Plan to extend FOI legislation to housing associations from April 2019

FOI access stockHousing associations in Scotland could be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws from April 2019, subject to a parliamentary vote, it has been announced.

Confirming a draft order to extend coverage of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 to Registered Social Landlords yesterday, minister for parliamentary business, Joe FitzPatrick, said RSLs provide a public function and should therefore be open to public scrutiny.

He said: “The Scottish Government regularly reviews coverage of Freedom of information legislation. Previous orders have designated a range of arms-length trusts providing cultural, leisure and sporting services, private prison contractors, grant-aided and independent special schools.

“The proposed order extends the statutory right to request information to Registered Social Landlords (RSL) insofar as they – as private bodies – undertake functions for which they are already subject to regulation and oversight by the Scottish Housing Regulator.

“This will give RSL tenants, and others, the same rights to information as those enjoyed by tenants of local authorities.”

Responses to a government consultation on the move will inform the precise terms of the final legislation and subject to a vote in parliament it is expected the order will come into effect from April 2019.

The Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF) said that the only real element of surprise in the announcement is that there is to be a further consultation.

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

Reacting to the announcement, the Forum says that the prospect of FOI has been circling in the housing association sector for so long that many associations have long since ditched any thoughts about objecting to the move.

GWSF chair Helen Moore said: “Providing information in an open and accessible way has always been an important principle for our members. That approach will continue to develop, and we know that being subject to Freedom of Information does not in itself make an organisation naturally open and transparent.

“But what will very much change with FOI is that housing associations, whatever their size, will need to put time and money into preparing to manage the significant red tape which the FOI system inevitably brings, and this will have to be funded by tenants’ rents. Even simple information requests which are currently answered quickly and straightforwardly will need to be dealt with as FOI requests.

“In our response to the consultation we’ll be calling for a lead-in time of a minimum of 18 months from the point (around May 2018) when Ministers announce the detail of the extension of FOI to housing associations. Local authorities had 2-3 years to prepare, so giving us less than 12 months will not be acceptable.

“We’ll also argue that subjecting housing associations’ private factoring services to FOI, when other private factoring services are not covered, is unfair, and is in any event unnecessary because of the strong information rights which recent factoring legislation has given to owners.”