It became a catchphrase during the Election TV debates and I haven’t found a lot to agree with Nick Clegg about since the coalition took over. But, just as Red Brick agreed with Grant Shapps when he made sensible remarks about the need for a period of stable and not inflationary house prices, now it is time to agree with Nick in his comments about the extension of the Freedom of Information legislation.
Labour had plans to extend the FoI to cover some additional agencies (such as University admissions services and the Association of Chief Police Officers) which the current government is also going to pursue, but Clegg spoke about going much further and my ears pricked up when ‘housing associations’ got a mention. Since FoI came in, we have had the strange position where the regulators (Housing Corporation then Tenant Services Authority) were covered by FoI but the organisations they regulated were not.
Clegg said that “Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account…… There are a whole range of organisations who benefit from public money and whose activities have a profound impact on the public good….. citizens must first know what goes on in these institutions. ”
It is Clegg’s suggestion that private bodies performing ‘functions of a public nature’ should be covered by FoI that catches housing associations – although careful definition will be required to avoid any suggestion that the change might trigger the re-classification of housing associations as public bodies (thereby running the risk that their loans – around £40bn – might transfer to the public sector balance sheet). The FoI Campaign has argued for years that private providers of health and social care and other public services should be subject to the Act – which contains safeguards around information that might be commercially sensitive. As Clegg says, there should be a simple rule that organisations that benefit from public money should be subject to public scrutiny.
I suspect that housing associations are probably no better and no worse than most bodies that are subject to the FoI already. But non-disclosure and a lack of public scrutiny can make organisations too cosy in their internal procedures, and then it is easy to fall into bad habits. Public scrutiny (especially through Inside Housing’s annual survey and league table) has made a difference to housing associations that had a penchant for paying over the odds for their senior staff. But I think they are often unnecessarily secretive, for example many do not publish routine information like non-confidential Board papers. Tenants often complain that they cannot get hold of financial and other information that council tenants get routinely from their landlords. And you hear the occasional story about Chief Executives’ expenses, posh dinners and trips abroad….. all of which should see the light of day.
I argued unsuccessfully to the TSA that the principles of FoI should be part of the new regulatory code, thereby avoiding the need for an extension of the legislation. That didn’t happen, and now regulation itself will be severely restricted (Clegg got that one wrong), so the only way forward is to extend the Act. The principle has to be right, the risks can be avoided, and I don’t accept the line that it will involve ‘too much work’. If it also helps change the culture of some HAs, it might have the added benefit of making the government’s plans for tenant scrutiny more effective.