Opinion: The ‘democratic filter’ disempowers tenants

As Liberal Democrats we should be very welcoming of the Localism Bill. The measures included in it to bring power back to local communities have been at the heart of our politics for many years, and will give people a real say in local decision making. Empowering people was key to me becoming active in the tenant’s movement in the 80’s, why I joined the Liberal Party back then and cut my teeth in politics in Tower Hamlets, and why I stood for Council in Islington years later.

Empowering people is key to being a Liberal Democrat, Indeed, Andrew Stunell wrote on this forum back in December:

We are devolving power back to local authorities, communities, and individual people up and down the country. Lib Dems have long campaigned for power to flow from the bottom-up not top-down. The “Man in Whitehall” doesn’t know best, and the publication of the Localism Bill marks the end of Labour’s top-down presumption they know more than local people about how their area should be run.

As the leader of the Liberal Democrat group in Islington, I am excited by the prospects opened up for local people in the Bill. However, as I am also the Shadow Executive Member for Housing and someone who lives and has worked in social housing most of my life, there is one element of the Bill that troubles me. A concern that is echoed by many tenants, community leaders and activists across the country.
There is a clause in the Bill that introduces something called a ‘democratic filter’ to housing complaints for both Council and Housing Association tenants. This will mean that before tenants can go to the housing ombudsman, they must first go through a third party of an MP, local councillor or a tenant panel. Adding another level of “red tape”, something that the localism bill was supposed to do away with.
As a councillor, I will be more than happy to support any constituent who needs help in this area, and have been doing so for over 13 years now. But as a democrat, I believe it should be the tenant’s choice as to whether they involve me or not. The inclusion of a third party in a complaint should always be their decision, they shouldn’t be forced to.

As a tenant, I know that my neighbours are often far more likely to know about issues that arise in social housing than most MPs and even many councillors. But also I know that, like everyone else, we protect our privacy and don’t want to be forced to share our personal information. For example, if a family feel they have been wrongly targeted over anti-social behaviour, they might not want to bring in a third party likely to judge them further.

Interestingly, many years ago the “democratic filter” for complaints about Council services was removed, why is it being “re-introduced” for those of us who live in social housing? I am incandescent that tenants in ‘social housing’ have been singled out for this experiment in solving the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ which involves further stigmatisation and removal of direct access to alternative justice in a way that is not applicable to any other citizen consumer in the UK.

This measure wasn’t in either the Liberal Democrat or Tory manifestos; it is neither Liberal nor Democrat sadly. It also wasn’t in the Coalition Agreement to which we have agreed to abide. Given this, we Lib Dems should stand up for the democratic rights of tenants by removing this superfluous requirement, and ensuring the Localism Bill is as effective as we know it can be.

Terry Stacy is the Leader of Islington Liberal Democrats and the Shadow Executive Member for Housing. He is also a housing association tenant, Chair of Island Homes and a member of the board of the National Housing Federation.

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6 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '11 - 11:56am

    Our electoral system does not guarantee us a range of MPs and councillors to go to, which is yet another bad aspect of it. I am sure there are plenty of people who would prefer not to go through their councilors if it’s a BNP-held ward, for example.

  • With the greatest of respect, this is some way short of convincing. Other ombudsmen, like the Parliamentary and Health one, work on a referral system and I’m not totally sure why this should necessarily be different. To talk about being singled out is something of a stretch.

    You say,

    ‘For example, if a family feel they have been wrongly targeted over anti-social behaviour, they might not want to bring in a third party likely to judge them further.’

    Surely if they go to an Ombudsman they are by definition asking a third party to judge? And privacy doesn’t seem too strong an argument either if they are going to make direct representations to an ombudsman.

    That being said, it would be interesting to know how many cases that come to the Ombudsman (as distinct from those that go through the full process) are in some way vexatious or frivolous.

  • Michael Hill 21st Jun '11 - 9:12pm

    Terry, this is welcome suggestion to a very unwelcome restriction to the rights of the social housing resident. Can we envisage the same rule being applied to those who want to complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service? The only Ombudsman scheme in the world that does not allow direct access is the Parliamentary Ombudsman and they have begun a campaign to get the MP filter removed (see http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/2011/parliamentary-ombudsman-launches-public-consultation-on-direct-access-to-her-service) because it causes frustration, delay and adds unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. Duncan – getting a politician involved is a very different proposition to complaining directly to a dispute resolution body like an Ombudsman. Complaining in your own right is also empowering and something that we should be promoting – again look at finance where the Which? and the Financial Ombudsman Service are campaigning to make sure that consumers are aware of how easy it is to complain to an Ombudsman and not involve third parties (such as claims management companies). Very, very, very small numbers of complaints to an Ombudsman are vexatious or frivolous. I have personally handled many complaints about social housing over the last 20 years as an investigator in a local authority, as a chair of a housing association complaints panel and also as a reviewer of complaints about shared ownership and affordable housing sales – and can count on one hand the number of complaints that were actually vexatious. People want to be treated with respect and to be heard – they also often want to share their complaint with a minimum of people – I remember a case where a young woman had suffered terrible domestic violence and then experienced a catalogue of errors by her housing association in their handling of the situation – why should she be required by government to share her complaint with a MP, councillor or another group of residents? Why should she have her right to complain in private to a dedicated complaint handling body (the Ombudsman) removed?

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