With photos of Awaab Ishak
in the papers, it’s housing
associations in the frame, says Saskia Murphy

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We shouldn’t know Awaab Ishak’s name. Photographs of the two-year-old boy dressed in a smart shirt and smiling for the camera should not be plastered on the front pages of newspapers, but cherished in family albums.

Awaab’s story did not turn out the way it was supposed to. His parents should be preparing for their son’s fourth birthday. But instead, they will spend a lifetime mourning the little boy who should never have died.

The death of Awaab is a stain on our nation. Earlier this month a coroner ruled that the toddler, who died in 2020, lost his life as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in the home his parents rented from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) – a housing association.

The inquest heard how Awaab’s family spent years crying out for help. His father first alerted the housing association to the problem a year before Awaab was born. From then on he and his wife went backwards and forwards to RBH staff and to health professionals in the NHS begging for help.

Sometimes Awaab’s coughing fits would last for two to three days. There were times when he was too ill to leave the flat, so his parents were left with no choice but to keep him trapped inside the environment that they knew was causing him harm. It is difficult to imagine their anguish, or the trauma that will haunt them as they attempt to heal from such tragedy.

Last week RBH admitted it “made assumptions” about Awaab’s family’s lifestyle, namely that the family was using a bucket to carry out “ritual bathing” – an assumption steeped in racism. Awaab was robbed of his life by sub-standard housing. He was failed by those in power. As Awaab coughed to death as a result of the toxic mould that covered the walls of his home, RBH’s then chief executive took home a salary of £170,000.

He has now been sacked after refusing to resign, while housing secretary Michael Gove has cut £1 million from RBH’s funding and it “will not receive a penny of additional taxpayers’ money for new housing until it gets its act together and does right by tenants”, he said.

It seems Awaab’s story is the tip of the iceberg. As reports from the inquest hit the headlines, social housing tenants across the country shared their own horror stories of cold, damp homes that are making them ill.

Last year a report by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), revealed by ITV News, found poor housing in England is costing the NHS £1.4 billion a year. The highest cost to the NHS – around £857 million – is spent on treating residents made ill by excessively cold homes. An estimated£38 million is spent on treating the impact of damp, while £374 million is spent on injuries from falls caused by unsafe conditions.

As Inside Housing’s deputy editor Peter Apps, who has written a book about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, put it: one of the saddest indictments of this country is that the social reforms we need are written by coroners.

In this case campaigners hope the social reform will be known as Awaab’s law. Last week a petition was launched by the Manchester Evening News, with input from Shelter and support from Awaab’s family. The petition, which has almost 120,000 signatures at the time of writing, aims to make sure no other child dies as a result of mouldy and damp social housing.

We shouldn’t know Awaab Ishak’s name. But Awaab’s law would go some way to making sure that little Awaab’s death was not in vain.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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