Housing Minister Grant Shapps has announced that the government will be consulting later this year on extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to include housing associations.
This follows the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announcement in January on the extension of FOIA to certain bodies not currently caught by FOIA. At the time of the MoJ announcement, housing associations were not on the list. Please see our alert of 28 February 2011 for more detail on this earlier announcement.
The announcement will not come as a surprise to many in the housing association sector, particularly given similar efforts in Scotland to extend the Scottish FOIA to certain prominent housing associations, and the general trend towards increased accountability and transparency.
Mr Shapps claims that the move will help housing associations drive efficiency and provide a better service to tenants. This is despite the fact that the previous government decided not to extend the FOIA legislation to housing associations on the basis that the burden imposed would outweigh the benefit. However, the coalition view appears to be that housing associations perform a function of a public nature, and many receive substantial public investment, and should therefore be opened up to similar scrutiny. Mr Shapps also said (at the National Housing Federation annual conference) that anyone who received public money should "...throw open their books and expose how they spend money to public scrutiny" - following the government's lead of publishing all spending of more than £500.
What will compliance with FOIA entail?
If housing associations do become subject to the full extent of FOIA, compliance will involve the following two key areas:
- Putting in place a publication scheme. This will involve making as much information as possible publically available in a central database so that individuals do not need to 'ask' for the information. Often public bodies will do this through their own website. Contracts, spending data and other information which the coalition government is pushing to make available as part of its transparency aims, is now also made available on a central database accessible through, for example, the Data.gov website. For more information on contracts and other information which public bodies have been asked to make available to the public, see our previous transparency alert.
- Making information available in response to requests made under FOIA, subject to FOIA exemptions. Both the exercise of finding and making information available can be time consuming as can the exercise of reviewing information to check whether it, or parts of it, should be withheld on the basis of the FOIA exemptions.
What are the main issues arising?
Compliance with FOIA and increased transparency duties are likely to be unpopular with housing associations because of the amount of time and expense needed to comply. In addition, they would undoubtedly argue that they are already operating at the forefront of developments in openness, scrutiny and transparency, so that any additional benefit would be far outweighed by the additional burden.
How likely is this to happen?
There may be considerable determination from the government to bring about these changes as greater public transparency of public bodies and functions (including functions carried out on their behalf by third parties) is one of the coalition's key agenda items. The government has already made inroads in pushing more information into the public domain and the natural progression is to widen the pool of information sources which the public can draw on.
The MoJ will now draw up plans to consult with housing associations on their possible inclusion on the FOIA extension proposals. We will monitor developments.
For more information on what housing associations should do next, see our action points.