Out in the open
As the housing minister calls for transparency, Victoria Jardine says associations are already subject to disclosure requirements
Housing minister Grant Shapps recently called for housing associations to become more transparent. Several organisations are already making salaries, expenses and other details public to build trust.
Mr Shapps suggests that unless associations embrace transparency, new legislation will force them to do so. The minister’s motivation is unclear, as there’s not much evidence of public demand. Beyond the 2009 government consultation on the Freedom of Information Act, there has been no indication from government that legislation is imminent.
Associations are already subject to disclosure requirements in a number of ways. FOI 2000 indirectly applies where organisations provide services to local authorities or receive funding. Similarly, requirements under Environmental Information Regulations 2004 require disclosure of expenditure related to construction, land or property management. In practice, these obligations are seldom used.
Courts already have the power to extend FOI to charities and not-for-profits, where they feel this is justified. It may not, therefore, take specific legislation to make housing associations directly subject to FOI.
Associations looking to disclose must bear in mind that information should be accessible and relevant - lists of expenditure and minutes need putting into context. They should also prepare for inevitable criticism.
Associations must also be aware of their wider legal obligations, in particular the Data Protection Act 1998. Providing details on department, business stream or whole-business expenditure may be a more appropriate way to protect personal data.
Victoria Jardine is senior associate at Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP