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Consultation on Extending the Coverage of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002

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E: Glasgow Housing Association

1. Organisation considered for coverage

1.1 Glasgow Housing Association ( GHA) is Scotland's largest housing association, is unique in terms of scale and has a high political and media profile. It is currently landlord to just under 57,000 tenants (though we note the potential for a further 27 second stage transfers ( SST) this financial year to further reduce the number of GHA tenants to under 40,000). GHA is regulated by the Scottish Housing Regulator ( SHR), is an Industrial and Provident Society and a registered charity. It also operates in the spirit of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

2. The case for extending coverage

2.1 We note that the registered social landlord ( RSL) sector has developed largely independently of the state and raises private finance to supplement public investment. However, we also consider that RSLs exercise functions of a public nature for the purposes of the Act - as highlighted in section 2 above.

2.2 The functions of RSLs are underpinned by statute in terms of sections 58(2) and 58(3) of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 (though we note that the Housing Bill currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament may require us to make consequential amendments as necessary in line with any equivalent provisions that may be introduced). Sections 58(2)&(3) set out the criteria for registration as a social landlord and certain conditions that a social landlord must fulfil such as providing, constructing, improving or managing houses available for letting etc. In addition to this statutory basis, while the majority of funding comes from private sources, RSLs receive significant amounts of public funding.

2.3 We note that at present, the anomalous situation exists whereby the right to access information on a particular service varies depending on the nature of the service provider e.g. whether the landlord is a local authority (and so information can be requested under the Act), or an RSL (and so the Act does not apply). We do though also note that Glasgow transferred its housing stock before the relevant legislation came into effect and therefore GHA tenants did not as such lose their right to request information under the Act - as is the case with subsequent transfers.

2.4 While RSLs vary greatly in terms of scale and constitution Glasgow Housing Association is unique among Scottish RSLs in terms of its size and public profile. Therefore, due to a combination of the functions performed by GHA, its size and general public interest, we consider that formal coverage would demonstrate openness and at the same time remove the anomaly of lack of coverage.

Would coverage enhance transparency and accountability?

2.5 Extending coverage of the Act to GHA would allow tenants, or indeed anyone, to request information directly from GHA - and for the first time to ultimately have recourse to the Scottish Information Commissioner. Formal coverage would also require GHA to produce a Publication Scheme and proactively consider the publication of information.

2.6 It should though be noted that RSLs including GHA are already subject to a large degree of regulation and oversight e.g. from the Scottish Housing Regulator, the Charities Regulator, the Financial Services Association and the Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman. Moreover, a significant amount of information is already available, both from the Scottish Housing Regulator - and from GHA itself including annual accounts and minutes along with a variety of other documentation.

2.7 When releasing information in response to FOI requests, the Scottish Housing Regulator recognises that it will usually be of interest to the wider public in addition to the original applicant. As such, it will make it available via its disclosure log. Information released in response to requests received, including those concerning GHA, can therefore be seen on the SHR disclosure log.

2.8 We would also note that the Housing Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament gives the SHR powers to obtain from a social landlord any information it considers relevant to its inquiries under Part 4 of the Bill. It would be a criminal offence for a landlord to fail to comply with such a request for information.

Would coverage be measured and proportionate?

2.9 We acknowledge that extending coverage potentially increases the regulatory administrative burden on GHA. However, we also note the size of GHA and the fact that it already operates within the spirit of the legislation. We consider therefore that GHA could reasonably be expected to have the capacity to handle the demands of coverage. We do not intend, however, to extend coverage to those Local Housing Organisations ( LHOs) considering second stage transfers from GHA (nor those that have already transferred).

2.10 We also note that the Housing (Scotland) Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament provides for a Scottish Social Housing Charter. This will be developed through extensive consultation with tenants, landlords and other stakeholders to set the outcomes that social landlords should be delivering consistently for all tenants.

2.11 One of the areas for which an outcome could be set is around registered social landlords providing access to information about their work. The aim of this could be to ensure that RSLs make the same kinds of information available as local authority landlords (although of course it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of any consultation on the subject).

3. Conclusion

3.1 In principle, we favour extending the public's right to know to organisations delivering key public services, ensuring a uniform right of access to information. We note that significant information is already available from RSLs and the SHR, as well as the intention to introduce a Social Housing Charter. However, on balance, in the interests of openness and transparency, we consider that extension of coverage to GHA, due to its scale and profile, should be fully explored.

3.2 The Scottish Government is aware of concerns about the possible burdens of being subject to the Act. The Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment looks at this in more detail and draws some initial conclusions about any additional burden. We are particularly mindful of the importance of establishing whether coverage would place undue financial pressures upon bodies at a time of economic difficulties. Responses to this consultation will therefore provide key evidence for concluding whether extending the coverage and creating additional regulatory or financial requirements would be appropriate and proportionate. A final conclusion will not be reached by Scottish Ministers until the consultation has concluded.

4. Consultation

4.1 We invite comments on any of the points made above, and also on the Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment at Annex B which discusses the possible impact on extending coverage to the bodies concerned.

In particular we invite you to consider the following:

  • Are there any factual inaccuracies in this analysis?
  • Is there a case either for or against extending coverage to GHA that you wish to make?
  • Are you able to provide any evidence to support your arguments?
  • Are there other points you wish to make, particularly on the partial Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment at Annex B?