The future of the landlord of the mould-infested Rochdale flat that killed Awaab Ishak appears in severe doubt after the two-year-old’s parents were compelled to issue a statement demanding “accountability” after Gareth Swarbrick refused to quit.
Swarbrick, the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), a social landlord, said late on Thursday “I will not be resigning”, despite a call in parliament for him to stand down and the launch of an investigation into potential “systemic failures” at the organisation.
But in a clear indication the government was unlikely to accept him continuing in his post, a senior government source described his position as untenable, saying: “It is staggering that Gareth Swarbrick is still in a job.”
Awaab’s parents Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin released a statement on Friday afternoon warning the landlord has yet to show it grasps “the gravity of the situation”, saying: “Accountability must be done and be seen to be done.”
They said the coroner had concluded “that the tragic death of our beautiful Awaab should be a ‘defining moment’ for the housing sector” but said they saw nothing to indicate that was happening.
“RBH have an opportunity to demonstrate to society at large, their residents and not least us as a family that they understand the gravity of this situation,” they said. “We await further action from RBH.”
The Rochdale MP, Labour’s Tony Lloyd, also dismissed Swarbrick’s attempt to hold on to his post, saying on Friday that Awaab’s death was “preventable and unforgivable” and that the chief executive “clinging to his job is not OK”.
On Tuesday, a coroner found exposure to persistent black mould on the walls of the family’s rented home was the cause of the infant’s death in 2020 and that the landlord had failed repeatedly to fix it, blaming the mould on “family lifestyle”.
The bathroom had no window, the fan did not work effectively and the window from the kitchen, which had no mechanical ventilation, opened on to a communal hallway. Awaab’s father had been told to “paint over it [the mould]”.
Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, told parliament he believed Awaab’s family, originally from Sudan, “were victims of prejudice”.
Chris Clarkson, the Conservative MP for Middleton, which also covers part of Rochdale borough, also revealed that constituents living in another RBH property this week sent him photos of walls “caked in black mould”, which their doctor concluded made two children “severely ill”.
View image in fullscreen‘I will not be resigning’: Gareth Swarbrick, chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.
The housing ombudsman, an England-wide regulator, has announced an investigation into possible “systemic” failings at the social landlord, which looks after more than 12,000 homes. Rochdale council has called for the housing stock to be returned to local authority control.
Swarbrick this week spoke to Gove about Awaab’s case, after which Gove told parliament: “In the course of that conversation, it became even more clear to me that there are systemic problems in the governance and leadership of that organisation.” Gove previously said “it beggars belief” that Swarbrick was still in post.
Swarbrick, who earns £157,000 a year, said in a video statement on Thursday he would not quit and said “the conversation around my position has begun to overshadow the most important part of all of this, which is that a family has lost their child”.
He apologised in the statement “to Awaab’s family for their loss”, before saying the board of the social landlord had given him “their full backing and trust to continue to oversee the improvements and changes needed within RBH”.
In response to the statement, a senior government source told the Guardian on Friday: “‘Rochdale Boroughwide Housing repeatedly ignored a family’s pleas for help, which led to the tragic death of a two-year-old child, Awaab Ishak. It is staggering that Gareth Swarbrick is still in a job. His position is untenable.”
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Lloyd said: “The law has got to make sure that landlords, both social and private, cannot ignore the health risks of damp and mould.
“Awaab’s death was preventable and unforgivable and there needs to be some personal responsibility in this. It is simply evasive to argue that calls for resignation overshadow Awaab’s death and adds to the lack of confidence in RBH and its chief executive.”
The case has sparked a national debate about standards in social housing and has echoes of the Grenfell disaster, which was preceded by a social landlord failing to properly listen to tenants’ complaints.
The coroner, Joanne Kearsley, said Awaab’s death should be a “defining moment” for the UK’s housing sector. About 450,000 homes in England have problems with condensation and mould.
Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, told parliament on Wednesday if the housing chief “had any conscience, he would resign”.
Kelly Darlington, the solicitor for Awaab’s family, said: “I think he needs to take responsibility and there needs to be some accountability from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing overall.”
Swarbrick had said he backed the government’s commitment to “strengthen the Decent Homes Standard and the importance of the tenant’s voice”, adding: “We have made a fundamental change to our disrepair policy. Equity is at the heart of what we do as a mutual housing society and we will continue to strive for greater inclusion and equality.”
In a parallel statement, Alison Tumilty, the chair of the RBH board, said Awaab’s death was “a tragedy of the highest order … we have made mistakes and we are endeavouring to correct them. We have full confidence in Gareth’s leadership. He has the trust of the board. He has extensive knowledge of the sector and the communities of Rochdale.”
It is unclear whether Tumilty had also consulted the landlord’s “representative body”, which includes tenants.