By Carl Davis
In December 2020 the social housing sector was rocked by a county court judgement. The court’s findings were scathingly critical of leading G15 housing association L&Q’s handling of a case involving serious racial harassment.
L&Q’s treatment of a young black female resident had breached a code of practice on protecting tenants from racial harassment. The court found that the landlord had been overly defensive, failed to proactively resolve the resident’s housing issues, and had been insensitive in its handling of her case. The judge ruled that the victim of this treatment, referred to as Lara Tate to protect her anonymity, be awarded £31,000.
It is a ruling that the sector should take note of. The type of racism experienced by Tate is not unique, and is experienced not just by tenants but by the staff of these large landlords. Although the cases reported to SHAC are generally less extreme, the impact on those at the receiving end is equally destructive and distressing. Yet the defensive, insensitive, and complacent approach of L&Q is all too common. Tate’s case should therefore prompt every housing association to review its processes and especially their culture with the aim of creating zero-tolerance of racism.
Five Years of Horror
The background circumstances were horrific. The harassment and racial abuse started the day after Tate moved into the property in 2014, and lasted nine months, ultimately forcing her to flee her London flat in 2015. There had been constant racist abuse from a neighbouring couple and their children that culminated in death threats, which she had recorded.
A Stubborn Resistance to Racial Diversity
The Tate case judgement was widely covered in the mainstream media, prompting widespread condemnation of racism, injustice, and inequality within the sector. It generated urgent calls for culture change and an end to the seemingly stubborn resistance to racial diversity at leadership levels.
Former social housing chiefs sent an open letter to the National Housing Federation highlighting wider failings to protect victims of racial harassment. They demanded an urgent review of social housing policy to ensure that perpetrators of racial harassment are evicted, and victims rehoused as a priority.
It’s not clear what became of that demand – perhaps the National Housing Federation can enlighten us.
After the court decision L&Q issued a statement claiming that their aim “is always to ensure that our residents feel safe in their own home, and we have a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination of any kind”. They also claim to be “proud to promote equality for people from all backgrounds and we take incidents of this kind very seriously, but it is clear from this case that we let our resident down”. It was a belated and weak apology after years of torment.
L&Q announced that it would review its policies and procedures to ensure cases like this didn’t happen again, and that it would reflect on the way it “approached sensitive cases to ensure that decisions are taken with empathy and understanding, and an awareness of individual circumstances.”
An independent review of case management was Commissioned by L&Q’s new Resident Services Board (RSB), established in November 2020, to seek assurance that crucial lessons were learned and that the mistakes that had been made would not be replicated. However, the subsequent independent Housing Management Case Handling Investigation Report by Jackie Odunoye published in June 2021 concluded that it was not possible to give an assurance that a similar case could not happen again (see the report here).
The key embarrassing findings of L&Q’s independent report received widespread media coverage, mainly from housing sector media, such as the Guardian article (right).
The findings and recommendations were detailed against three key areas: quality, consistency and fairness, and were also tested against the benchmark of L&Q’s core values of ‘people, passion, inclusion, responsibility, and impact’, and the specific commitments around them. It aimed to enable L&Q to deliver casework in keeping with its stated organizational values – or ‘living its values’ as the report put it – something L&Q had clearly not been doing for a number of reasons. So in addition to looking at policies and procedures to determine what went wrong the investigation also looked at the overall culture at L&Q.
Quality, Consistency and Fairness
The report highlighted L&Q’s strong points but found it seriously struggling in all key areas.
L&Q’s web of relevant policies and procedures was often too complex for staff to follow in practice. Staff were under-resourced, and there was uncertainty around necessary staffing levels.
Policy changes also led to a lack of clarity for staff and residents, causing confusion around roles and responsibilities. Communication with residents was often poorly drafted and irregular.
In terms of consistency things were just as bad. Reviews of ‘high priority’ casework like the Tate case were not carried out regularly or consistently enough by regional managers. Cases were rarely closed in a timely or appropriate way, or in agreement with the resident.
Little attempt seems to have been made to ensure that L&Q worked effectively with other authorities and partner organisations. In fact, there were inconsistencies across whole range of casework, with insufficient training for staff, and poor record-keeping.
Damning Findings on Fairness
It was in the key area of fairness though that the investigation uncovered some of the most damning findings. Staff were unclear about the whole organizational approach to domestic violence and abuse. Hate crime and other forms of serious cases didn’t receive much focus, and racial harassment was inadequately challenged.
The legal principles around discrimination were not understood sufficiently by staff, leaving them unable to properly address racism and other forms of discrimination.
These trends were evident not just in relation to residents, but in the treatment of staff by senior management too.
On the question of race specifically, residents experiencing racist abuse said that they did not think their cases were being handled effectively. They did not always believe L&Q was a racist organisation but that the landlord systemically failed to deal with racist incidents in a timely and appropriate way. L&Q has left itself open to the charge that is an organisation which enables racism.
The investigation unearthed in the key areas of quality, consistency and fairness but it also predictably failed to address the elephant in the room in the Lara Tate case – L&Q’s overly legalistic approach to dealing with disputes with residents. Nowhere in the report is there anything to account for why L&Q’s internal and external legal teams advised the executive to seek possession of her home and render her permanently homeless when she had been driven out by racial harassment.
L&Q can’t pretend its legal advisers or the L&Q senior management didn’t know or somehow forgot why Tate had been forced out.
This wasn’t simply an unempathetic approach, it was the polar opposite to the sort of behaviour a social landlord should be engaging in.
As far as L&Q was concerned, Tate was the problem it needed to deal with and there were no checks and balances at the highest levels to rein in this corporate psychopathy.
Resonance for the Housing Association Sector
The report refers to Tate being lost in the system. She wasn’t. The problem was that the system – or more specifically L&Q management – lost sight of Tate as a human being. She was simply viewed as an obstacle to be overcome, muted and shunted out of the way.
The sector provides millions of homes for people across the country and the core values and organizational culture concerned here are not only L&Q’s but those of the sector too. Housing providers must be encouraged and then regulated to fully live their stated equality values. Residents must be treated in a respectful supportive and sympathetic way, and shown empathy and compassion where these are due.
The Stigmatisation of Social Housing
It could well be that the shift away from local housing officers to systems of engagement whereby landlords interact more remotely with tenants and residents played a negative role too. But that’s only part of the explanation of why L&Q and other larger housing associations routinely lose sight of people like Lara Tate as people. A more generalised stigma plays its part.
The report also repeatedly highlights that insufficient thought and focus was given to the outcome for the complainant.
All to often the focus is on meeting system deadlines and processes as ends in themselves.
The Tate report mirrors the 2019 Tickell Report that critiqued L&Q’s complaints handling. Here too the researchers found that engaging residents in complaints processes took precedence over any attempt to resolve their complaints.
Residents Must Be Heard
The report suggests that success for the change programme be measured on whether it delivers increased resident satisfaction with ASB case handling and outcomes, a reduction in complaints, fewer cases going to the Housing Ombudsman, fewer legal challenges, increased staff satisfaction, and external recognition.
We’re not holding our breath. SHAC will continue supporting those challenging all forms of unlawful discrimination. Our approach is to provide groups with the tools to self-organise. If you are interested, please register and get involved.
12 September 2021