This month, Greater Manchester Law Centre’s proposed amendment to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill in Parliament has been raised in the House of Commons and debated in the committees. The amendment would make social housing providers subject to Freedom of Information law, bringing them into line with other public services and restoring rights that the public had before a large amount of local authority housing stock was sold off to housing associations. After the recent death of Awaab Ishak in Rochdale due to poor housing conditions, and in the long shadow of Grenfell, more transparency around social landlords’ practices is long overdue.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has summarised neatly why we are pushing for this change to make social housing providers more accountable and transparent. We reprint their article below – the original is on their website here.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has circulated a briefing to MPs for committee stage of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill on Tuesday 29th November 2022.
The Campaign supports the amendment proposed in New Clause 9 tabled by the Shadow Housing minister Matthew Pennycook MP and drafted with the assistance of the Greater Manchester Law Centre to bring social housing providers under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The briefing contains over 20 examples of providers refusing requests for information about fire safety, health hazards, empty properties and other issues.
The Bill proposes a new and alternative ‘access to information scheme’ for social housing tenants. As the briefing explains, we believe a more obvious and effective solution would be to bring social housing providers under the Freedom of Information Act.
This has already been done in Scotland, where registered social landlords were brought under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act in November 2019. A 2021 report by the Scottish Information Commissioner found that social landlords they had ‘responded well’ to being covered by the Act:
- 97% of organisations responding to the SIC’s survey were confident in their ability to respond effectively to FOI requests
- 84% of requests for information held by registered social landlords or their subsidiaries resulted in some or all of the requested information being disclosed.
- 81% were publishing more information as a result of FOI.
- Organisations have not been overwhelmed by FOI, with 57% reporting a ‘small’ impact on staff workload, and 95% reporting 24 requests or fewer during 2020.
- Most organisations used existing staffing and structures to resource FOI, with only 8% of organisations employing new staff.
In January 2022 the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) called for registered social landlords in other parts of the UK to be made subject to FOIA:
‘The ICO believes that housing associations that provide social housing should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in the same way as housing provided by local authorities. We believe access to information laws should remain relevant and appropriate to how public services are delivered.’
‘While the ICO welcomes the commitment to providing some information to tenants, the scope [of the proposed access to information scheme] appears narrower than FOI in a number of significant ways.’
Problems with the government’s proposed scheme
The government’s impact assessment on the Bill states that the proposed scheme:
‘will bring the ability of tenants of PRPs [Private Registered Providers] to access information in line with those of local authority tenants, who can access information from their landlord under the Freedom of Information Act.’ [emphasis added].
In fact, the scheme falls far short of matching the rights under FOIA. Read the Campaign’s detailed briefing.
 The report examined the experience of registered social landlords over their first year of FOI, found that 97% of organisations responding to the Commissioner’s survey were confident in their ability to respond effectively to FOI requests, while 81% were publishing more information as a result of FOI. https://www.itspublicknowledge.info/registered-social-landlords-responding-well-to-foi