The Ombudsman has new teeth. Is he set to bare them?

Monday 23rd of August 2021

Tpas board director, Tim Mills shares his thoughts on the role of the Housing Ombudsman. Tim is a tenant at Ongo Homes, an Ongo Board member and a member of the HoS residents panel. 

The recent White Paper has given the Ombudsman a lot of new power when it comes to complaints and a lot more rights for the tenant when it comes to complaining.

It has also forced a lot of landlords to revisit and make essential changes to their tenant engagement policies. The streamlining of the complaints procedure and the simplification to a two-stage complaints system has made it much easier for the tenant to have their complaints heard and ensure they are listened to and acted upon.

The threat of a noncompliance order hanging over the landlord will help tenants get their complaints resolved in a more timely and effective matter. Of course, that does not mean that the Ombudsman will always side with the tenant, he is still obligated to be fair and impartial.

But he seems to be showing these new teeth in the way he’s acted on his new abilities. Since March of this year over 350 cases have been heard. All published on the Ombudsman's website. Where landlords have been found at fault, orders have been made and the landlord has an obligation to act upon those orders.

Not a lot new there, but the redress is different. If the landlord fails to comply the Ombudsman can issue a noncompliance order. I recently attended a Board members seminar with the Ombudsman who revealed he had issued 33 such orders, 7 of which had been ignored. That’s where his new teeth have fangs.

If the landlord does not comply then the Ombudsman can report him to the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH), who will look at it from a potential governance point of view. And that’s the important bit for me. Noncompliance is, potentially, a governance problem for a landlord, which comes with significant risks, including the potential of a downgrade in their Governance level.

For me, that is a power the Ombudsman needs to keep loaded in his arsenal, especially with repeat offenders. A tenant panel, consisting of 600 tenants is going to be invaluable in keeping his feet firmly on the ground and enable him to listen to, and identify, potential themes in complaints. I’m involved in those panels, and

I’ve been to a few meetings with Richard Blakeway, who comes across as a decent, down to earth man who genuinely cares about the work he does and the impact it has on both landlord and tenant.

I’ve perceived that he does pick up on themes that present themselves in complaints, the most obvious one being the damp and mold situation, which looks like he’s going to sink those teeth into. For me, that’s a good thing.

Some landlords are systematic in their failure as the recent ITN reports showed. By keeping an eye on these trends, the Ombudsman can see those systematic failures and react accordingly. Including, I hope, proper use of his new power over non-compliance. Of course, most landlords will not have to worry. as they are already on top of this and working hard with the Ombudsman and collaborating with organizations such as Tpas to get proper training and support for their staff.

I’m in a unique position as a tenant board member in that I can get to see the situation from both “sides”. I recently attended a board members’ meeting with the Ombudsman who made it clear what he expected from HAs in the future. He pointed out that we (as boards) need to see this as a strategic risk and accept that complaints affect performance and other management issues that would need to be addressed. He also said that new guidelines had been drawn up on the role of board members. That there must be a positive complaint handling culture, set by the board.

There must fair policies and a fair approach to complaints. Boards must have an awareness and accept accountability in their complaint’s procedure. And they must be open and accessible whilst ensuring people have access to the complaint’s procedure. That’s pretty much common sense if you ask me.

Finally, it beggars’ belief that 7 orders have been ignored. Leaving aside the implications this would have legally, it is abhorrent that such landlords are continuing to behave in such a manner. Not just from a business point of view but, more importantly, from the tenant point of view.

So for those who don’t conform to the new rules, the Ombudsman has new teeth. And his bite is now worse than his bark