2 August 2017
In the wake of tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire, public bodies are forced to look at all aspects of their roles and responsibilities.
They take a critical look at how they do things and evaluate how their practices can be improved.
My office is concerned with transparency. As the independent regulator of the Freedom of Information Act, my job is to ensure people have easy access to records they are entitled to see.
We have started work to consider how councils and other public authorities can make fire safety information available now and in the future. How they can be transparent.
Seven weeks on from the Grenfell fire, while many continue to come to terms with unimaginable personal loss, others are fighting battles on the information front.
People in many parts of the country are looking for reassurance of appropriate fire safety measures to prevent further tragedies elsewhere.
Others are looking for essential information to hold organisations to account as well as gaining a fuller understanding of the issues surrounding fire safety and decision-making related to social housing.
The repercussions for people living in social housing across the country have highlighted the significance of access to fire safety records in a way that few of us could have imagined a few months ago.
And that’s where transparency comes in. People have a right to know how their services and communities are run. And in an era when people are increasingly looking for answers, protecting this right to Freedom of Information (FOI) is a crucial part of my job.
There is likely to be a compelling public interest in releasing fire safety information as part of a Freedom of Information request. And I know there are councils and other public bodies that are meeting these requests.
But I am encouraging them to go further.
Unless there is a good reason not to, I urge public organisations holding relevant fire risk assessments and other fire safety information to consider publishing these records proactively.
Use your judgement. Be transparent. Don’t wait to be asked.
Where process is a mere barrier, bring it down. Don’t give worried residents cause to believe it will be months before they get the information they’ve asked for if you can make it readily available to everyone.
As a starting point, if public bodies are frequently disclosing information to people making individual FOI requests about fire safety records, they should think about proactive publication. Making information easily accessible to everyone.
If proactive publication is not feasible, it is still important that public authorities review any requested information carefully and bear in mind the weight that public interest arguments in favour of disclosure are likely to have.
They should be mindful that some fire safety information may fall under the Environmental Information Regulations, which sets out similar requirements to the FOI Act.
If an authority holds these types of records – particularly related to housing – it should conduct an audit of what it has and develop a plan of what it could routinely disclose in a long-term approach to improving transparency.
Of course there are sometimes specific reasons for withholding information in the public interest. There may need to be considerations about the impact of disclosing specific information related to criminal investigations or statutory inquiries, for example.
This is for the now. But I am also considering the future.
Most of us think of Freedom of Information in terms of requests put to us by the people we serve. But transparency is a two-way street and there is a requirement for public authorities to set out what information will be made routinely available through a document called a publication scheme.
I know that the ICO’s current guidance on publication schemes does not specifically require the routine release of fire safety reports, but my office is reviewing its position in the light of what happened at Grenfell Tower.
Transparency and the public interest are constantly shaped by changing contexts and the public bodies who effectively gain trust are the ones who adapt and change their approach.
We are analysing whether the publication schemes and associated definition documents for local and joint authorities should be updated to include information related to fire safety. We will consult with the relevant authorities as well as other expert stakeholders on this matter in the autumn. I recognise the importance of working with others as we move forward.
My office is also looking at the wider picture and how social housing organisations can be more transparent. For example, Housing Associations are currently not subject to Freedom of Information Act because the Act does not designate them as public bodies. It is clear to me that this is a significant gap in the public’s right to know.
I will address this issue in my forthcoming report to Parliament about extending the reach of FOI legislation.
Elizabeth Denham was appointed UK Information Commissioner on 15 July 2016, having previously held the position of Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, Canada.