Housing associations to come under FOI laws, minister confirms

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 7 December 2017 in News

Joe Fitzpatrick confirms FOI laws will apply to registered social landlords from March next year

Leith housing - credit Tom Parnell

Housing associations will soon be required to provide tenants and other concerned individuals with operational information which can currently be kept under wraps, it has been announced.

The Scottish Government has potentially set themselves on a collision course with the social housing sector with a decision to make registered social landlords (RSLs) comply with freedom of information laws (FOI).

Joe FitzPatrick, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, said RSLs provide a public function and should therefore be open to public scrutiny.

It is part of a raft of reforms designed to roll back on the increasing use of arms length bodies and corporations by public bodies such as councils, allowing them to evade the level of scrutiny which could be applied to in-house public services.

Many councils have hived off their former council housing stock to housing associations, potentially denying tenants the right to probe financial and operation information to enable them to challenge decisions such as rent rises or service cuts.

The social housing sector has resisted moves to bring their operations under FOI, insisting there is no evidence that relevant information is being kept under wraps and warning that a free-for-all could be costly and leave often small and tightly-resourced RSLs tied up in red tape.

However, FitzPatrick told Holyrood's 15th Annual Freedom of Information conference that RSLs are expected to come under FOI from March 2018.

He said: “Last year, the minister for local government and housing announced the start of a consultation on proposals to extend coverage of FOI to registered social landlords (RSLs).

“I am pleased to announce that we intend to designate RSLs as public authorities, for the purposes of FOI, subject to consultation on the terms of an order.

“The consultation will be available (from December 6) and run until March next year, with the final order expected to be laid in the spring of next year.

“RSLs core functions concern the provision of housing services, and I consider these to be functions of a public nature and grounds for designating RSLs as public authorities for the purpose of FOI.

“RSLs are already subject to regulation and oversight by a number of organisations. These include the Scottish Housing Regulator and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

“While not public authorities, they are performing at least some public functions. RSLs are considered subject to human rights legislation. RSLs are also, of course, covered by environmental information regulations (EIRs).

“I understand there is a clear concern that a potential consequence of the Housing Amendment Bill would be to remove RSLs from EIRs.

“Extending FOI to RSLs would therefore ensure that the right of access to information will be protected, and in fact strengthened.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations said it had been anticipating the decision.

“While we are still unpicking the detail of the proposed order, we are concerned that the intention is to include RSL subsidiaries under the scope of extension, depending on the services provided. As highlighted in our response to the earlier Scottish Government consultation, RSL subsidiaries are purely commercial entities, and SFHA has argued against their inclusion for this reason," they said.

“It is welcome that that the proposal does not include care services in the order, and we will be discussing with Scottish Government further aspects of services that may or may not be covered under the proposed wording."

 

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