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Recalibrating complaints – five key questions on the Housing Ombudsman’s new Complaint Handling Code

Posted: 17/07/2020

One core theme of the 2018 social housing green paper centred on quicker and more effective resolution of complaints and last week, nearly two years after the Green Paper’s publication, the Housing Ombudsman published a new Complaint Handling Code. The Code was developed in conjunction with sector stakeholders, and provides greater powers to the Housing Ombudsman. It is intended that the Code will enable Boards to foster a culture of learning which can then be used to drive improvements in service delivery and ultimately lead to better relationships between landlords and their tenants.

With all landlords expected to conduct a self-assessment against the Code by 31 December 2020, we’ve set out five key questions and their answers below.

Q: Is it clear what will be considered a ‘complaint’ under the Code?

A: Within the Code, a complaint is defined as: “an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about the standard of service, actions or lack of action by the organisation, its own staff, or those acting on its behalf, affecting an individual resident or group of residents.”

This definition should be reflected in landlords’ own complaints processes. The Code makes it clear that landlords should recognise the difference between a service request, survey feedback and a formal complaint, and understand that the word “complaint” does not need to be used in order for it to fall within the definition. If a complaint is made, landlords should try and resolve it as quickly as possible.

To aid flexibility, there are exclusions to this general rule and these include where there is a valid reason not to accept a complaint or the circumstances giving rise to the complaint conflict with the landlord’s complaints policy (which must be fair and reasonable). If a complaint is not accepted, the landlord must provide a detailed explanation as to why and the resident has the right to challenge the decision by bringing their complaint to the Ombudsman.

Q: Do we have to amend our own complaints procedure?

A: Landlords will need to review their own complaints procedure to ensure it complies with the recommendations of the Code. The Code suggests that a landlord’s complaints procedure should comprise two stages (where a landlord deems a third stage necessary, it will need to set out its reasoning in its annual self-assessment).

Stage one of the complaints procedure should involve acknowledgment and confirmation of the complaint by the landlord to ensure that it has understood the desired outcomes of the resident. If the complaint is not resolved satisfactorily (the resident wishes to appeal the decision), it should be progressed to stage two in line with the landlord’s policy on complaints handling.

Q: Does the Code set out timescales that we need to adhere to in addressing a complaint?

A: Yes, the Code suggests that a landlord’s complaints procedure should not exceed the following maximum timescales. A limited extension may be permitted if a valid explanation is accepted and residents are kept informed:

  • Within five working days – complaint logged and acknowledged;
  • Within 10 working days (an additional 10 working days may be permitted where this is not possible) - stage one decision;
  • Within 20 working days from the request to escalate (an additional 10 working days may be permitted where this is not possible) - stage two response;
  • Within 20 working days from the request to escalate - stage three response (where a landlord believes this additional stage is necessary).

Q: Do we need to increase accessibility for residents in relation to making complaints?

A: The Code requires landlords to take steps to ensure that it is easy for residents to make complaints using different channels. These routes can include via social media, its website and physical publications. The complaints policy also needs to be readily available online and easy to follow in terms of how to make a complaint and the process involved. Residents should also be provided with contact information for the Ombudsman and landlords should ensure that residents are aware of their right to use the Ombudsman service from an early stage.

Q: How do we self-assess against the requirements of the Code and what happens if we fail to comply?

A: The Code contains a self-assessment form for landlords to use. Landlords are expected to carry out regular self-assessment against the Code, with the first assessment to be completed by 31 December 2020. The outcomes of the self-assessment should be reported to the landlord’s Board and published in its Annual Report.

Member landlords of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (a revised version of which comes into force 1 September 2020) must comply with the conditions of membership. Failure to comply with either the Code or Scheme could lead to the issuance of a complaint handling failure order (CHFO) and order to rectify by the Ombudsman. Separate guidance was issued by the Ombudsman on the determination of CHFOs.

The Ombudsman will publish details of CHFOs issued quarterly (including names of landlords and reasons) which will ultimately form part of the annual Ombudsman landlord performance reports. The Ombudsman may also select certain cases where failures have had a significant impact on residents and publish a report on the findings. The information will also be shared with the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH). Where the landlord’s compliance with the Code is of “significant concern” to the Ombudsman and is “indicative of a potential systemic issue affecting all residents”, it is able to escalate these concerns to the organisation’s Board or to its regulatory body, including the RSH. The Scheme offers the Ombudsman a wider remit to refer issues to the RSH than it had previously, but it is keen to emphasise that it will continue to take a proportionate approach to compliance.

In response to some of the criticisms raised in the social housing green paper, the Ombudsman is hopeful that the new Code will encourage landlords to recognise complaints as a crucial indication of the overall ‘health’ of the organisation by providing early insight into challenges it is facing and offering a more resident based perspective on its operations.

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