Housing associations face future Freedom of Information scrutiny

Housing associations come under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in a private members’ bill due before Parliament this week.

house of commons

Housing associations come under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in a private members’ bill pitched by a former shadow housing minister and due before the Commons this week.

The bill – introduced by the Labour MP Andy Slaughter and backed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information – cites the Grenfell disaster as demonstrating a need for tenants to access fire safety information from their providers.

FoI was used by Grenfell Action Group in its attempts to secure information about fire safety from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) that initially indicated it would comply then changed tack to say it was not a public body and not subject to the act.

Slaughter said: “Bodies in this position would always be holding information on behalf of the authority responsible for the contract and the relevant information would always be accessible, subject to exemptions.”

As proposed, the bill would also put contractors providing ‘public’ services under F0I and cover the likes of local safeguarding children boards, electoral registration officers, returning officers – and the housing ombudsman.

Slaughter said: “Bodies in this position would always be holding information on behalf of the authority responsible for the contract and the relevant information would always be accessible, subject to exemptions.”

Government is to oppose the bill saying there are already provisions within the existing act to extend the scope of FoIs.

As the FoI act currently stands, members of the public can only request information held by a limited range of public authorities and government departments.

Over £250bn – a third of all public spending – is channelled to private companies or charities for services contracted out by local councils, central government and other official agencies.

“There have been significant changes to the way public services are procured over the 18 years since the FoI Act came into effect, with more public services than ever being provided through private companies,” Slaughter said.

“The general public has a right to know as much about (private contractors) when they are given public contracts or providing public services as we do about public authorities doing the same work – my bill would bring FoI into line with the way public services are now being delivered in 2018.”

At present, the Freedom of Information Act contains a clause that allows the government to bring any contractor within its remit, or any other organisation providing a public service.

This has happened only twice, however, with the then Association of Chief Police Officers (now known as the National Police Chiefs’ Council) and Network Rail becoming subject to FoI.

Slaughter’s bill also seeks to amend the clause within the existing act which makes it a criminal offence to destroy or conceal information that is being requested.

Currently, charges must be brought within six months of the act of destruction; this would be extended to three years.

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