Housing associations to be considered for FOI laws in surprise U-turn

Joe Fitzpatrick
Joe Fitzpatrick

The Scottish Government has reversed its intention not to extend the Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation to housing associations.

A Holyrood consultation into extending FOI, which obliges public organisations to provide certain information to the public on request, appeared to rule out the move on the grounds that it would not be proportionate to subject housing associations to the legislation.

However, ministers have now changed their minds and will be consulting next year on placing Scottish housing associations under FOI legislation some time in 2017.

The Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF), which previously welcomed housing association being left out of FOI legislation as a “common sense approach”, understands the decision was not in the hands of housing minister Margaret Burgess but was primarily the responsibility of Joe Fitzpatrick, minister for parliamentary business.

It believes that despite many responses from the housing sector supporting the proposal not to extend FOI, ministers have been persuaded both by the views of tenants (primarily expressed through the Regional Tenants Organisation networks) and the Information Commissioner for Scotland, Rosemary Agnew.

Currently, the law means that tenants in council housing can ask for information on issues such as the quality or timeliness of repairs and the background to decisions on rent levels, but those in housing association properties cannot. The transfer of housing stock from councils to housing associations has meant the right has been stripped from tens of thousands of tenants since FoI was introduced.

The decision is entirely unrelated to yesterday’s news about the reclassification of English housing associations as public sector bodies. Any extension of FOI to Scottish housing associations will be done under the part of the legislation relating to non-public bodies which make some provision ‘of a public nature’. It is likely, therefore, that some but not all functions of a housing association would be covered by FOI.

The consultation in 2016 will not be before the Election, and will have some links with the Scottish Government’s review of the Scottish Social Housing Charter.

In the meantime, GWSF said it will, along with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), be commissioning some work on good practice in information provision. It believes information provision by associations is already very good, but any further improvements which can be made will hopefully help minimise the burden of dealing with FOI requests if and when housing associations become subject to the legislation in a couple of years’ time.

GWSF chair Peter Howden, said: “It’s difficult for us to campaign against FOI because it would look as if our members had something to hide. But we’re worried about associations being dragged into time-consuming and expensive processes to deal with FOI requests.

“Particularly in smaller associations, compliance with bureaucratic FOI procedures can divert staff away from providing services to tenants. It also means more of tenants’ money going to lawyers as associations take advice on matters such as what information should or shouldn’t be made available.”

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