From 1 April 2013, the jurisdiction of the Housing Ombudsman and the way Registered Provider complaints are handled will change.
Presently, local authority tenants refer complaints against their landlord to the Local Government Ombudsman whilst Registered Provider tenants address theirs to the Independent Housing Ombudsman. Under the Act, all Registered Provider complaints will be addressed to the Independent Housing Ombudsman, reducing the risk of any inconsistency in the treatment of complaints and allowing tenants to benefit from the expertise and dedication of one service.
The Government’s recent review of social housing regulation concluded that there was scope for increased involvement by locally-elected representatives and tenant groups, thus improving the understanding of housing issues at local level and, over time, resulting in more complaints being resolved at an earlier stage.
To achieve this, complaints will usually be handled (following the Registered Provider’s own internal complaints procedure) by a ‘designated person,’ defined as a Member of the House of Commons, a local authority housing member or a designated tenant panel.
The ‘designated tenant panel’ is defined as 'a group of tenants which is recognised by a social landlord for the purpose of referring complaints against the social landlord'. There is no requirement that the panel comprise tenants of the Registered Provider, which could lead to panels being made up of tenants of more than one landlord, allowing an element of comparison.
The designated person will usually investigate the complaint and either resolve it with the Registered Provider and tenant, refer it directly to the Ombudsman or decline doing either. In the latter case the tenant may refer its complaint to the Ombudsman directly. The tenant may also refer a complaint directly to the Ombudsman where it wishes to retain privacy on certain issues. This process will generally take eight weeks from the date of the Registered Provider’s decision under its own complaints procedure. Using the ‘designated person’ route is therefore a fast track to having a complaint addressed.
While there is no statutory obligation on the Registered Provider to set up a designated panel, the new standard for Tenant Empowerment and Involvement places a heavy burden on social landlords to encourage the role of the panels in handling complaints. The standard requires providers to ‘offer a range of ways for tenants to express a complaint and set out clear service standards for responding to complaints, including complaints about performance against the standards, and details of what to do if they are unhappy with the outcome of a complaint’. Many will need to establish their designated panels and provide suitable training before April 2013 to ensure all complaints referred to them are handled consistently and appropriately.