Research by Inside Housing has revealed that the number of assaults against front line housing staff has risen for the third year in a row. Jess McCabe investigates why…
‘A drunk man tried to hit me with a table leg and attempted to hit me in the face.’
This is the account of a housing worker running into a tenant in their daily work. Worryingly, this is not a one-off case. It is just one of a catalogue of stories of physical and verbal assaults against housing staff that Inside Housing has collected from a survey of professionals.
Our wide-ranging investigation found worrying evidence that abuse is becoming an everyday part of the job. And, for the third year running, incidents are on the rise.
A month after Andrew Stephenson was sentenced to 15 years for shooting a bailiff and a Metropolitan housing officer, the question of staff safety has rarely had a higher profile in the housing sector. Instances of gun violence may be extreme and rare. However, Inside Housing has found evidence that ‘lower-level’ violence is often accepted as part of the job. We learned of housing staff being held hostage by tenants, assaulted and threatened with weapons. Staff subjected to long campaigns of psychological abuse. Many housing professionals feel their employers should and could be doing much more to protect them from such incidents occurring.
Using freedom of information requests to local authorities across the UK, combined with a survey of the largest 100 housing associations, the survey found 3,587 assaults reported by 217 organisations in the calendar year of 2013, and 936 in the first three months of 2014.
Counting only the 173 organisations that responded to the survey both last year and this year, it becomes clear that the rate of violent assaults against housing staff has increased. In 2012, these organisations reported a total of 2,503 verbal and physical assaults. In 2013, this rose 22 per cent to 3,047.
The only good news is that physical assaults has fallen by 4 per cent, from 391 to 373 incidents in 2013. This is among the group of organisations for which we have comparable data. This trend looks set to continue. 79 cases were reported in which housing staff were physically assaulted in the first three months of 2014. But this is down on 90 cases reported in the same time period last year.
Verbal assaults – such as swearing and threatening staff – rose dramatically in these organisations. 30 per cent from 2,079 cases in 2012, to 2,680 cases in 2013. In total, more than 3,000 cases of verbal assault were reported.
Only one single respondent out of 61 said they felt safer doing their job now than they did 12 months ago.
Finding out why assaults are on the rise is less easy. It could be that social landlords are getting better at recording the true number of incidents of violence.
However, an anonymous survey of Inside Housing readers found that half of the 61 housing professionals who responded said the government’s welfare reforms have increased the risk to themselves or their colleagues. Digging into the individual stories, it is clear why. One housing officer speaks of being ‘pushed out of the house when dealing with non-payment of bedroom tax.’ The tenant ‘told me if I called again then they would find out where I lived and come and see how many spare rooms I had’.
Another housing officer observes ‘not only cuts in my service, but general cuts to services such as mental health teams’.
‘The reduction in residential mental health beds and the lack of availability of accommodation have all led to customers becoming more and more frustrated with services and resources available – or rather, lack of them,’ they explain.
Debbie Gorman, service lead for neighbourhoods at 9,000-home Trafford Housing Trust, which reported 20 assaults in 2013 and eight in the first three months of 2014, including one physical assault, says: ‘Although we haven’t seen an increase in assaults, we have seen a rise in the number of challenging contacts that front line staff have – people who are in difficult financial and social situations who feel they “can’t go on”.’
Salvation Army Providing Training
The association has responded by bringing in the Salvation Army to provide training to those front line staff on how to deal with these ‘challenging contacts’.
Whatever the reason for the increase in incidents, many housing staff that Inside Housing spoke to during the course of our investigation refer to taking verbal abuse from tenants in particular as ‘part of the job’.
Encouragingly, about 45 social landlords sent us data on the number of assaults on their housing staff for the first time. However, a handful of councils and housing associations still told us they do not even record incidents of verbal abuse. In other cases we were told informally that the official statistics are unlikely to cover the true extent of the problem.
Worryingly, one third of respondents to our anonymous survey told us that they have not reported all the violent incidents that happened to them in the last 12 months. Asked why, just under half said that such incidents are ‘just part of the job’. Another third said it would be a waste of time to report them as nothing is ever done.
‘We are constantly told to just get on with it, as it is part of the job. I am a young female. I still get told this even if I am dealing with men and women who are known to be violent or have a history of stalking, sexual assault and rape,’ one officer who works in homelessness services told us.
Merthyr Tydfil Council, for example, says that ‘despite no incidents being recorded, physical assaults and verbal assaults involving a member of the housing team are virtually a daily occurrence’.
The council adds: ‘Due to their frequency, such verbal assaults and threatening behaviour incidents are not actually recorded. The customer is asked to leave and the interview or telephone call is terminated.’
Such incidents can be more serious than might be suggested by the term ‘verbal abuse’. Great Yarmouth Council reported that one of its six incidents of verbal abuse against housing staff in 2013 ‘included threat with a weapon’.
One anti-social behaviour officer who responded to our anonymous survey is certain that her employer could have done more, after she was taken hostage by a tenant – an incident she also brackets as ‘verbal abuse’.
‘[The tenant] would not allow me to leave, nor allow my colleague to enter the property,’ the officer told us.
Unsurprisingly, this officer told us that she feels less safe on the job than she did 12 months ago.
After reporting the incident to the housing association where she worked, she says: ‘No feedback was given except that I should not have taken my shoes off. In my opinion this was not the most important feedback that could have been given. If I could have run I would have run without shoes anyway.’
The impact of such incidents can be long-lasting. In the words of a housing officer who was physically assaulted, ‘I feel quite vulnerable and I’m less keen to take an active role like I used to.’
Another said: ‘I trust no one. I try not to put myself in vulnerable situations where I could be at risk.’
Even incidents that ‘just’ involve being shouted at can be terrifying. A housing officer in Wales told us that they had been on the receiving end of verbal abuse and threats ‘several times’.
‘The most recent was when a male tenant shouted “if you close that door once more like that, I’ll knock your f*cking head off” when I was looking at why someone’s front door wouldn’t lock properly,’ one housing officer recalls.
Some housing professionals told us they had been subjected to racist, sexist and homophobic abuse. Threats of rape and murder, menacing suggestions like ‘I’ll find out where you live’ were also reported. All the words and phrases in the illustration to this feature come from real incidents reported to Inside Housing in our survey.
Staff working in care may be particularly exposed to violence. One support worker told us, ‘I was punched twice. First in the neck, second time was in the stomach.’ The first case involved a tenant with mental health issues, but the second did not. ‘Nothing was done despite me saying I wanted her arrested. They “had a chat” with her. [There was] no support from my manager,’ the support worker says.
Abuse in Many Forms
In other cases, abuse can take a less confrontational, but more insidious form. A number of survey respondents told us of times when tenants have threatened to go above their heads or get them sacked. If that sounds like tenants exercising their consumer right to complain, consider the case of Warren Carlon.
Mr Carlon, head of operational services at Salix Homes, was one of the staff on the receiving end of some of the 22 assaults the social landlord has reported since 2013, four of which were in the first three months of 2014.
The incidents started three years ago, he explains, and gradually got worse. But it came to a head earlier this year when the tenant ‘started making all kinds of outlandish allegations’, he said.
‘He was going to do away with me, he was going to get me sacked,’ Mr Carlon recalls. ‘He was generally trying to discredit me in the organisation.’
The turning point came when the tenant phoned a staff member who Mr Carlon supervises and repeated the allegations. It was then that Salix’s legal team stepped in, and put together a case for an injunction. Eight weeks before he spoke to Inside Housing, an interim order was issued and the abusive behaviour stopped. With a relieved tone in his voice, Mr Carlon describes this as ‘eight weeks of peace’.
Salix isn’t the only organisation to take action to protect staff. L&Q, which told us one incident earlier this year involved a resident who ‘faced off [against an] employee with a metal bar’, took a novel approach – a self-made film, highlighting the risk of assault and illustrating what steps to take for better protection, such as informing colleagues before if going to see a tenant.
The film also highlights the perils of under-reporting, with an extended sequence showing staff having smaller altercations with a tenant. With no record of his aggressive behaviour, the film culminates in a housing officer visiting the tenant unaware of the risk – and being taken hostage.
Eric Richardson, head of health and safety at L&Q, says that no specific incident inspired the film – the association reported 35 physical and verbal assaults in 2013, and 11 in the first quarter of 2014 – L&Q did not respond to our survey last year. ‘But the health and safety team had been receiving concerns from staff about their safety while lone working, when there were very few incidents of verbal and physical assaults on record.
‘When we investigated further, it became apparent that L&Q was experiencing under-reporting, just as Inside Housing discovered across the sector in their survey last year. This sparked our campaign.’
A number of associations say they provide lone workers with safety alarms, trackers and other devices. At Catalyst Housing Group, this is mandatory, says Anthony Sewell, the 21,000-home association’s safety and well-being manager.
‘The alarm is sent to a 24/7 monitoring centre where any unfolding events are listened to, assessed and recorded and an appropriate response escalated,” he adds. “The group, which reported five physical assaults last year, also pushes for police action or eviction if it’s appropriate.”
It’s clear from our survey that in some cases, these policies are applied. One housing management officer who received a death threat says, ‘The matter was dealt with seriously. I was interviewed by a senior manager, and a risk assessment was taken. The customer was written to and given a warning and was added to the at risk register. So procedures were followed.”
Change of attitude
But some of our survey respondents were not so lucky. “No managerial support or from the company on a wider level,” was the verdict of one housing professional.
“I do feel we are expected to routinely accept verbal abuse,” was another comment.
One in three told us they were happy with how their employer handled assaults against them.
Housing officers had some very specific feedback for their employers about how to change this situation. ‘Patch sizes are too big. We need more resources generally,’ says one housing officer, who along with a number of others, wants to be supplied with a personal alarm.
Those staff who do have safety procedures set up by their employer do not always feel they are terribly effective. For example, one officer said they felt a system of mobile alerts ‘is nothing more than a tick-box which my employer thinks absolves them from all responsibility because they have a “system in place”.’
The question remains. What can social landlords do to better protect their staff? Although some landlords have stepped up to improve the safety of their employees, our survey shows that assaults are rising. Not enough is being done. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the housing professionals who told Inside Housing that, on asking for more protection from violence in the course of doing their job, ‘I am then asked if a career in housing is for me.’