Claire Campbell: Law needed to address damp and mouldy homes
Claire Campbell explains why legislation is needed to address the scourge of mould in rented properties.
In December 2022, I wrote about the sad death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale in December 2020 as a result of his exposure to damp and mould in his family’s rented property, and stressed the need for urgent action to be taken to prevent further deaths. Unfortunately, since then, little progress has been made in Scotland and in fact I have seen a substantial increase in the number of clients I represent who have suffered injury due to similar exposure. I have no doubt this trend will continue throughout the winter months.
Damp and mould thrive in winter because condensation is the most common cause of moisture in the home. Condensation occurs due to the difference in temperature inside a home and outside, so Scottish tenants are particularly at risk from this. We also tend to keep doors and windows closed more often in winter, reducing ventilation and further increasing the potential for mould to grow. Drying clothes inside is a further hazard.
In light of these factors, landlords often blame tenants for the development of mould in their properties but in cases I’m involved in, that is simply not a legitimate defence. Landlords have a duty to provide safe, habitable properties and they should be designed to handle moisture generated from normal day-to-day living. Time and again, I speak with clients who advise numerous complaints to their landlords were ignored or damp patches simply painted over with the landlord failing to investigate the cause of the problem. I’m even aware of clients being told to keep their windows open all the time to prevent mould – not a comfortable prospect in our cold Scottish winters.
Failure to prevent damp and mould from occurring leads to the development of airborne mould spores which are extremely harmful to human health, often leading to respiratory symptoms, such as those suffered by young Awaab. Mould exposure can also cause issues with the eyes and skin, and mental health problems.
Down south, it at least appears lessons are being learned from this tragic case. Awaab’s parents have been involved in developing of ‘Awaab’s Law’, alongside Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling up, Housing and Communities. This follows a petition signed by 177,000 members of the public.
This has led to the passing of the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 at Westminster, hailed as a landmark change in housing law. The Act includes requirements for landlords to address issues of damp and mould within a specific timeframe, so tenants’ complaints cannot just be ignored, as has happened for far too long. The government says landlords should keep tenants updated on work being done to the property and take steps to resolve the root cause of damp, instead of continuing to paint over the issue.
Government guidance regarding these changes makes it clear tenants shouldn’t be blamed for damp and mould but in a number of my cases, insurers continue to blame tenants’ ‘lifestyle choices’.
Disappointingly, there is so far no sign of the Scottish government passing a similar bill to Westminster and now over three years after Awaab’s death, this must be done urgently to prevent a similar tragedy here. Continued failure to act means landlords in Scotland will continue to put tenants’ health and lives at risk and I expect the surge in personal injury claims as a result to continue.
Claire Campbell is a partner at Thompsons Solicitors. This article first appeared in The Scotsman.