Scottish ministers have postponed plans to restore freedom of information rights to thousands of housing association tenants, prompting accusations of “broken promises”.
Government officials have disclosed that there has been “slippage” in the timetable for extending freedom of information (FoI) law to cover Scotland’s 160 housing associations.
The planned implementation date of 1 April 2019 “will not be met”, officials told a recent meeting of the Scottish Public Information Forum in Dundee. The change was originally promised in 2002, then scheduled for 1 April 2018 but delayed to 2019.
Since 2005 at least 15,000 households have lost their rights to request information from their landlords since ownership of their homes was transferred from local authorities to housing associations, known as registered social landlords (RSLs).
Campaigners, backed by successive Scottish information Commissioners, have been pressing successive governments to restore these rights. But housing associations have resisted the move, expressing concerns about costs and timescales.
The current government has agreed to extend FoI law to include RSLs, but has now put the implementation date back twice. Officials have also suggested that information rights may not be extended to RSL subsidiaries providing factoring, nursery or other services.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFOIS) and the trade union, Unison, have now written to the parliamentary business minister, Graeme Dey MSP, protesting about the delays.
“We regret that promises made, and accepted in good faith by ourselves, have been repeatedly broken,” the letter said. It argued that all RSL subsidiaries should be included “to make the enforceable right to access information robust”.
Further delay was “unacceptable,” the letter argued. “There is an established track record of ministers making promises that RSLs would be covered by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act and nothing happening.”
CFOIS convener, Carole Ewart, attributed the delays to “broken promises” by successive governments. “This is a story about empowering people to exercise their human rights,” she told The Ferret.
“We fear the failure to deliver is due to a culture and practice of sidelining the enforceable right to access information.”
Ewart said: “The surreptitious weakening of rights, frequently used by community groups and individuals on issues of local and national importance, is counter-productive as it breeds distrust which is unhelpful in a modern democracy.”
FoI law would give housing association tenants and prospective tenants rights to request information on rent levels, repairs and waiting lists. Council tenants have such rights as local authorities are covered by the law.
People are made of stories, not atoms. Mike Kirby, Unison
Unison warned that FoI had been undermined by the outsourcing of public services such as housing to other bodies. “The Scottish Information Commissioner said that information rights should follow the public pound – Unison agrees,” said the union’s Scottish secretary, Mike Kirby.
“FoI should be extended to cover all public services, however they are delivered. Housing association tenants and the general public have had to wait far too long on RSLs, with failed promises along the way.”
He added: “Our members in the housing sector have said that it can be difficult to get important information, including details of crucial health and safety standards to protect residents. FoI law must apply across the board.”
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) has been lobbying ministers to delay the implementation date to 2020 and to limit its application. “SFHA has asked that enough time be afforded to the sector to allow for effective implementation,” said head of public affairs, Sarah Boyack.
“We had suggested April 2020 as a more realistic target date for implementation, although a minimum of one year will be required from the point the order is finalised. It is important to highlight that this is by far the largest sector to have FoI extended to it in this way.”
Boyack added: “SFHA is already in discussions with the Scottish Information Commissioner about a programme of training and additional guidance to help our members implement the FoI requirements once finalised. SFHA has also made representations to the Scottish Government to highlight that only the public functions of RSLs should be subject to the legislation.”
The Scottish Government stressed it was committed to extending FoI law to RSLs “and their subsidiaries in so far as they are considered to undertake functions of a public nature.”
A spokesperson said: “We anticipate laying an order very shortly having fully considered all issues raised during the consultation process.”