Awaab Ishak’s parents should be preparing for their son’s fourth birthday. Instead, they’re mourning. Awaab died in 2020, aged only two, after prolonged exposure to mould in the house his parents rented from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), a housing association. His story has been leading the news over the past week. As the barrister who acted for Ishak’s family, I’ve seen the devastation they have endured.
Prior to the inquest into Awaab’s death, RBH’s line was clear. They said there was mould in the property, but the tenants had caused it with their lifestyle and “ritual bathing” habits. They also said that his family should have taken action to control the damp and mould but failed to do so. As the inquest unfolded, it was clear this line would not – and could not – stick.
In finally conceding that they bore some responsibility for the mould, RBH provided the court with a document of admissions. They admitted that Awaab’s parents had reported mould from as early as 2017 and had contacted them on numerous occasions about the issue right until Awaab’s death. They admitted that after their inspection of the property on 14 July 2020, when mould was observed, remedial works should have taken place. They admitted that it was inappropriate for them to have to shifted the blame on to the lifestyle of Awaab and his parents (workers from RBH never asked his family about whether such “ritual bathing” took place; Awaab’s father has always said it did not, insisting in the inquest that he would use a shower to wash).
The fact that it took the pressure of an inquest for RBH to make these admissions, despite the fact Awaab died two years ago, speaks volumes. RBH’s failure to act was made even more deplorable – legally and morally – given the following three points, which were established when I questioned the witnesses. First, the house met the definition of being “unfit for human habitation” when it was inspected on 14 July 2020. Second, on 9 July 2020, shortly before the RBH inspection took place, RBH received a letter from the family’s NHS health visitor stating that she had been to the property and was concerned that the mould could affect Awaab’s health. And finally, the mould was so severe that only professional intervention could deal with it. In other words, the family were dependent on the landlord to do something about it.
Awaab’s parents powerlessly observed the deterioration of their child’s health. There was nothing they could do. The coroner and expert witnesses made it clear that there was no evidence that the family’s lifestyle was the cause of the excessive and unacceptably high amounts of mould in the home.
Awaab’s home was not even the worst on the estate. One RBH member likened the mould in some other properties as being “like black slime on the walls”. Other RBH residents have told the BBC that their homes are in conditions similar to the images we have seen of Awaab’s. Mould does not become so severe that it can be likened to black slime overnight. Given that no remedial works took place in Awaab’s home between the date of inspection in July and his death, one has to question whether RBH would ever have rectified the issues in Awaab’s family’s home.
The coroner was right to call this a “defining moment”. Grenfell Tower, however, has shown that moments that should be defining are often not. Politicians typically only act when public pressure necessitates it. All of us, whether we live in social housing or not, must continue to apply pressure on the government. The attitudes and practices of many social housing landlords, and the conditions of their properties, must improve.
Already, we’re seeing small wins as a result of public pressure. After RBH initially declared their confidence in their chief executive, he was sacked over the weekend. A petition for an Awaab’s Law on Change.org has reached more than 85,000 signatures. Awaab’s Law, which was created by the Manchester Evening News with input from Shelter and support from Awaab’s family, will improve the experience of social housing tenants living with damp and mould. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, has sent a letter to the leaders of hundreds of councils and a separate letter to all social housing providers stating that the country needs to “raise the bar dramatically” on the quality of social housing, and “empower tenants” to ensure “their voices are truly heard”.
These improvements are deeply encouraging, but such positive action in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is not unusual. We have a limited window of opportunity to force those with power to make necessary changes. Once the media move on to their next big story, Awaab’s parents will be left alone, facing the fact that their son is no longer with them. Awaab’s family have been incredibly dignified throughout this ordeal. Their only ask is that no other family goes through what they have endured. Let’s do all we can to give them this peace of mind.
Christian Weaver is a barrister at Garden Court North Chambers. He represented Awaab Ishak’s family in the inquest, alongside his instructing solicitors, Kelly Darlington and Alice Wood of Farleys LLP
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