08 Dec 2020

What the Social Housing White Paper says about: complaints

On 17 November the long-awaiting Social Housing White Paper – the Charter for Social Housing Residents – was published. Now that the immediate dust has settled, it’s a good time to start to unpack some of its contents and what they mean for the sector. In this blog, I’ll be focusing on some of the measures regarding complaints and redress.

Firstly, let us not forget how we got here.

The renewed focus on complaints is a direct consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent findings of the inquiry that tenants had raised concerns about the safety of the building, but these complaints had been repeatedly ignored by the landlord. Making complaints and redress processes more robust was a theme that ran through the social housing green paper and now has its own chapter (3) in the Social Housing White Paper.

To ensure that residents can get swift and effective resolution of complaints and improve the Ombudsman service, the white paper commits that the government will: 

  • Ensure landlords self-assess against the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code by December 31, 2020
  • Launch a communications campaign to ensure tenants know how to raise complaints and have confidence in the system. The housing ombudsman, Building Safety Regulator and landlords will be expected to ensure residents have clear and up to date information on how to make a complaint
  • Legislate to ensure clear co-operation between the housing ombudsman and the Regulator for Social Housing so that they can hold landlords to account more effectively when things go wrong
  • Make landlords more accountable for their actions by publishing details of cases determined by the Housing Ombudsman. 

Unlike some elements of the white paper, change is already underway. Richard Blakeway has been appointed as the housing ombudsman and is overseeing reform to the Housing Ombudsman service, to make it more responsive and impactful. The Housing Ombudsman service currently has an open consultation on its business plan for 2021-22, which you can find here

Government has already taken some steps to speed up the complaints system for social housing tenants, for example, the Building Safety Bill removes the ‘democratic filter’ - the need for residents to go to a ‘designated person’ or wait eight weeks before approaching the housing ombudsman. The housing ombudsman service also now has increased powers to intervene where a landlord in being too slow in dealing with a complaint; require the information needed for the housing ombudsman to make a judgment to be supplied in a timely manner; and the housing ombudsman now has the power to issue a ‘complaints handling failure’ judgment and refer landlords to the regulator where this is warranted.

Most pressingly for landlords, in July 2020 the housing ombudsman published its code of practice for handling complaints. Landlords that are part of the housing ombudsman scheme are required to self-assess against the code’s requirements by December 31, 2020 and crucially, publish the results. Failure to do so may result in a ‘complaint handling failure order’ being imposed. We’d clearly therefore encourage all landlords that are subject to the code to do this now.

Finally, the white paper and the housing ombudsman’s draft business plan for 2021-22 commits the housing ombudsman to significant direct engagement with tenants. The housing ombudsman has already begun this process and has engaged with 1000 residents via a recent series of webinars and has appointed a ‘residents’ panel’ to give them feedback on key aspects of the service including the planned ‘themed reports’ and future business plans.

The Housing Ombudsman has committed (once life returns to normal) to engage with landlords across the country to host a series of ‘meet the ombudsman’ events. Clearly a key role of the service and of landlords in the future will be to ensure that tenants and residents know about the housing ombudsman and how to access the service it provides.

We have a unique opportunity to ensure that social housing tenants and residents receive not only the great services they deserve, but also effective redress when things go wrong; and to ensure whole sector learns from these experiences and makes social housing a truly great place to live.

Written by Yoric Irving-Clarke

Yoric Irving-Clarke a policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing. He leads on homelessness and domestic abuse in the CIH policy team. Yoric is a chartered CIH member.