Monday 19 August 2019

Housing body seeks to keep its files secret

'Sunday Independent' put public interest case

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

A state agency has launched High Court action to stop performance and governance reviews of housing associations from being made public.

The Housing Agency issued legal proceedings against the Information Commissioner which ordered it to release the reports to the Sunday Independent in the public interest.

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The unpublished reports assess the finances, governance and performance of the not-for-profit organisations approved by the government to supply and manage social housing, known as Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs).

The Government, under pressure to meet social housing targets, has invested enormously in not-for-profit housing associations to deliver and manage a third of Ireland's social housing stock by 2021. The country's 549 associations - known as approved housing bodies - receive millions in taxpayer funds but have as yet escaped statutory regulation.

Mandatory regulation is due this year. Meanwhile housing bodies were asked to sign up to voluntary regulation by the Housing Agency. However, four years after its introduction, only 272 of 549 have signed a voluntary regulation code. The code requires housing bodies to submit to "regulatory assessment reports" that appraise their financial practice, governance and their performance in delivering and managing housing. The Sunday Independent asked the Housing Agency in November 2017 to release 232 assessment reports under the Freedom of Information Act. The Housing Agency refused.

The Housing Agency argued that because regulation is voluntary, publishing information about approved housing bodies that have engaged with the agency puts them at a disadvantage with those that have not. The agency argued this may result in their "reduced engagement" and may "negatively impact on the management, governance and financial viability of the sector". The agency also argued the reports contained "overwhelmingly commercially sensitive" information and there was an "expectation" that they would be confidential.

The Sunday Independent appealed the decision to the Office of the Information Commissioner, narrowing its request to seven housing associations to facilitate the appeal. The Office of the Information Commissioner ruled last month that while commercial sensitivity applies, the public interest "weighs in favour of access".

A statement from the Housing Agency confirmed that it has appealed a decision of the Office of the Information Commissioner "in accordance with statutory procedure. The Agency awaits the outcome of this appeal".

The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, said the Housing Agency was independent of his department and decisions were a matter for its board. "The Housing Agency is independent as regulator of our housing bodies. A statutory regulatory system will be in place later this year to further bolster controls already in place and ensure there is continued transparency in the sector," the minister said.

The Housing Agency has said that in the last round of assessments, 83pc of regulated AHBs reported high level of compliance. But the lack of public oversight of housing associations has been criticised by the State spending watchdog, while public representatives have complained that they are not accountable to local authorities. An analysis of approved housing bodies for the Oireachtas last year found that some non-for-profit housing associations did not comply with mandatory financial reporting rules. It found that 42 housing bodies on the department's register had actually been dissolved or struck off.

Sunday Independent

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