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Poor fire safety complaint handling by Metropolitan Thames Valley results in severe maladministration finding

20 April 2023

The Ombudsman has found severe maladministration for Metropolitan Thames Valley after it failed to give a resident any reassurance over a fire safety issue in its complaint responses for over 10 months.

We found severe maladministration for how Metropolitan Thames Valley dealt with a complaint relating to fire safety, leaving the South London resident with anxiety over the issue for over 10 months.

It comes just a week after we highlighted a range of cladding and fire safety casework, including good practice in this area.

Throughout the complaint process, the landlord failed to recognise the inherent anxiety associated with fire safety and sought to provide no reassurance to the resident, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.

The landlord also failed to recognise the resident’s disability, something he raised from the start.

The associated complaint relates to disrepair to a communal fire alarm call unit. The contractors were unable to resolve the issue on an initial visit and the landlord investigated the wrong fire safety issue on numerous occasions.

In terms of the complaint responses, the stage one response was delayed and did not recognise the issue – referring to the fire alarm itself rather than the fire alarm call point.

The landlord also upheld the complaint, despite no repair being carried out. This lack of clarity made the resident more frustrated and confused.

Whilst the landlord’s stage two response did accurately acknowledge and address the issue that had been complained of, it could have been more detailed.

It is unclear why the landlord was continuing to investigate the matter of whether call points were needed ten months after the issue was raised and when it found that the call points were no longer needed but took time to inform the resident of this and allay his fears.

We ordered the landlord to apologise to the resident and set out its current fire safety procedures, ensure appropriate signage around the building and clarify whether the fire alarm call points can now be removed.

In its learning from the case, the landlord said it has improved how it responds to stage two complaints and has developed processes to encourage more collaborative working.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “The resident repeatedly stated he had a disability, and this was not acknowledged or responded to at any point by the landlord.

“Yet the resident’s disability should have been recognised by the landlord and informed its approach, both in terms of the timescale it responded to the repair of the fire alarm call unit and its handling of the complaint.

“The handling of the complaint meant safety questions remained outstanding and this undoubtedly caused frustration and anxiety for the resident.

“This is another example of how landlords need to strengthen the handling of complaints involving fire safety.

“I welcome the landlord’s response on its learning from this case and the changes made to improve its service. I would encourage other landlords to consider the learning the case offers for their own services.”

We also found maladministration for the landlord’s response to the fire alarm call unit repair itself. This is because, despite in the end there not being a safety issue, the landlord did not take the matter seriously enough, which meant insufficient action was taken.

Read the report

In all cases of severe maladministration, we invite the landlord to provide a learning statement.

Metropolitan Thames Valley learning statement

We did not handle this complaint satisfactorily and took too long to reassure the resident that their building had a working alarm and that the call alarm point was inactive and no longer part of the building’s fire safety procedure. We also did not consider the additional needs of the resident sufficiently, including how such a period of uncertainty could impact them.

Fire safety is our number one priority. It is imperative that we listen to residents when fire safety concerns are raised.  We have apologised unreservedly to the resident for the worry caused and removed the redundant equipment.

We have made three main changes to our approach, following learnings from this case:

  • Introduced a new “risk meeting” for cases involving multiple internal teams, to improve collaborative working. These have an elevated organisational status, with clear mandates on actions, and enhanced record-keeping.
  • Heads of Service now personally sign-off every complaint response at Stage 2. This is to ensure the standard of reply meets residents’ expectations and that relevant operational teams are accountable for commitments that are made.
  • New mandatory colleague training to ensure members of staff understand the circumstance, and means, to raise a complaint when a resident requests one.

Through changes to our more localised housing management approach, our Local Housing Managers are now responsible for non-technical fire safety checks as part of their communal walkabouts. This includes identifying and arranging removal of outdated fire safety equipment.

We are grateful to the Housing Ombudsman for the opportunity to review how we have responded to this determination, and to make improvements to our service.