Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:11 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 7:11 pm, 23rd July 2019

My Lords, I first remind the House of my interests in the register in connection with the Local Government Association. I thank my noble friend Lord McNally for tabling this Question for Short Debate and, like my noble friend Lord Scriven, I give him my full support.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has proved itself by adding a direct means for scrutiny of public authorities by the general public and not just by elected politicians. The Burns report of 2016 found that transparency and openness had been enhanced since 2000 and recommended that it should be further enhanced and not restricted.

Last month marked the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire. Grenfell United, in its parliamentary briefing for that anniversary, made seven recommendations, one of which was about freedom of information. It called for,

“an extension of the Freedom of Information Act to cover TMOs”— tenant management organisations—

“and housing associations, to give tenants the right to see critical information about their homes”.

It seems a basic right for a tenant to have that information and it puzzles me that tenants can be excluded from information that is directly relevant to them.

The context is the failure of successive Governments since 2000 to strengthen the Act. It has limitations and it has fallen behind many other countries. As we have heard, the Information Commissioner has estimated that a third of government spending is used to procure public services. The problem is that more and more services have been provided by contractors who are not accountable under FoI, as the public might expect them to be. The test is whether the contract between the contractor and the public authority gives the authority the power to get the information it wants under the contract: that is, does the contractor hold the information for the purposes of the public authority or for its own purposes? On too many occasions, unfortunately, information that the public might feel they have a right to know is being denied to them. For example, it appears that fire safety defects can be excluded. This cannot be right. Contractors should not be less accountable than the public bodies that used to provide the same services directly.

It is not just PFI or other contractors; it is tenant management organisations as well. In relation to Grenfell, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation had refused FoI requests on the grounds that it was not a public authority. I find that amazing, but it is true. But worse, the Information Commissioner upheld a refusal in 2012. However, after that appeal process, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation did respond to some tenant requests for information—but in July 2017 it then refused an FoI request for a report on the emergency lighting system in Grenfell Tower that had been written in 2005. Surely it cannot be right to refuse tenants information of this kind.

The Government need to amend the law. Information of important benefit to the general public should not be withheld from them when it would be available if the public authority had not contracted out the work. The Burns report of 2016 concluded that this was the right approach. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently concluded likewise and the Information Commissioner, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord McNally, has called for similar changes. So, the question must be: what is the hold-up? The consequence of delay is doubt and avoidance. In the case of housing associations, it is wrong that their tenants are not able to access the same information council tenants can get.

Two years ago, the housing journal Inside Housing asked more than 60 housing associations for copies of their fire risk assessments. Very few responded. Councils would have had to. I understand that this difference is in the process of being addressed in Scotland. Might we do the same in England? It does not follow that housing associations will have to be redesignated as public organisations if they fall within the FoI remit. This is, as my noble friend Lord McNally said a moment ago, a different world from 2000, but it is the case now that FoI laws are no longer fit for purpose and I hope the Government will act.