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13th December 2022

The housing crisis: A tale of negligence

Awaab Ishak’s avoidable death should leave us all asking questions about what could, and should, have been done to help him
The housing crisis: A tale of negligence
Photo: Minnie Crace – The University of Edinburgh @ Wikimedia Common

Housing inequality within Britain has long been seen as a key and seemingly unsolvable issue. From the advent of the industrial revolution to the present day, where you live and the quality of your home has a huge impact on your education, health, and life outcomes. As a society, we’d like to think health conditions caused by poor housing, such as tuberculosis, have been relegated to the history books, but this is unfortunately not the case. 

Last month, a coroner ruled that two year-old Awaab Ishak’s death was caused by prolonged exposure to damp and mould. The owner of the property where Awaab lived, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), knew about the mould at the property from July to December 2020 and should have made repairs, but they failed to act. This resulted in Awaab developing severe respiratory issues, yet when he and his mother visited Royal Oldham hospital, the day before his death, he was discharged and told only to come back if he became unwell again.

The doctor that spoke to Awaab’s mother was forced to rely on Google Translate, which resulted in Awaab’s father taking him to the wrong hospital through miscommunication. The NHS trust running the hospital later admitted the failure to provide the correct information resulted in Awaab’s chances of survival being reduced. 

The fact that a family of non-white immigrants were given accommodation unfit for habitation, before being mistreated by both landlords and the healthcare system resulting in the death of a young child, doesn’t come as a surprise. Awaab’s father said himself that he felt his family was “treated in this way because we are not from this country” . 

Can you really argue with that? 

We live in a country where both the media and government work hand in hand to systematically dehumanise refugees from the global south. Whether it be referring to immigration as an “invasion” or creating a “hostile environment”, time and time again political rhetoric reduces refugees from the global south to a headline or a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’.  

Awaab’s death shows the power that political rhetoric has. Rhetoric is a lot more than words on a page, or a quote in a speech; it has serious real-world consequences. These consequences result in vulnerable families being given unfit accommodation. These consequences result in families pleading with their landlords to remove mould, for them to not even lift a finger. These consequences result in avoidable deaths: deaths that should never have happened, and deaths that would never have happened had a basic duty of care been followed.  

Migrant deaths are also not an isolated case. A man staying at Manston, a migrant processing centre in Kent, died recently after becoming unwell. This case is currently awaiting a post-mortem and potential IOPC investigation. Manston has a capacity of 1000-1600 and is meant to house people for just 24 hours, but in October it was revealed Manston was holding 4000 people. This further shows how immigrants are treated, this time directly by the state. Instead of being provided with an acceptable level of accommodation, the migrants are instead made to live in a disused military base.   

This shows how little respect the Government has for migrants. They simply feel no duty of care. If they did, do you really think they would be forced to stay in accommodation unfit for habitation? It just further goes to show the extent to which government goes to dehumanise immigrants in the UK. 

This is a symptom of a larger societal problem. Inequalities render themselves in many different faces. Race and class often go hand in hand, especially with housing inequality, in deciding the quality of the home people live in.  

In capitalist economies, inequalities are at their most apparent and widespread during times of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic was no different. Almost every policy put in place affected working-class people more, solely because of their economic position. Working-class people will, on average, have smaller, less spacious residences. At the time of the pandemic, it was estimated that 3.7 million people lived in overcrowded homes. This makes working from home more difficult and the spread of coronavirus more likely. More illness and a lower quality of work results, which in turn leads to the chances of a pay rise or promotion being reduced. It’s easy to see how a cycle of inequality is created, which can be impossible to escape.  

These housing inequalities will also almost always result in a rise in mental health illnesses. The home is the site of life and is where people spend most of their time. If this space isn’t fit for habitation, especially during a lockdown, the deterioration of people’s mental health should come as no surprise. 

A YouGov poll found that 11% of all British adults felt depressed during lockdown due to a lack of space in their home and 5% of everyone who said they had a lack of space said that had led them to seek medical help for either their physical or mental health . The direct correlation between class, race, and a lack of space shows how housing inequalities turn into deep societal inequalities.

The pandemic exacerbated the UK’s housing problem and made clear that there is a correlation between class and race regarding mental health as well as physical health, with a lack of space being a leading factor in the degradation of mental health. This was reinforced by a review from Public Health England who discovered BAME people were hit worst by the pandemic due to higher rates of overcrowding and poor housing conditions .  

One of the most striking things I found, or rather didn’t find, when writing this piece was the complete absence of the law in protecting people. Not a single criminal charge has either been made or is being considered regarding Awaab Ishak’s death. Not a single person will spend a single day, hour, or minute in court, never mind behind bars.  The chief executive of RBH, Gareth Swarbrick, didn’t even resign over Awaab’s death. He was instead sacked, less than 48 hours after publicly receiving the board’s full support.

This makes you wonder.

Why are there no laws in place to prosecute for gross negligence in the housing sector – especially when this negligence has led to a death? 

How can a death go unpunished – not because there’s a lack of culprits but because the infrastructure simply isn’t in place to charge people?

Why is there a complete lack of accountability- are people in powerful positions unaware of the power and responsibility they possess?

How is this happening, and why did it even happen, in 21st Century Britain?

The conditions in an RBH property resulted in someone dying, yet they won’t even receive a slap on the wrist, let alone a criminal charge. This is beyond criminal, it’s inhumane.

Jake Aldridge

Jake Aldridge

Deputy Investigations Editor 23/24

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