The tragic and preventable death of Awaab Ishak in December 2020, the 2-year old who died from a chest infection caused by the prolonged exposure to mould in his home in Rochdale, has sickened many people across the country.
The Senior Coroner, Joanne Kearsley, reported in November 2022, that his death should be a “defining moment” for the housing sector. But, the intervention of Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, is a more telling pronouncement. With hypocrisy oozing from every pore, he was the first to start the “blame game” distracting us from the real culprits. Tory ministers have a long and distasteful history of hypocrisy when passing judgement on the deaths of working class people.
Gove’s ‘blame game’
Gove used his position as Housing Minister, to attack Councils and Social Housing providers, calling for them to “raise the bar dramatically” on the quality of housing they provide, and to “empower tenants” to ensure “their voices are truly heard”, and that they were to be “put on notice”. But no mention of private landlords, many of whom sit with him in Parliament, ripping off tenants with impunity.
His letter to every council and social housing provider should be viewed as an attempt to divert attention towards a ‘blame game’ against hard-pressed, under-staffed agencies – social workers, NHS – and to deflect attacks away from the system that promotes profit over the needs of working class communities.
Of course, we are aware that it has been a succession of Tory governments that have promoted and bullied councils to transfer their housing stock to social housing providers, who are all but in name private landlords, up to their eyes in debt to banks and hedge funds. This is the root of our housing crisis.
We have lost the minimal democratic accountability that council housing offered, and like many of the other privatised council services such as social care, leisure services, and education through the academisation process, we pay more and get less as the privateers make their profits.
So it came as no surprise to learn that Gareth Swarbrick, the leader of Rochdale Borough Housing, the landlord responsible for Awaab Ishak’s death, earns an obscene £185,000 a year to overview a undemocratic and ineffective housing provider. Initially he resisted calls for his resignation and tried to stick it out.
A vigil was organised in Rochdale on Saturday 19th November, calling for Swarbrick to take responsibility. Mark Slater from Greater Manchester Tenants Union described his sacking as a “self-preservation tactic” by his employer, trying to use him as a scapegoat to protect the organisation.
The housing crisis is an ongoing disgrace being played out in every city and town across the country. This death has highlighted the urgency needed to deal with this crisis.
It is reminiscent of the “social murder” described by Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. In his work The Condition of the Working Class in England, he described how capitalism crushes the working class, to the point of starvation, but is expert in avoiding responsibility for its cruelty and indifference to the suffering it causes.
He goes on to say, “The bourgeoisie dare not speak the truth in these cases for it would speak its own condemnation”, and “the English workingmen call this social murder, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually”.
As Engels recognised, it is the whole system that is to blame for these tragic cases, and the establishment, the politicians and the landlords will lie and distract to protect their system. Capitalism’s thirst for profit will always oppress and attack the living standards of the working class, to the point of starvation or the death of a child in slum housing.
Decent homes for all
The Government’s own figures are an indictment of their system. They detail 3.5 million homes in England failing to reach the minimum requirement for “decent homes”. Of these, 2.2 million homes host the risk of serious harm or death. Many with private landlords.
The tragic death of Awaab is not the “defining moment” that the Senior Coroner describes, but a disgustingly regular occurrence in the lives of the global working class, as they struggle under the tyranny of capitalism.
We need to organise to deal with the housing crisis. We will have to struggle to reverse the mass privatisation of council housing, and push for mass council house building to provide high quality homes, that can be a part of the foundation for a healthy, safe and happy family life for working class families.
- End the big rent rip-off – for rent control to slash the cost of living
- Retrofit homes across the UK with quality insulation – for mass investment to retrain workers from the fossil fuel industry to do this valuable and skilled work, on trade-union rates of pay
- Nationalise the big housing agencies, along with banks, construction and energy companies and bring land into public ownership to allow for mass building of council housing