Great Places Housing Group Limited
4 January 2021
- The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (the Scheme). The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.
- Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.
- The complaint is about the landlord’s response to the residents’:
3.1 report of a boiler breakdown;
3.2 associated formal complaint.
Background and Summary of Events
- On 2 December 2019, the residents advised the landlord that their boiler had stopped working. The landlord informed them that its contractor would attend within four hours for the repair. When the contractor did not attend within that time frame, the residents contacted the landlord and highlighted that one of them was vulnerable. The landlord explained that its service level agreement with its contractor was four hours and it was disappointed that the contractor had not attended within that timescale. It confirmed that the repair had been logged as an emergency and the vulnerabilities had been noted. It further explained that it had chased its contractor and had been advised that it would attend that night. It had escalated the matter and would keep the residents updated with any further information it received.
- The following day, the residents advised the landlord that the contractor had arrived after 8pm the previous night, over 12 hours after they had reported the repair. They asked the landlord to provide a copy of its duty of care procedures for vulnerable persons. In the landlord’s response of 4 December 2019, it said it was disappointed with the wait time they had experienced, and it had passed the matter to its contractor to investigate and respond. The landlord explained that it did not have a vulnerable persons duty of care procedure but, as previously advised, the repair was identified as an emergency and they were identified as vulnerable persons, so attendance should have taken place within four hours. It said that it needed further information from its contractor about what had happened and, once it had received this, it could review the complaint.
- The residents submitted a formal complaint on 4 January 2020, regarding the time taken for the contractor to attend and the fact that they had explained what one of them was vulnerable. The landlord acknowledged the complaint on 6 January 2020, confirming that it had been referred to a manager. In the absence of a response, the residents chased the landlord on 21 January 2020.
- The landlord responded later that day, apologising and saying that it had chased the manager for an update. The contractor then called the residents that day also and apologised for the length of time taken to attend the repair. It was noted by the contractor that the residents wanted a letter of apology.
- Also on 21 January 2020, the residents emailed the landlord and asked for the timescales for responses. When they did not receive a response, they emailed again on 30 January 2020 and reiterated that they were still waiting for an explanation regarding the long wait regarding the boiler repair, and their query about response times. They therefore asked to escalate their complaint.
- In the absence of a response to their escalation request, the residents chased the landlord on 6 February 2020, saying that they had not even had an acknowledgement. The landlord responded the following day, apologising for the delay and confirming that it had formally acknowledged their complaint, and a letter had been sent to them that day. This letter advised that the landlord would aim to respond within 15 working days and that the residents would receive progress updates at least every five days.
- The residents emailed the landlord on 28 February 2020, when they stated that they had reported a boiler breakdown on 2 December 2019, and advised the landlord that one of them was disabled with severe mobility problems, and therefore affected by the cold. They said they called the contractor every four hours to check the status and, each time, the timescale increased. The contractor then arrived after 8pm. The residents explained that they had been trying to keep one room warm with an electric heater all day, which they thought was unacceptable. After they raised this with the landlord, they were told the matter would be investigated, but they did not hear anything further. They therefore contacted the landlord several times after this. Their complaint was acknowledged on 7 February 2020, and they were advised they would receive an update every five days, and a response within 15 working days. However, this had not happened.
- On 2 March 2020 the landlord issued its complaint response. It said the residents had reported a fault with their heating just after 8am on 2 December 2019 and, despite a number of telephone calls to the contractor, it was not until after 8pm that the contractor attended. A complete repair was carried out at that time. The landlord acknowledged that the contractor ought to have attended within four hours but explained that they took longer because of the number of repairs being carried out that day. It apologised that the residents had been left without heating for 12 hours, and said that it had discussed the matter with the contractor and stressed the importance of attending residents without heating promptly, especially when a resident has health issues that would leave them more vulnerable in the cold weather.
- The landlord said the residents had submitted a formal complaint in January 2020, and that it had been contacted on a number of occasions since then by the residents seeking a response. It had stressed to its staff the need to respond to complaints in a timely manner, and apologised for not doing so.
Policies and procedures
- The landlord’s repairs policy says that it will attend all emergency appointments within a maximum of four hours from the reporting of the repair.
- The landlord’s compensation policy says that:
14.1 it will consider compensatory payments where the resident has: – suffered injury or loss as a result of a service failure; the resident has been unable to use a room in their home due to an outstanding issue; it has failed to follow policy and procedure; or it has failed to act in a reasonable way;
14.2 there are levels of payments the landlord will make in various circumstances. For example, where a repair has been missed on more than one occasion without the resident being given due notice, it will pay a maximum of £50. For an unreasonable amount of time and trouble spent pursuing a resolution to a complaint, it will pay a maximum of £20.
- The landlord’s complaints policy says that:
15.1 if a resident is unhappy with the service they have received from it or one of its contractor, this will be dealt with as a ‘Nip it in the Bud’ (informal) complaint. An officer from the relevant service will investigate the complaint and try and resolve the issue within five working days. If the resident is unhappy with the resolution offer, they have the option for the complaint to be moved to ‘Right First Time’;
15.2 the ‘Right First Time’ process is a formal complaint, and the appropriate service manager will try and resolve the complaint within 15 working days. The service manager will discuss the complaint directly with the resident to gain a better understanding of the issues. Throughout the investigation, the service manager will keep the resident regularly updated on progress.
Assessment and Findings
- In accordance with the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, the landlord is responsible for the repair and maintenance of installations for the purpose of space and water heating. It was therefore necessary for the landlord to investigate the resident’s reports of a faulty boiler and to take appropriate action to resolve any issues if identified. The evidence demonstrates that the landlord accepted this responsibility, so the assessment focusses on the reasonableness of the steps taken by the landlord to meet its obligations in that regard.
- As the residents reported that they were without heating, the landlord logged the repair as an emergency and recorded that one of the residents had vulnerabilities. This was an appropriate initial response in the circumstances. In line with the landlord’s repairs policy, the contractor should have attended within four hours (see point 13 above), but he did not arrive until more than 12 hours after the repair had been reported. The residents had chased the contractor every four hours during the day and had to spend the day in one room that they were able to keep warm waiting for the contractor to arrive. This caused them unnecessary worry and inconvenience, particularly as one of the residents had vulnerabilities which were known to the landlord.
- The landlord acknowledged that it had failed to comply with its repairs policy, apologised for this, and gave feedback to the contractor. This was an appropriate response, although it would have also been reasonable for it to have offered compensation to recognise the inconvenience caused to the residents by its failure to comply with its repairs policy. The compensation policy does not specify an amount for this particular scenario but it does state that the landlord will pay £50 compensation where a repair has been missed on more than one occasion without the resident being given due notice.
- In this case, the repair was not missed and the residents were only inconvenienced for a matter of 12 hours. Whilst it is understandable that they found the situation distressing, this is not a delay which would warrant a significant level of financial redress. However, as it was an emergency repair that was not attended within the stated timeframe, and the landlord was aware that the resident had vulnerabilities, it would have been appropriate for the landlord to offer compensation in line with these guidelines in recognition of the impact caused. It should, therefore, pay the residents £25 for the inconvenience caused to them.
- The residents notified the landlord of their dissatisfaction on 2 December 2019. The landlord appeared to recognise this, as its response of 4 December 2019 referred to their complaint and advised that it would be investigating the matter. However, the landlord then failed to take any action and there is no evidence of it logging the matter as a complaint at that time. This was a failure on the landlord’s part which would have exacerbated an already difficult situation for the residents.
- Understandably, the residents were frustrated when the landlord did not investigate their complaint or contact them again about the matter. They therefore raised a further complaint a month later, on 4 January 2020. This complaint was acknowledged, and the matter was referred to the contractor to deal with, which was in line with the landlord’s ‘Nip it in the Bud’ complaints procedure.
- The contractor then spoke with the residents and apologised for the service they had provided, which was reasonable in the circumstance. Whilst the contractor then advised the landlord that the residents wanted a letter of apology, neither the contractor nor the landlord took responsibility for this. If they had done, they may have resolved the situation. Instead, as no action was taken, this led to the residents requesting that the complaint be escalated to the next stage of the complaints procedure.
- The resident also asked the landlord for response timescales, presumably because the landlord had failed to advise them of timescales when the complaint was raised in January 2020. The landlord’s complaints policy says that, when a complaint is being dealt with under the ‘Nip it in the Bud’ process, an officer from the relevant service will try to resolve the issue within five working days. The landlord ought to have advised the residents of this timeframe when they initially made a complaint.
- In any event, the landlord ignored the residents’ request for information about timescales, which was not appropriate, and no doubt contributed to the residents’ increasing frustration. Further, the investigation of the complaint itself did not take place and was not resolved within the target five-day timescale.
- The landlord then acknowledged the residents’ request to escalate their complaint to the ‘Right First Time’ process (after they chased it about this). It advised the residents that it would update them at least every five days, but it failed to do so. It also said that it would aim to provide a full response within 15 working days, but the response was not provided until just after this. The landlord’s complaints procedure also says that it will discuss the complaint directly with the residents to gain a better understanding of the issues (see point 15.2 above), but this was not done.
- Overall, it is apparent that there was a service failure in respect of the landlord’s complaints handling as it failed to comply with its own complaints procedure on a number of occasions. Whilst it recognised this in its response to the residents’ complaint, it did not offer any compensation, despite its compensation policy saying that compensation may be offered when it has failed to follow policy and procedure.
- The landlord’s compensation policy says that it will pay up to £20 to a resident for time and trouble in bringing a complaint that cannot be considered reasonable. However, taking into account the number of failures of the landlord to adhere to its own complaint process, and the time and trouble spent by the residents in pursuing their complaint because of this, it would be appropriate in this instance for the landlord to pay a higher amount of compensation. It is considered that £100 would be a more reasonable and proportionate amount in the circumstances, and this amount is also in line with this Service’s remedies guidance.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Scheme, there was service failure by the landlord in respect of its response to the resident’s:
28.1 report of a boiler repair;
28.2 associated formal complaint.
- When the residents’ boiler broke down, the landlord correctly categorised the matter as an emergency and recorded that one of them had vulnerabilities. Its contractor was due to attend the repair within a maximum timescale of four hours, in line with its repairs policy. However, the contractor did not attend for over 12 hours. It was appropriate for the landlord to apologise for this, but given one of the resident’s vulnerabilities, it would have been reasonable for the landlord to have also offered financial compensation by way of apology for the inconvenience caused as a result of being without heating for the day.
- The residents made the landlord aware of their concerns about the boiler repair and were led to believe that it would investigate the matter and then provide its response, but it did not do so. This led to the residents needing to complain again. Whilst this new complaint was acknowledged, the residents were not advised of the relevant timescales involved with the investigation. Further, neither the contractor nor the landlord then followed through with a response to the complaint, which led to the residents escalating their complaint.
- The landlord failed to acknowledge the residents’ request for their complaint to be escalated until the residents chased it. It then failed to comply with its complaints process by: not discussing the matter directly with the residents; failing to provide updates as it said it would; and failing to provide a response within 15 working days, all of which caused unnecessary frustration and inconvenience.
- The Ombudsman orders the landlord to pay the residents £125 compensation (£25 for the inconvenience caused by its contractor’s failure to attend the boiler repair within the stated timescale and £100 for the unreasonable time and trouble spent making their complaint).
- The Ombudsman recommends that the landlord should review its staff’s training needs with regards to complaint handling to prevent a recurrence of the above failings. This should include the completion of this Service’s free online dispute resolution training at https://www.housing-ombudsman.org.uk/landlords/e-learning/, if this has not been done recently.