AS the debate about whether housing associations (HAs) – which deliver much of our public housing – should be covered by our freedom of information law heats up, it has exposed other anomalies in the openness of our public services.
Tenants have raised a petition calling for HAs to be subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) and the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) supports that and continues to urge extending coverage to all service providers. The Scottish Information Commissioner in her report FOI Ten Years On said: “The rights to access information have diminished and in some areas, such as some social housing, have been lost.”
It is disappointing that housing associations continue to resist inclusion under the FOI umbrella. This runs contrary to their continuing claims about how transparent they are. Only FOI gives us all an enforceable right to ask for information on our public services.
But the debate over HAs points to a wider problem. Currently they could only be so included by an order declaring them to be subject to FOISA. The only time that this provision has been used since lobbying got HAs removed from FOISA after the bill came out of committee in 2002 was a recent move to bring local council arms-length culture and leisure trusts into coverage.
One extension in ten years!
As the types of organisations delivering our public services broaden – from PFI contractors, via voluntary care bodies, to a plethora of “partnerships” of various constitutions – this slow and cumbersome type of extension is no longer fit for purpose.
During FOISA’s passage though Parliament, CFoIS argued that the legislation should cover public service functions rather than public sector bodies, along the lines outlined in the original consultation document An Open Scotland.
It is now time to adopt that approach.
• Chris Bartter deals with communications for the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland and was formerly communications officer for Unison Scotland