By Chris Bartter – Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland
As we await promised Scottish Government consultation over extending Freedom of Information (FOI) law to cover Housing Associations (HAs), it might be good to remind ourselves why it is only FOI that can ensure full transparency.
Guidelines on openness, such as that recently drawn up by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) and the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF), while being welcome and good practice, indicate exactly why FOI coverage is the only full way to move forward.
As these guidelines indicate, they are there to ‘help housing associations make the right amount of information available both to tenants and other stakeholders.’ In other words the organisation that determines what information will be available and to whom, will be the organisation it is about!
FOI on the other hand gives anyone the right to ask for, and be given, the information they need. The impact of social housing is not something that only affects tenants. People need that right, the right they already have for local authority housing.
Obviously there are FOI exemptions for some information in some circumstances, but another important right missed in self-compiled guidelines is the right to have any dispute adjudicated independently. FOI grants people that right via the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The transfer of council housing stock to HAs has meant the removal of related information rights from many thousands of people, including of course, those council house tenants. Indeed, the Scottish Information Commissioner in her report FOI 10 years On agreed – ‘The rights to access information have diminished and in some areas, such as some social housing, have been lost’.
While all have an interest in our social housing, tenants do have a particular interest, so it is notable that they have raised a petition calling for HAs to be subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA). The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland supported that, and continues to urge extending coverage to HAs and to all other service providers.
Other objections voiced by HAs, are 1) that they are ‘not public bodies’ and 2) that ‘searching for information will divert resources away from housing’.
To take each in turn: 1) increasingly public services are delivered by non-public bodies (Contractors, arms-length trusts, partnerships etc). Clearly public services should be accountable however they are delivered. FOI does this, and other bodies are increasingly being covered in their public service role, as HAs should be: 2) is really an argument about record-keeping. The better information is kept, the less time will be spent looking for it.
Indeed HAs are already subject to both the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EISRs) – which operate like FOI – and the Human Rights Act (HRA) which underpins the right of people to receive information. Neither has meant HAs are public bodies, but EISRs in particular, already require them to respond like FOI would. Perhaps systems used for this could be extended to cover FOI?
It is disappointing that Housing Associations seem to be continuing their resistance to inclusion under the FOI umbrella. This runs contrary to their professed aims about transparency and accountability. Only FOI gives us all an enforceable right to ask for information on our public services.
- Chris Bartter deals with communications for the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland. He was formerly Communications Officer for UNISON Scotland.