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Awaab Ishak: Why Rochdale toddler’s death is being described as a ‘defining moment’

Toddler Awaab Ishak’s death from the exposure to mould in his flat has put the state of social housing in the spotlight

The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak has shocked the nation and highlighted the widespread problems with social housing.

The toddler died in Rochdale in December 2020 following exposure to mould at his family’s home, an inquest concluded on November 15.

Since then, the fallout from the coroner’s verdict has sent shockwaves through the housing sector with landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) being grilled by housing secretary Michael Gove.

The RBH boss was later sacked while the housing association was stripped of £1million in funding it was supposed to receive from the government;s affordable homes programme.

Here’s everything you need to know about the situation.

How did Awaab Ishak die?

Awaab Ishak died in December 2020 from environmental mould exposure, Rochdale coroner Joanne Kearsley ruled in a narrative verdict.

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The toddler’s family had complained several times about the damp and mould in the one-bedroom flat. They told the inquest that Awaab’s coughing fits would last two to three days and they felt “absolutely trapped” by the situation. 

RBH said a legal disrepair process prevented them from carrying out repairs.

Kearsley said the case “should be a defining moment for the housing sector”. She added: “How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die as a result of exposure to mould?”

The coroner urged the government to include damp and mould in the decent homes standard and added she would write a report for the prevention of future deaths to be sent to health and housing ministers.

Rochdale toddler death Ayaab Ishak
Awaab Ishak died not long after his second birthday in December 2020. Image: Family handout

What was the reaction?

There was shock and anger following the verdict, which comes after an 18-month spell in which campaigners and journalists have highlighted the poor state of social housing.

RBH chief executive Gareth Swarbrick said Awaab’s death “needs to be a wake-up call” and said the housing association would “learn hard lessons from this”.

Kwajo Tweneboa, one of the country’s leading social housing campaigners, told The Big Issue it was an “absolute disgrace”. He said: “More than five years on from Grenfell, it’s an absolute disgrace that another innocent little boy has lost his life at the hands of neglect by their social landlord.”

Housing secretary Gove summoned Swarbrick to explain how the tragedy occurred. He said following the verdict: “This tragedy should never have occurred. There is no way that a young child being brought up in a home with damp and mould of this kind can be considered to be in a decent home.”

The Housing Ombudsman also wrote to Swarbrick and said the housing association would be investigated to see if Awaab’s case was indicative of wider failure.

Fellow watchdog the Regulator of Social Housing has asked housing associations and local authority landlords to submit evidence to the regulator to show systems are in place to identify and deal with damp and mould issues in their homes.

Fiona MacGregor, the regulator’s chief executive, said the watchdog will take action if providers are not meeting regulatory standards.

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Awaab’s family say racism played a part

Awaab’s family, originally from Sudan, accused RBH of discriminating against them because they are not originally from the UK. They said: “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.”

Racial equality charity Runnymede Trust echoed those concerns following the verdict. A report from Heriot-Watt University released in the days following the inquest found one in three Black people who have experienced homelessness have also faced racial discrimination from a landlord.

Heriot-Watt professor Glen Bramley said: “This report reveals the shocking extent of disparities in homelessness risks experienced between some minoritised ethnic communities and White people living in the UK today. What is particularly distressing is the apparent link between homelessness and race discrimination.”

What change could come from Awaab’s death?

Housing secretary Gove has written to all social housing providers putting them on notice that they must improve the quality of the homes they provide and manage. 

“Together, we must raise the bar dramatically on the quality of social housing and empower tenants so that their voices are truly heard,” said Gove in the letter. 

“I want to be clear about what this must mean in relation to damp and mould, as I have been made aware of many cases where this has gone unaddressed for far too long and am concerned that they are not treated with sufficient seriousness.”

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The government is currently bringing the Social Housing Regulation Bill through parliament to improve the standards of social housing and give regulatory bodies more power to ensure tenants are living in safe homes.

So far, the bill has cleared the House of Lords and is now at the committee stage in the House of Commons, just three steps from becoming law. It is likely to come into force next year.

Gove warned social housing providers the legislation will bring in a “rigorous new regime” with unlimited fines and even powers to bring properties into new management if landlords cannot ensure homes are safe for tenants. 

The housing secretary has continued his hardball stance against social housing providers.

Gove stripped £1m in expected funding from RBH and blocked the housing association from receiving any new contracts from the programme until the Regulator of Social Housing completed its investigation and considered RBH a responsible landlord.

That was a warning to other social housing providers, too, with Gove vowing to take similar action if poor standards are uncovered.

“RBH failed its tenants so it will not receive a penny of additional taxpayers’ money for new housing until it gets its act together and does right by tenants,” said Gove.

“Let this be a warning to other housing providers who are ignoring complaints and failing in their obligations to tenants. We will not hesitate to act.

“Everyone deserves the right to live in a safe, decent home and this government will always act to protect tenants.”

Gove also announced a £14m to crack down on rogue landlords. That included £2.3m for councils in Greater Manchester to increase the use of fines against rogue landlords and £1.14m to create a database of private rented accommodation in Cornwall.

Responding to Gove’s announcement, shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy said: “It’s right to stand up to failing social landlords but there is no excuse for not showing the same regard for millions of private rented tenants who live in squalid, unsafe conditions and are evicted if they dare to complain.”

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What happened to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing chief executive Gareth Swarbrick?

Swarbrick initially said he was not resigning after being given the “full backing” of the RBH board. But he was sacked on November 19. An RBH statement said: “Our original instincts were for Gareth to stay on to see the organisation through this difficult period and to make the necessary changes, but we all recognise that this is no longer tenable.

“The coroner noted that RBH had made changes as a result of the tragic death of Awaab. Under new leadership RBH will continue to embed these changes and to continue to drive further improvements to our homes and to our communications with tenants.

How much was Swarbrick paid?

Swarbrick was paid £170,000 in 2020/21, the year Awaab died, according to RBH’s financial statements. His pay packet rose to £185,000 the following year.

As the conversation on the standard of social housing has grown, so has the spotlight on the pay the bosses of housing associations are receiving. Immigration minister and former housing secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News on November 21 that executive pay is “off the charts”.

The chief executives of the top five housing associations in the UK all earn over £300,000 per year, according to figures reported in Tweneboa’s documentary on the state of housing.

Clare Miller, the chief executive of Clarion – the UK’s biggest social housing landlord and the housing association at the centre of an ITV News investigation into housing disrepair – leads the way, raking in £412,513 per year.

The chief executives of Places for People (£394,000), London & Quadrant Housing (£369,000), Sanctuary Housing (£331,277) and Peabody (£331,277) also earn more than £300,000 per year.

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