Time to focus
Associations should prepare for freedom of information requests and greater transparency
Last month, housing minister Grant Shapps’ announced that the government will consult on extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to include housing associations. What steps can associations take to prepare for this potential change?
Doing the paperwork
To begin with, housing associations should have their say by taking part in the consultation expected later this year. If it becomes clear that the act will be extended to housing associations, they should take the following steps to get FOI-ready:
- Assess what data is held across the group and where. Look at whether data management systems are sufficiently robust to find and access information efficiently;
- Build the capability to comply with FOI requests into existing information management systems;
- Revisit data retention and destruction policies to ensure the association is not keeping information for longer than it should or deleting information which it should keep, such as for legal compliance purposes. FOI only applies to information ‘held’ by an association, so destroying information which is no longer needed will avoid the need to search through ‘old’ records. There is no need to ‘create’ information if it is not actually ‘held’;
- Information counts as being ‘held’ by an association if a third party holds it on their behalf. Therefore, check that contracts and other arrangements with third parties enable the association to access and obtain copies of information;
- Make plans around resources and procedures for FOI compliance. If FOI is extended to housing associations, there is likely to be a grace period to allow them to get up to speed; but it is still important to plan ahead.
The Information Commissioner’s website (www.ico.gov.uk) provides detailed information on FOI compliance, including how and when to apply FOI exemptions.
A few exceptions
If housing associations do become subject to the full extent of the act, in practice, compliance will involve establishing a publication scheme to make as much information as possible publicly available, for example through the association’s website.
Information must also be made available in response to FOI requests, subject to:
- The 43 FOI exemptions - these include exemptions for personal information (the Data Protection Act 1998 applies instead) and confidential and commercially sensitive information belonging to third parties. Some exemptions are ‘qualified’, meaning associations would need to apply the ‘public interest test’ to determine whether the public interest in transparency outweighs other interests such as commercial interests of third parties;
- Time limits - which will usually be 20 working days;
- Fees limits - if compliance will involve spending more than a prescribed amount then associations may not need to comply with a request.
Becoming more transparent
As well as the potential extension of FOI obligations, it is evident from the Open public services white paper, published on 11 July, that the government is also considering extending ‘transparency’ requirements. Public bodies have been subject to these obligations since last year and current proposals could mean they are extended to other agencies providing public services.
This could make housing associations subject to transparency requirements, including making spending data available to the public on a central government database (such as www.data.gov.uk).
In addition, developing associations which have been allocated more than £3 million through the Homes and Communities Agency’s 2011 to 2015 affordable homes programme will become contractually obliged, under the terms of the framework delivery agreement, to publish some expenditure details. This will cover all spending in excess of £500 incurred when delivering a development scheme. Information must be made available ‘by such means as ensures that such details can be accessed by the general public’.
Housing associations can respond to the white paper, before September, via a dedicated website (www.openpublicservices.cabinetoffice.gov.uk). Organisations concerned about the impact of the mooted reforms should take the opportunity to voice them now.