Housing

Government urged to step in following cyber attack at UK’s biggest housing association

It’s been more than five weeks since Clarion’s IT services went down. Tenants tell The Big Issue they have been left in the dark.

Clarion cyber attack

Clarion tenants told The Big Issue they feel left in the dark after the UK's largest housing association suffered a cyber attack. Image: Jorge Salvador / Unsplash

Social housing campaigners have called for ministers to intervene in the running of the UK’s largest housing association Clarion after a cyber attack that has left tenants “unable to ask for repairs” for over a month.

IT services at Clarion, which manages 125,000 homes and house 350,000 people, have been down since June 17. It’s the latest incident to affect the housing association, which is facing an investigation from the Housing Ombudsman after the regulator found severe failings in the last few months.

Members of the Social Housing Action Campaign have called for the government to step in to remove and replace Clarion’s board in an open letter to new housing minister Marcus Jones. Before he was sacked last month, ex-housing secretary Michael Gove had promised to take a “personal and direct” interest in Clarion as part of efforts to improve social housing standards.

Suzanne Muna, SHAC secretary, said: “We are asking for government to urgently intervene in the governance of Clarion after it shut down most of its services on June 17 2022 following a cyber attack. Services have not yet been restored and the organisation has yet to provide a date for doing so.”

Muna added: “Our members ask that the minister of state use his powers of office to remove and replace the Clarion board with competent governors in the immediate future, and engage with tenants and residents over the long-term future of the organisation.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told The Big Issue: “This situation is clearly unacceptable. We have previously written to Clarion about their failures and will be writing to them again – they must provide a much better deal for their tenants without delay.”

The impact of the outage has left some Clarion tenants in the dark, though the housing association has stated it is “confident” tenants’ data has not been accessed.

Peter Kearsley, 69, from Bolton, told The Big Issue he had received a letter from Clarion just before the firm’s services went down stating that he owed £380 in unpaid rent.

The pensioner said he had been unable to get in touch with Clarion after receiving the letter on June 14 and it had left him confused as his £280-a-month rent was usually covered through housing benefit.

“Getting letters like that I just find disturbing really,” said Kearsley. “I’m not panicking about this money or what they’re going to do because I don’t owe it.

“But I do suffer from depression and people when they get that letter through the post would start panicking and wouldn’t know what to do. It is worrying. I just think what Clarion do is not really fair to their tenants.”

Kearsley’s neighbour, mother-of-two Melanie Brabin, 30, is also a Clarion tenant and told The Big Issue the housing association needed to be more transparent with tenants.

Brabin pays £400 a month in rent to Clarion but told The Big Issue she is in a long-running dispute with the housing association. That has come to a standstill due to the cyber attack.

“I just don’t think they are being very professional, they’re not being very transparent about it,” she said.

“So for people like Peter who can just about send an email, how is he supposed to understand any of it? You just feel so lost and worried.

“My other neighbours are asking me: ‘Are our bank accounts safe?’ I have to say to them I don’t know. I would say no, to be honest, I wouldn’t trust Clarion as far as I can throw them.”

Victoria Swift, a Clarion tenant living in Camden in London, said her rent payment of £600 a month was not taken out of her bank account via direct debit on July 1 as a result of the technical issues. Instead she paid her rent using All Pay.

“I think it’s just the feeling of we don’t know, we weren’t told anything for a long time,” said Swift, 53. 

“We were told not to contact them. And then a week later, we’re told it was a cyber attack. So the information’s been sort of dripped out. And nothing really since.

“We don’t know whether we can trust that any of the emails coming from them are actually from them. I don’t know if any of my data has been stolen. I’ve had a fair bit of spam emails ever since.

“It’s not easy at the best times with them, but I’m disabled and clinically, extremely vulnerable. It just seems so utterly shambolic. I feel like we’re now in limbo.”

Clarion’s latest update to tenants confirmed the cyber security incident caused “significant disruption to services” that will result in “a long period of disruption” while the housing association rebuilds its infrastructure.

The update added that Clarion was “confident” customer data was not accessed but investigations into the extent of the damage continue.

A Clarion spokesperson said: “We’re very sorry that our services continue to be disrupted. We’re working hard to get systems back up and running but this will not be a quick process.”

“We are now confident that our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, which is our main store of customer data, was not accessed. We are continuing the investigation into the extent to which data held in other repositories may have been impacted.”

The call for change in Clarion’s leadership comes as the Housing Ombudsman found a third case of severe maladministration against the housing association in a matter of months.

The regulator found cumulative failings in handling repairs following a leak that led to problems with a resident’s shower and electrics in his flat. 

The tenant consistently reported leaks in his shower room from the start of his tenancy several years ago, complaining they had caused staining and damage to the walls and ceiling.

The Ombudsman’s investigation was unable to uncover the full extent of the resident’s communication with Clarion due to failures in the landlords’ record keeping. But the watchdog found there was no evidence that it took action to diagnose and repair the issue after it was initially raised at the start of the tenancy.

At one point, the resident reported an emergency repair when leaking water came through his bedroom ceiling and out of his smoke alarm. The Ombudsman said it was “not clear from the evidence” how the landlord responded or if it checked if electrics were safe within a reasonable period.

The Ombudsman concluded severe maladministration in the case and ordered Clarion to apologise, pay £1,250 compensation to the resident and appoint a surveyor to assess the repairs needed and then carry out all identified works. It also recommended that the landlord review its record keeping practices for repairs.

“It is not evident in this case that the landlord took proportionate action in response to the issues and to meet its obligation to keep the resident’s property in good repair,” said Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman.

“Nor had it fully sought to recognise what had gone wrong and so missed opportunities to put things right for the resident.

“The landlord’s response was undermined by its records. Clear record keeping is a core function of a repairs service and essential to assist landlords in fulfilling their repair obligations.”

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Responding to the Ombudsman’s ruling, a Clarion Housing Group spokesperson said the housing association fully accepted the judgement and had now introduced a case management strategy for tracking repairs to full resolution. Clarion has now also placed “greater emphasis” on reviewing the history of repairs at properties.

The spokesperson added: “We are pleased the resident has confirmed he is satisfied with the work in his home, which is now complete, but we appreciate the leak took too long to resolve and the service we provided fell short of what our resident had the right to expect, and we have apologised for this.”

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