The Housing Ombudsman special report on Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) has exposed the organisation's institutional racism, disdain for tenants, and a reprehensible absence of human compassion and empathy: "it paints a disturbing picture of residents being judged entirely by staff members' held prejudices, lazy assumptions and an attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees that is wholly unacceptable."

The report highlights the cultural failures of RBH that have been apparent to their residents, and to Greater Manchester Tenants Union members, for a number of years:

“Our investigation found that the root cause of service failure within Rochdale Boroughwide Housing was a propensity to dismiss residents and their concerns out of hand, with staff believing that they knew better and that the expectations of their residents were unreasonable. Rochdale Boroughwide Housing is a mutual society - it is co-owned by its residents and its employees - making this attitude and the endemic 'othering' of its residents even more difficult to countenance.”

The tragic and untimely death of Awaab Ishak should have prompted a significant shift within RBH, but the report demonstrates that this was not the case. The responses of RBH staff members to the Ombudsman's inquiries four months later have demonstrated institutional and direct racism, and dismissive, derogatory, and victim-blaming attitudes. Instead of taking responsibility for poor maintenance, persistent gatekeeping of support and resources, and the minimisation of disrepair, particularly related to damp and mould, staff members lazy and reflexive views caused them to attribute chronic damp and disrepair in people's homes to 'cultural practices' and 'lifestyle':

“Our Spotlight report found that a resident's lifestyle was often used as a reason to dismiss their concerns and apportion blame…”

“We found a culture of 'othering' of the residents lies at the heart of the issues in Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. This is a pattern of exclusion and marginalisation based on identities that are different to the norm.”

The report details the RBH response to the Ombudsman's call for evidence, only four months after the death of Awaab Ishak, which was riddled with racist and derogatory references to 'ritual bathing' 'bucket bathing' 'cultural practices' and xenophobic commentary about asylum seekers and refugees:

“During the 2021 review, members of staff were recorded by the reviewing team as saying the following:

“the issue appeared to be the style of cooking…and the style of bathing.”
“the family used a style of bathing known as bucket bathing which is common to their culture as it is part of their culture and practice.”
“The life style choices were likely to be bucket bathing and the Tenant's cooking practices…”
“…dealt with a great many similar claims… maybe Tenants with such ritual practices…”

“These are all othering statements that demonstrates the family were not 'seen' at all - their entire treatment was based on assumptions as to who they were and how they lived. Combined together, it paints a disturbing picture of residents being judged entirely by staff members' held prejudices, lazy assumptions and an attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees that is wholly unacceptable.”

This assessment by the Ombudsman clearly fits any definition of Institutional Racism:

“Institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions - reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.”

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.”

Greater Manchester Tenants Union holds a firm belief that the interactions outlined by the Ombudsman between RBH and its tenants clearly exhibit the characteristics of institutional racism within the wider context of structural racism in UK housing.

The Inquest for Awaab Ishak was a harrowing and infuriating experience. RBH management has failed to take responsibility for their defence of wholly unacceptable, racist, and victim-blaming positions in that process. The feeble and consistent attempts to deflect blame from their own inadequacies revealed by this report are despicable, citing so-called 'ritual bathing' and 'cultural practices' as the root cause of severe damp and mould, these claims are not only false, but also founded on racist and anti-Black assumptions about Awaab Ishak's family, and many other tenants who's complaints of damp and mould were ignored, with the blame deflected to the convenient scapegoat, and racialised euphemism of 'cultural practices.'

It is outrageous that RBH management would dare to suggest that 'bucket bathing' and other 'cultural practices' such as 'cooking food by boiling' could lead to damp and mould of such severity that it was deemed a category one hazard under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. This is a blatant attempt to shift responsibility away from their own negligence, and it is utterly unacceptable. The fact that RBH staff felt it appropriate to submit such responses after the death of a child caused by their neglect, shows their endemic institutional racism, and an organisational culture with a profound lack of empathy and compassion.

To date, RBH has not acknowledged the institutional racism, and lack of regard for equality and diversity in its culture and practices that has been demonstrated by this report. We believe that the resignation of Gareth Swarbrick and the board does not address the responsibility of those still in day to day control of aspects of the organisation which failed Awaab Ishak and his family, and failed to take action subsequent to this.

The senior management team in post before the arrival of Yvonne Arrowsmith as Interim CEO have manifestly failed in their duties, and remaining executive directors with responsibility for equality and diversity, repairs and maintenance, tenant relations and complaints, and organisational governance, should resign, or be investigated for gross misconduct.

Tofunmi Odugbemi, Chair of the GMTU Committee, said:

“We are deeply saddened and traumatised by the disgusting treatment and conditions that Rochdale community members have been subjected to by RBH. The report is vividly clear that both policies by RBH and actions of individuals orchestrated a perfect storm of anti-Black racism, xenophobic, institutional discriminatory practices that othered, dismissed, gaslighted, and blamed individuals rather than supporting them to find resolutions and positive outcomes for their wholly legitimate concerns. These dangerous and harmful attitudes were verbalised by the institutional leads of RBH and individual staff members in their response to the Housing Ombudsman.

Even four months after the death of little Awaab Ishak, no efforts were made to prevent future harm. There was no acknowledgement of or remedial action against the persistent racist attitudes and assumptions that were evident in the responses sent to the Ishak family. The racist, derogatory, and xenophobic language by RBH representatives points to a culture of white supremacy in which the deep disdain for individuals from poorer working class backgrounds, racialised communities (BAME), and migrants and refugees emboldened staff to treat and speak to these individuals as if they were sub-human.

I read this report with a heavy heart and a resolve that demands real change in RBH which is community centred and led by their tenants and the tenants needs and desires to foster a future where there is true accountability for the deep and systemic harms they have caused to current and past tenants. RBH must prioritise tenants in any restorative processes if trust is ever going to be built again.”

Mark Slater, Chair of the GMTU Rochdale Branch, said:

“The report, in which the Ombudsman found “severe maladministration by the landlord” comes as no surprise to Greater Manchester Tenants Union. We have been working in Rochdale with local campaigners, opposing RBH senior management and their decisions since 2016.

It is tragic in the extreme that it was little Awaab Ishak's death that brought the management into national disrepute, but the damp and mould issue has been widely experienced and known about in the borough for many years, the lack of any responsible repairs policy and the lack of respect for tenants is well known.

In the Ombudsman's words “residents being treated in dismissive, inappropriate or unsympathetic ways. In some instances the language used was derogatory.” This is simply a dereliction of their responsibility.

As the Ombudsman reports, with a growing waiting list, now over 8,000 households, the pressure to accept housing that does not make the basic standards of dry, safe and warm are tremendous, and a situation that RBH have taken advantage of for many years.

The report is a damning indictment of an organisation that has been widely mistrusted, with responsibility for most of the borough's social housing, for over ten years, and has manifestly failed the community in the most horrendous way.

We are looking to the Interim Chief Executive for some swift action, and a complete review of senior staff, governance, organisational culture, policies and strategy to try to restore some confidence back into RBH.”

Editor's Notes:

Greater Manchester Tenants Union is a democratic, member-led union, working across the 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester. We organise and represent our members in the private and social rented sector. We fight for safe, secure and affordable housing for everyone.

For interview requests or further comment please contact:

Twitter: @gmtenantsunion Instagram: gmtenantsunion