On Friday the chief executives of the National Housing Federation, TPAS and Shelter had a letter published in the Independent (go here and scroll down) concerning an aspect of the Localism Bill that has not so far attracted much attention: tenants’ complaints.
Specifically, the Bill’s new arrangements for making complaints to the Housing Ombudsman will prevent tenants from being able to complain directly: in future they will have to get a referral from an MP, councillor or a ‘designated tenant panel’. The authors of the letter say this will be disempowering, costly and bureaucratic, causing delays and ‘red tape’.
Under current arrangements, tenants can only take a complaint to the Ombudsman if they have exhausted the landlords’ own complaints process, which can often take many months in itself. They then have to go through the Ombudsman’s own filtering process (they decline requests to investigate complaints in many cases) and then wait for an investigation and report. Many MPs and councillors are highly accessible to their constituents and no doubt would do the job as quickly and conscientiously as they can:
others are not, do not deal with correspondence effectively and sometimes do not even have ‘surgeries’ for tenants to attend. We do not know what processes a ‘designated
tenant panel’ might adopt and there is a danger that they will not be very independent of the landlord.
Either a councillor or MP will just pass the complaint on, which is a complete waste of everyone’s time, or they will act as a filter of some kind, either refusing to pass it on for their own reasons or making their own enquiries, which will require the tenant to explain the matter all over again, including revealing their personal details. Tenants may well feel that MPs and councillors are not always neutral when dealing with such matters, especially a complaint against the council as landlord*.
There can only be one motivation behind this process: to reduce the volume of complaints going through to the Ombudsman because it will be under-resourced for the job it should be doing. But the procedure will put additional burdens on MPs and councillors that they are often not geared up to handle, and will undoubtedly act as a disincentive to tenants to take their complaint forward.
An effective complaints process is one mechanism for ensuring the accountability of landlords. It is therefore encouraging that the NHF, as the landlords’ trade body, is opposing this change. Good landlords welcome complaints, pursue them properly and seek to learn lessons from them. There has already been a damaging reduction in regulation and independent inspection of service quality in the housing sector. Making it harder for tenants to complain to the Ombudsman will make it easier for poor landlords to ignore their tenants.
*The Bill creates a unified service for investigating housing complaints, transferring
responsibility for council housing from the Local Government Ombudsman.