would also like to thank HM Senior Coroner for carrying out such a thorough investigation into our son’s death.

‘Our lawyers very kindly worked on our case with no guarantee of payment. The legal aid agency only confirmed that the lawyers would be paid two days before the case started, despite preparations for the case having been ongoing for months and months. It should never be the case that families in our situation have to go through the inquest process without legal representation – singlehandedly up against multiple lawyers from the very bodies we feel bear responsibility for our child’s death.

‘Were it not for our legal team being so committed to representing us, even without payment, that could very well have been our reality. We fear that the admissions made by RBH in this inquest – such as their acceptance that they did receive the letter sent by the NHS health visitor warning of Awaab’s ill heath, along with the fact that they do accept they should have taken responsibility for the mould in our home may otherwise never have come out.

‘The family would now like to be left to process the findings of this inquest in private for the remainder of today.’

‘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 Mr Swarbrick, 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.’  

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, Mr Blakeway said the case of Awaab Ishak was ‘appalling’ and ‘heart-breaking’ but sadly is something that is happening ‘often’.

He said: ‘Sadly, the kind of failures that we saw here, whilst they may not have as tragic a consequence, they often happen and they often cause deep distress, profound distress to residents.

‘I have seen a dramatic increase in the case work on damp and mould.’ 

Yesterday, a lawyer for the family of Awaab Isha said they were ‘screaming’ and ‘crying out for help’ before the little boy’s death.

Speaking to Good Morning Britain on Wednesday, the family’s lawyer Christian Weaver said his parents are ‘distraught’ and vow for this tragedy not to ‘happen to anybody else’.

He said: ‘There’s absolutely no excuse. The reality is, as you say, the family pleaded and NHS staff wrote to RBH saying, ‘look, there’s a young boy living at this property, there’s very bad mould. Something needs to be done’.

‘The overriding thing that the family have been saying is ‘we were powerless, we were screaming, we were crying out for help but just nothing was being done. 

‘As you can imagine, they are distraught. It’s one of those case that are challenging because you think what more could a family have actually done in that situation?

‘We just weren’t listened to.’ 

The little boy’s appalling death days after his second birthday came three years after his parents had complained about the damp in their one-bedroom housing association flat in Rochdale. 

His father, Faisal Abdullah, who came to the UK from Sudan as an asylum seeker in 2015, claims his family felt ‘absolutely trapped’ when the toddler fell ill in their home which was ‘unfit for human habitation’. 

In a statement to the inquest, chief executive of RBH Mr Swarbrick said he was ‘truly devastated’ by Awaab’s death and insisted the organisation would learn lessons from it.  

In her ruling on Tueasday at Rochdale Coroner’s Court, Ms Kearsley found ventilation at the home was ‘not effective’, and criticised Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) for blaming the family- insisting there was ‘no evidence that the ways of living by the family were in any way excessive’. 

A Prevention of Future Deaths report is being written by the coroner who will set out changes that need to be made to stop this tragedy happening to other families, and will be sent to ministers. 

Awaab Ishak’s father, Mr Abdullah, reported mould developing in the property to RBH in 2017 – but was told to ‘paint over it’.

The association was notified of the problem again in 2020.  But ‘no action was taken’ to treat and prevent the mould, leaving Awaab with ‘prolonged’ and ‘chronic’ exposure to the substance.

The family pleaded with doctors and housing bosses for help as little Awaab had trouble breathing. But just two days after being taken to hospital, the toddler’s condition worsened and he died four days before Christmas.   

Senior coroner Joanne Kearsley ruled the two-year-old died after prolonged exposure to mould which caused fatal breathing difficulties. 

A post-mortem examination discovered ‘severe swelling’ of the boy’s airway and throat and tests also found fungus in his blood. 

As she delivered her damning verdict, Ms Kearsley told the inquest at Rochdale Coroner’s Court: ‘I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought, ‘How does this happen?  How, in the UK in 2020, does a two-year-old child die from exposure to mould in his home?’. 

‘The tragic death of Awaab will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mould.’

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