Bye, bye FOI? Are Scottish social landlords going to escape Freedom of Information?

Public petition on extending FOI to social landlords

Earlier this year, the present author made mention of a public petition to the Scottish Parliament to broaden the scope of freedom of information (FOI) to cover registered social landlords (RSLs). The petition has now been referred to the Parliament’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment (ICI) Committee. RSLs will be invited to make submissions to the ICI Committee, following which the ICI Committee will make recommendations to the Scottish Government. While the matter is ultimately one for the Scottish Government to decide, the ICI Committee’s recommendations are regarded as carrying significant weight.

Scottish Government consultation

On 12 June 2015, the Scottish Government issued a consultation document on the further extension of coverage of FOI to “more organisations”, the latter being: (1) contractors operating privately-managed prisons; (2) providers of secure accommodation for children; (3) grant-aided schools; and (4) independent special schools. Following the consultation, the Scottish Government may issue an extension order in autumn this year, with a view to the new organisations being covered from spring next year.  
The first FOI extension order was effective from 1 April 2014, and included within the scope of FOI arms-length organisations set up by local authorities to deliver sporting, cultural and leisure facilities.  

The consultation document highlights that the Scottish Government is "not currently persuaded of the merits of extending coverage” to RSLs because:

  • some of the functions undertaken by RSLs are private and commercial and not public in nature, such as factoring and commercial property lets;
  • service users have not generally experienced difficulties in obtaining information from RSLs; and
  • the Scottish Social Housing Charter (SSSC), effective from 1 April 2012, contains provisions which provide service users with information about their RSL and how and why it makes decisions and the services it provides. Initial reporting against the KPIs in respect of the SSSC shows a high level of tenant satisfaction in this regard. The Scottish Government therefore proposes that a full assessment of the effectiveness of the SSSC should be undertaken before FOI is extended to RSLs (the SSSC is to be reviewed next year, with changes being effective from April 2017).
In the meantime, the Scottish Government encourages both RSLs and service users to respond to the consultation with their views on extension. Indeed, question 8 of the consultation questionnaire asks respondents to express a view on “other organisations or types of body which should be considered in future for inclusion”, which could include RSLs.  The consultation closes on 4 September 2015.  

Environmental information requests under EISR

Bodies included within an extension order will also be subject to the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004, which provide for a right of access to environmental information held by Scottish public authorities. While not subject to FOI, RSLs have been regarded as Scottish public authorities – and therefore subject to the Regulations – since June 2014, following a decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner.  

If your organisation is interested in submitting a response to the consultation, please contact Kelly Sleight.