Ombudsman voices fear tenants will struggle to access service under new rules
Ombudsman concerned by direct complaint ban
The housing ombudsman has admitted he is worried by government plans to bar tenants from complaining to him directly.
The news comes as it emerged that the number of cases closed by the service has soared by 107 per cent - to 5,662 in 2010/11 - in the past three years. This figure represents a 17 per cent increase from 4,824 in 2009/10.
Despite the demand, plans in the Localism Bill would prevent tenants from approaching the service directly. Instead they would have to ask an MP, councillor or member of a tenant panel for help or to refer them to the ombudsman - a process known as the ‘democratic filter’. This has sparked concern in some quarters that political figures or tenants with vested interests could stop complaints progressing.
In a consultation response buried in a Law Commission report published just over a month ago, housing ombudsman Mike Biles said he was concerned about the impact of the filter.
‘It is generally accepted that one of the principal conditions for being an ombudsman is that citizen consumers should be entitled to access directly his or her services,’ he wrote. ‘In that connection, the democratic filter does cause me some concern.’
In the report Mr Biles emphasised that he was ‘committed to doing all I can’ to help disputes be resolved locally, as the government intends.
Mr Biles told Inside Housing that the steady rise in the number of complaints to the service could be explained by a number of factors, including the Tenant Services Authority’s work in 2009 and early last year to raise tenant awareness of regulation.
Michael Gelling, chair of umbrella group the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, said he was concerned about the impact plans to restrict access to the ombudsman would have on tenants.
‘My understanding is that the MP or tenant panel could stop the complaint from going to the ombudsman,’ he said. ‘The ombudsman is impartial. That service is being taken away.’ The impartiality of decision making would not be as clear cut with MPs, councillors or tenant panels in all cases, he added.
However, Geraldine Howley, chief executive of 21,300-home Incommunities, said that she believed the democratic filter would work well in Bradford because councillors and MPs had a constructive relationship with the landlord but were not afraid to challenge it.
She conceded that there was potential for the new system to seem ‘unfair’ to tenants in other areas.
A spokesperson for the Communities and Local Government department said elected representatives could ‘help resolve many of the housing complaints that are currently unnecessarily taken to the ombudsman’.
‘Where a complaint cannot be resolved locally, there will still be recourse for it to be referred to the ombudsman,’ he added.
Peers narrowly rejected an amendment to the Localism Bill that would have allowed tenants to make complaints direct to the ombudsman during a debate earlier in the week.