SFHA conference: Scottish housing providers urged to be FoI ready

Associations have six months left to prepare for their placing under FoI legislation – with subsidiaries updated on obligations this week.

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Scottish housing associations have been urged to get information “release ready” ahead of the 11th November implementation date for their Freedom of Information (FoI) obligations.

This week, all subsidiaries of Scottish associations received updates from the Scottish Information Commissioner on their own obligations.

But a workshop session at Housing Scotland 2019 heard that, based on evidence assessed from Scottish councils, most Scottish associations will see “business as usual” beyond 11th November.

The session drew a sample statistical comparison with housing-related requests made to Scottish councils between 2014-19 that were approximated annually per 100 properties  as ranging between 0.4 and 0.7.

Paul Mutch, of the Scottish Information Commissioner, told delegates good FoI practice was effectively an extension of an association’s customer service function – with a need to manage a duty to advise and assist requests.

Citing experience, David Jamieson of the Kibble Trust, a specialist provider of services for young people at-risk, urged associations to pre-empt potentially difficult requests.

“Be open and honest – or it will come back to you at some point,” he said.

Nor, said Jamieson, did an FoI release have to be defensive.

Information, he said, could be released in a way to “reflect your organisation” while staying compliant.

The Scottish government on FoI and housing associations has put pressure on the introduction of a similar measure ‘over the border’.

Approved earlier this year, the Scottish legislation is defined by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (Designation of Persons as Scottish Public Authorities) Order 2019, which comes into force on 11th November.

The order effectively designates associations as Scottish public authorities under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

In the House of  Commons last year, former shadow housing minister Andy Slaughter introduced a private members’ bill to put associations under FoI.

The Bill was backed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information and cited the Grenfell disaster as demonstrating a need for tenants to access fire safety information from their providers.

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

Introducing the Bill, 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 FoI and cover the likes of local safeguarding children boards, electoral registration officers, returning officers – and the housing ombudsman.

The government indicated an intention 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.

But critics say 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.

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

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

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

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