The position of the landlord of the mold-infested Rochdale flat that killed two-year-old Owab Isaac is “indefensible”, a senior government source said, hours after Gareth Swarbrick issued a defiant statement that he would not resign.
Swarbrick, chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, a social landlord, said late Thursday “I will not resign”, despite Parliament’s call for him to step down and launch an investigation into possible “systemic failures” in the organisation.
But in a clear sign that the government was unlikely to accept him continuing in his role, the source said: “It’s amazing that Gareth Swarbrick is still in the job.”
Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd also dismissed Swarbrick’s bid to keep his post, saying on Friday that Awab’s death was “preventable and unforgivable” and that the chief executive “holding on to his job is not good”.
On Tuesday, the coroner found that persistent exposure to black mold on the walls of the family’s rented home was the cause of the infant’s death in 2020 and that the landlord had repeatedly failed to fix it, blaming the family’s “lifestyle.”
The bathroom had no window, the fan was inefficient, and the window in the kitchen, which had no mechanical ventilation, opened onto a communal hallway. Awab’s father was told to “paint on it.”
Michael Gove, the Minister of State for Settlement, Housing and Communities, told Parliament he believed the Awab family, which has its origins in Sudan, “were the victims of prejudice”.
Chris Clarkson, MP for Middleton, also revealed that this week people living at another RBH property sent him pictures of walls “covered with black mold”, which their doctor concluded had caused two children to become “very ill”.
The Housing Ombudsman, an England-wide regulator, has announced an inquiry into possible “systemic” failures in the social landlord, which looks after more than 12,000 homes.
This week Swarbrick spoke to Gove about the Awaab Ishak case, after which Gove told Parliament: “In the course of that conversation it became clear to me that there were systemic problems in the management and leadership of that organisation.” “He’s a beggar of faith,” Goff had previously said Swarbrick was still in office.
Swarbrick, who earns £157,000 a year, said in a video statement on Thursday that he would not quit and said: “The conversation around my position has begun to overshadow the most important part of all this, which is that a family has lost a child.”
He apologized in a statement to “the Awab family for their loss,” before saying the Social Owner’s Board of Directors gave him their “full support and confidence to continue to oversee needed improvements and changes within RBH.”
In response to the statement, a senior government source told the Guardian on Friday: “The family’s pleas for help have been repeatedly ignored by Rochdale Borough, which has resulted in the death of a two-year-old, Oab Isaac. It is astonishing that Gareth Swarbrick is still in a job. His position is no. can be defended.”
Lloyd, the Labor MP, said: “The law must see to it that owners, both social and private, cannot ignore the health risks of damp and mold. Awab’s death was possible and inexcusable and there must be some personal responsibility in that. It is simply dodgy to say that the invitations The resignation overshadows OAB’s death and deepens the mistrust of RBH and its CEO.”
The case sparked a national debate about standards in social housing and had echoes of the Grenfell debacle, which was preceded by the social landlord’s failure to properly hear tenants’ complaints.
Justice Joanne Kearsley said Awab’s death must have been a “defining moment” for the UK housing sector. About 450,000 homes in England have condensation and mold problems.
Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, told parliament on Wednesday that if the head of housing had “any conscience, he would resign”.
“I think he needs to take responsibility and there needs to be some accountability from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing in general,” said Kelly Darlington, the OAB family solicitor.
Swarbrick had said he supported the government’s commitment to “strengthening the Decent Homes Standard and the importance of the tenant’s voice”, adding: “We’ve made a fundamental change to our faltering policy. Fairness is at the heart of what we do as a mutual housing community and we will continue to strive for greater inclusivity and equality.”
In a parallel statement, RBH Chair Alison Tomelty said Awab’s death was “a tragedy of the first order… We have made mistakes and are seeking to right them. We have full confidence in Gareth’s leadership. He has the confidence of the Board. He has extensive knowledge of the sector and local communities in Rochdale”.
It is not clear if Tumilty also consulted the landlord’s “representative body”, which includes tenants.