Complaint handling: a code for positive change

By Richard Blakeway | 10 August 2020

The Housing Ombudsman Service has produced a new complaint handling code setting clear expectations for senior executives and frontline staff. Richard Blakeway explains

While this summer will be like no other, it provides a window to reflect on an extraordinary few months. Most landlords tell us services affected by lockdown have been remobilised, in particular responsive repairs.

This is critical given a backlog of repairs, with landlords needing to plan ahead with robust policies and procedures. Complaints are set to increase. Last month our helpline received more calls than usual for June. What we see in complaints can provide insight – best practice or unforeseen issues – and we will aim to share learning early on.

Promoting learning and supporting positive change is an essential role for an Ombudsman, alongside resolving individual disputes. Every day we make around 10 orders to put something right, or recommendations to improve housing services, across a diverse casework including repairs, anti-social behaviour and leasehold issues. This provides knowledge and learning to share more widely with landlords and residents. As part of this, we have produced a new complaint handling code which sets clear expectations for handling housing complaints by members of our scheme.

This code is part of our new powers, which also give us the ability to investigate potential systemic issues. It seeks to address the question asked by landlords about ‘what does good look like?’. It is also clear that many residents find making a complaint difficult.

Following the Grenfell tragedy, I was struck by a resident’s comment in the Government’s Green Paper on social housing. They explained how ‘the complaints process is opaque, inaccurate and chaotic with too many stages and little clarity on the roles and responsibilities of those involved’.

At the code’s heart is supporting the right cultures for resolving complaints and active learning when things go wrong. It aims to improve accessibility and to speed up redress – another point often raised by residents – as well as promoting more consistent practice across the sector. This includes moving the sector to a two-stage complaint process, maximum handling times and the universal definition of a complaint ‘however made’.

There is also encouragement for greater resident involvement and demonstrating learning from complaints in the landlord’s Annual Report. We are asking landlords to self-assess against the code by 31 December, reporting the outcome to their board or elected members and publishing the assessment.

While feedback indicates the code – which was developed with the support of a working group representing landlords and residents – is seen as a positive step, we will act where non-compliance comes to light. This includes issuing new complaint handling failure orders. An order could relate to the handling of an individual case or the landlord’s overall complaint handling policy.

These orders will give landlords oversight of where their complaints policy and accessibility falls short of expectations. It will also show when complaints are not being actively resolved and how frequently this happens. Our use of these orders will be proportionate, giving landlords an opportunity to put something right first. But, with repeated or systemic failures, referral to a governing body or regulator of social housing is possible and we will publish details of each order made.

A final reflection: earlier this month we reported on a sensitive case involving complaints about the behaviour of a neighbour who was vulnerable, and the experience of noise, aggression and numerous instances of water penetration of the resident who lived in the flat below. It was a challenging case for the landlord who accepted shortcomings but was satisfied its anti-social behaviour policies were followed. Our investigation found significant shortcomings in the landlord’s response, including a lack of evidence, delays and failing to follow its policy. The landlord also failed to recognise the distress caused to the resident. The case was part of our regular Insight reports, which offer learning on case handling.

It is in everyone’s interests to handle complaints effectively and to strengthen the tenant-landlord relationship. Complaints should also perform an important strategic role within organisations, providing vital intelligence on its health, performance and reputation. On that basis, we hope the code is welcomed by the sector as a tool for supporting excellence.

Richard Blakeway is the Housing Ombudsman

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