The boss of the social housing landlord of the mouldy flat that killed Awaab Ishak has been sacked, following days of growing pressure from the two-year-old’s family, ministers and MPs.
Gareth Swarbrick, who on Thursday issued a defiant statement refusing to quit, was fired on Saturday by the board of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.
“The board has taken the decision to remove Gareth Swarbrick from his post as chief executive of RBH with immediate effect,” the landlord said in a statement. “We will now work to appoint an external interim chief executive.”
The sacking came as tenants’ activists prepared to gather for a vigil at 2pm outside the Rochdale borough council offices, where they were planning to demand Swarbrick’s removal and urge a charge of corporate manslaughter to be brought against the landlord.
On Tuesday a coroner found exposure to persistent black mould on the walls of the family’s rented home were a cause of the infant’s death in 2020 and that the landlord had repeatedly failed to fix it, blaming the mould on “family lifestyle”.
Responding to Swarbrick’s dismissal, Awaab’s family lawyer, Christian Weaver, said: “The family were deeply saddened that following this inquest, RBH did nothing but express their confidence in … Gareth Swarbrick, despite in the court room doing everything to indicate that significant changes would be made.”
He said the fact he was sacked and did not resign “speaks volumes”, and said the family found it “wholly unacceptable” that the board had expressed confidence in him even after the coroner’s ruling.
He added: “Much more needs to be done,” and called for the government to create Awaab’s Law “to make sure no other child, or anyone else, dies due to mould in their home”.
On Tuesday, senior coroner Joanne Kearsley had ruled the “engaging, lively, endearing” two-year-old died from prolonged exposure to mould in his family’s flat and his death should be a “defining moment” for the UK’s housing sector.
The bathroom had no window, the fan didn’t work effectively and the window from the kitchen, which had no mechanical ventilation, opened on to a communal hallway. Awaab’s father had been told to “paint over it”, and the family, originally from Sudan, claim they were the victims of racial prejudice.
The ruling sparked a furious response from the government, with Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, saying “it beggars belief” Swarbrick remained in post.
On Sunday it was announced that Gove had written to every English council leader and social housing provider as he warned that deaths like that of Awaab must “never be allowed to happen again”.
In his letter, he warns providers: “I want to be clear about what this must mean in relation to damp and mould, as I have been made aware of many cases where this has gone unaddressed for far too long and am concerned that they are not treated with sufficient seriousness.
“Where people complain about damp and mould, you must listen; where you find them, you must take prompt action. To keep tenants safe, you must not hide behind legal process.”
Gove, in the letter to council leaders, calls the death of Awaab an “avoidable loss”.
“All of us – including my department – need to deliver our responsibility to people living in poor-quality housing,” he writes. “That is why I am writing to you to request you do everything in your power to prioritise the improvement of housing conditions for the millions of private and social tenants, in line with existing duties in the Housing Act 2004.
“This becomes ever more urgent as we go into winter with a cost-of-living and energy crisis, which may exacerbate damp and mould conditions in some homes.”
Swarbrick, who was paid £157,000 a year, refused to stand down on Thursday and said: “I will not be resigning.” He was given a vote of confidence by Alison Tumilty, chair of the housing association, who said: “We have full confidence in Gareth’s leadership.”
On Friday, the Rochdale MP, Labour’s Tony Lloyd, said Awaab’s death was “preventable and unforgivable” and that the chief executive “clinging to his job is not OK”.
Amid rising anger at Swarbrick’s refusal to take responsibility, Awaab’s parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin, said the landlord, which looks after more than 12,000 homes, failed to grasp “the gravity of the situation”, and said: “Accountability must be done and be seen to be done.”
On Saturday, a statement from the RBH board but also its representative body, which includes tenants, said: “Our original instincts were for Gareth to stay on to see the organisation through this difficult period and to make the necessary changes, but we all recognise that this is no longer tenable.”
A government source welcomed the sacking, saying: “It is welcome that Gareth Swarbrick has been removed for his profound failings as RBH chief executive, but RBH and their board still have very serious questions to answer. Why did they give him their full backing after the coroner’s report and as recently as 24 hours ago? And why have they failed to answer basic questions about the state of their housing stock? The secretary of state for levelling up will continue to take a very close interest in RBH and will stand up for tenants as necessary.”
RBH said: “The coroner noted that RBH had made changes as a result of the tragic death of Awaab. Under new leadership RBH will continue to embed these changes and to continue to drive further improvements to our homes and to our communications with tenants.”
“We are committed to sharing what we have learned about the impact to health of damp, condensation and mould with the social housing sector, and to supporting sector-wide changes. We will work with other agencies local and national and with central government in implementing the wider changes recommended to them by the coroner.
“As an organisation we are deeply sorry for the death of Awaab and devastated that it happened in one of our homes. We must ensure this can never happen again. His death needs to be a wake-up call for everyone in housing, social care and health.”
Awaab died in December 2020, but only this week Chris Clarkson, the Conservative MP for Middleton, which also covers part of Rochdale borough, revealed constituents living in another RBH property were enduring walls “caked in black mould” which their doctor concluded made two children “severely ill”.
“Even though slow, this is the right decision if RBH is to have any chance of restoring trust and confidence for its tenants,” said Tony Lloyd. “But given RBH homes remain affected by mould, I have to ask what were the board doing in the period since Awaab’s death?”