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Commissioner welcomes new FOI rights in the social housing sector

From 11th November 2019, housing associations and many of their subsidiaries will be subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

It means that tenants, stakeholders and others will have a right to request and receive information they hold and a right of appeal to the Commissioner if they are unhappy with the response.

This follows an Order laid in April of this year to designate Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) and their subsidiaries as "public authorities" under Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

FOI law will apply to all RSLs and many of their subsidiaries. However, FOI won't apply to all the activities of these organisations. FOI rights will only apply to information RSLs and subsidiaries hold in relation to the following functions:

  •  the prevention and alleviation of homelessness
  • the management of social housing accommodation (i.e. where an RSL has granted a Scottish secure tenancy of short Scottish secure tenancy)
  • the provision and management of sites for gypsies and travellers.

In addition, the supply of information to the Scottish Housing Regulator about financial well-being and standards of governance is also covered by FOI.  Certain work areas, therefore, don't fall under the FOI Order. This includes the provision of services for owners and occupiers of houses (e.g. private factoring services), or the management of private or mid-market rental accommodation.   

Why is this important?

Bringing RSLs under the remit of FOI legislation represents an extension of rights to access information for people across Scotland, but also, for some, the provision of rights previously lost. Within the social housing sector, some landlords were subject to FOI law and others were not.  For example, local government housing services, as part of their parent councils, were subject to FOI law, while RSLs, including housing associations and housing co-operatives, were not.

This meant that tenants of former local authority housing lost their FOI rights if their tenancies transferred from local authorities to RSLs.  It wasn’t just tenants or prospective tenants: communities, interest and political groups and academics lost their right of access to the information they need to understand and engage with the RSL sector.

An IPSOS Mori poll commissioned by the Scottish Information Commissioner in 2013 asked respondents " To what extent do you agree or disagree with the [FOI] Act being extended to cover housing associations?" In response, support was very high:

  • 79% agreed: 47% strongly, 32% tended to
  • 5% neither agreed nor disagreed
  • 11% disagreed: 6% tended to, 5% strongly
  • 5% didn't know

FOI law strengthens citizen participation in decision-making. By providing information to the public, whether by proactive publication or in response to a request, FOI can also build public trust. It promotes accountability and transparency in the way business is done, money is spent and services are provided.

What does this actually mean?

For RSLs and their subsidiaries, it means that they are under a legal obligation to respond to requests, to proactively publish information and to advise and assist requesters. The Commissioner has spent the last few months working with the sector to help it prepare for its new FOI obligations, with tools, workshops and online resources. The Commissioner will continue to provide advice and guidance for all Scottish public authorities subject to the Act, as well as enforce the legislation.

For members of the public, it means that they now have legally enforceable rights to access information held by Registered Social Landlords and their subsidiaries. Use this website to find out more about how to exercise your rights and if you are not sure whether or not a particular organisation is covered, either ask them, or you can contact the Commissioner's office for advice.

 

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