Subjecting housing associations to freedom of information requests will do more harm than good
‘You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. I quake at the imbecility of it…’ In his memoirs, former prime minister Tony Blair revealed how much he regretted introducing the Freedom of Information Act.
Today’s government, though, wants to go further. Ministers have made no secret of their intention to consult on extending FOI to make housing associations subject to the same information disclosure requirements as government departments and local authorities. So why is this being so strongly resisted by associations and the National Housing Federation?
Housing associations are private, not public bodies and it would be wrong to impose upon us requirements designed for the public sector. And why single us out? What about grant-receiving house builders, railway companies, the defence industry and the vast outsourcing sector? All are hugely dependent on public subsidy or contracts to provide public services.
But this is more than an arcane disagreement about legal status. Ask almost anyone in the public sector and they will tell you that FOI is expensive, bureaucratic and resource hungry: it requires systems and people to respond to requests and challenges (including legal action). In a public body, these costs are met by the taxpayer, but in housing associations, money spent on FOI will reduce the resources available to build new homes and provide services.
This aside, associations are more transparent than often portrayed. For example, housing minister Grant Shapps acknowledges the value of the offer made by the G15 - the group representing London’s largest housing associations - on transparency. We already provide wide information on costs, spending, salaries and performance. Like other private businesses - and unlike public bodies - associations compete with each other and with commercial rivals, making us attractive to government as partners and delivery agents. This could be compromised if we are forced to disclose commercially sensitive information.
But far more importantly, as private bodies, our borrowing does not count as public debt. The more we are treated as public entities, the greater the risk that we will be reclassified as such for accounting purposes. So does this matter? You bet it does because it will move £60 billion of private loans on to the public debt burden and kill off the most successful private/public partnership in Europe. That’s a very high price to pay, especially when public finances are under pressure.
Ministers argue that reclassification won’t happen because of FOI. By extending FOI to housing associations alone, they might be proven wrong. As Mr Blair’s words prove, even prime ministers eventually learn the law of unintended consequences.
Keith Exford is chief executive of Affinity Sutton and chair of G15