Problems with damp and mould, a rat infestation, and poor handling of the complaints have landed Sovereign with four findings of severe maladministration by the Housing Ombudsman.
The findings, made across two separate cases, came after the social landlord failed to deal with the problems reported by tenants, resulting in the households enduring the negative impact for years.
In the first case, Sovereign delayed resolving damp and mould in the resident’s property for over two years, the ombudsman said. This resulted in the man losing the use of his only bedroom, which caused “significant distress and inconvenience”.
The resident was also left with concerns about the impact on his health. The initial reporting of the issue came after a lung infection the doctor said could have been caused by the mould spores.
The ombudsman found severe maladministration in this case for both the landlord’s response to the damp and mould, but also for the complaint handling.
The complaint responses were delayed, ill-informed, unapologetic, and addressed only one of the two issues raised by the resident.
The landlord also did not follow the two-stage complaints process set out in its policy. Extending the period for which the resident had to live with the damp and mould issues, and it did not offer any compensation despite specifically saying it would do so.
Sovereign’s chief executive has been ordered to apologise in writing, and make arrangements for the organisation to carry out some of the repair works, which were still outstanding. The ombudsman also ordered the landlord to pay nearly £4,000 in compensation.
The landlord says it has looked at its approach to vulnerable customers. It will make sure there is now increased oversight of these cases, there are named staff members on hand to help, and that new processes have been introduced to prioritise repairs involving vulnerable residents.
In its statement to the ombudsman regarding this case, Sovereign said: “We are very sorry that in this case we did not handle our customer’s leaky roof as quickly as we should have done or handle his complaint properly. We did not sufficiently consider or act on the fact that our customer was vulnerable. We repeat here the apology to our customer and we have paid compensation.
“We have reviewed our approach to vulnerable customers so that information is shared at every stage and that any customer’s vulnerability is explicitly considered, especially if they need to move house.”
The organisation added: “Our processes did not work in this case. We have been aware of the shortcomings in our processes for over two years and have been working hard to put them right in that time. We have made changes and are continuing to make changes to ensure lessons are learned.
“This issue has been taken very seriously at Sovereign at board level, throughout the senior leadership and our customer-facing teams. We will continue to work to address the issues raised by this case and to work with the ombudsman to ensure we always empathise with our customers and address their complaints as quickly as we can.”
In the second case, the Housing Ombudsman found severe maladministration in Sovereign’s handling of a pest infestation, namely rats. This was because it repeatedly failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the reports, and take appropriate remedial action to prevent further infestation.
As in the first case, the ombudsman also found severe maladministration for the landlord’s complaint handling, after it failed to conduct any meaningful investigation or decision making activity, or issue any response to the resident.
According to the ombudsman, Sovereign had been aware of the pest infestation for some time, but did not carry out repairs quickly enough to prevent the resident from further distress and inconvenience.
Once it was established that more works needed to be done to stop entry in the roof, the works were not carried out satisfactorily, with one contractor falling through the ceiling. A year later, the resident was still chasing the landlord for these repairs to take place properly.
When the landlord did carry out another inspection, it found no signs of infestation but some of the rodent access point blocking had been dislodged. On the back of this, the landlord’s pest controller recommended it carry out monthly inspections. However, the landlord referred to “washing their hands” of the matter as it did not think there was anything it could do to prevent further infestations.
Six years after originally reporting the issue, and four years after the first recorded inspection, the resident complained the rats had returned, and that there were structural issues outstanding. The works were only completed a year after this.
The ombudsman said that, among the issues, it could be considered the landlord did not believe the problem was present to the extent explained by the resident. For example, the landlord occasionally attributed the noise to wind.
The ombudsman has ordered the landlord to complete the actions recommend by the pest controller, keep the resident updated on progress, and pay £2,800 in compensation.
In its learning from this case, the landlord said it has reviewed its processes around complaints and has taken forward recommendations made around pest control, and the landlord’s role in tackling this issue.
Sovereign said in its statement to the ombudsman: “We are very sorry that in this case we did not deal with complaints from our customer regarding remedial works at their home to deal with a rat infestation. Earlier this year our chief executive wrote to our customer to apologise, and we repeat that apology here. We have also paid compensation to our customer.
“This was a complex case, and the ombudsman’s investigation notes that the ombudsman considers ‘that residents are required to deal with pest infestations as part of behaving in a tenant-like manner’. We accept that in this case we did not act as quickly as we should have done to address the issues in our customer’s home for which we are responsible for as the landlord. As the ombudsman has recommended, we are reviewing how we deal with pest infestations, and we will learn the lessons of this case.
“In light of this case we have reviewed our policies and procedures around complaints. We are now working to ensure that we improve the quality and consistency of our interactions with customers when they make a complaint. Specifically we want to ensure that responses to complaints address all of the issues raised by a customer and do not only respond to part of a complaint; we recognise this can be very frustrating to a customer.”
“Unfair and unreasonable”
Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman, said: “Throughout both these cases, service requests from residents were either dismissed, deflected or delayed, and there was some evidence of poor attitudes towards residents. This is unfair and unreasonable.
“Whether unapologetic complaint responses or using language such as ‘washing their hands’ about an issue, landlords should be approaching complaints and resident concerns in a more empathetic way.
“These cases underline the need for timely intervention by landlords to remedy the issues that residents are facing.
“Both also highlight the importance of good complaint handling, with missed opportunities where the landlord could have put something right sooner, or help rebuild the relationship with the resident.”
Image credit: New Africa/Shutterstock
Are you a social housing professional? Sign up for a FREE MEMBERSHIP to upload news stories, post job vacancies, and connect with colleagues on our secure social feed.