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By Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman.
Following the Grenfell tragedy, I was struck by a resident’s experience of complaint handling reported in the government’s social housing paper.
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.”
This sums up many of the challenges that need to be addressed. Not every resident will feel that way, but many will feel something needs to change.
That’s why we have published a Complaint Handling Code to raise expectations and improve the handling of complaints by our member landlords.
The Code is part of our new powers which also includes the ability to undertake systemic investigations and a stronger relationship with the Regulator of Social Housing.
The Code considers the question ‘what does good look like?’ in complaint handling. This is often asked by landlords who are reviewing their policies and procedures and want to achieve excellence. As well as setting out expectations for landlords, the Code will help residents in knowing what to expect from their landlord when they make a complaint and how to progress their complaint.
At its heart is supporting the right cultures for resolving complaints and active learning when things go wrong. It aims to improve accessibility and speed up redress, as well as promoting more consistent practice across the sector. Given many landlords are reviewing their approaches in light of Covid-19, its publication is timely.
The Code is principle-based with self-assessment by landlords who will need to report the outcome to their board and publish it. It is prescriptive where it matters most.
This includes moving the sector to a two-stage complaint process, maximum handling times and the universal definition of a complaint – ‘however made’ – to avoid any being driven underground.
There is also encouragement for greater resident involvement and demonstrating learning from complaints through the landlord’s Annual Report.
While feedback indicates the Code is seen as a positive step, we will take action where non-compliance comes to light. This includes issuing new Complaint Handling Failure Orders, with guidance on these available on our website.
These could relate to the handling of an individual case or the landlord’s overall complaint handling policy. We will be proportionate issuing these orders and will give landlords an opportunity to put something right.
They will give landlords oversight of where their complaints policy and accessibility fall short of expectations, and how frequently this is happening. With repeated or systemic failures, referral to the Regulator of Social Housing is possible and we will publish details of each order made.
Listening to what complaints are telling a landlord will be a major focus for the Ombudsman’s future work. Complaints should perform an important strategic role within organisations, providing vital intelligence on its health, performance and reputation.
Effectively handling complaints is in everyone’s interest and should strengthen the tenant-landlord relationship. On that basis, we hope the Code is welcomed by the sector as a tool for supporting excellence.