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Information Commissioner urges proactive publication of fire safety records

The Information Commissioner has urged public organisations holding relevant fire risk assessments and other fire safety information to consider publishing these records proactively, “unless there is a good reason not to”.

Writing a blog for the ICO website in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Elizabeth Denham also confirmed she would press Parliament to extend the Freedom of Information Act to housing associations.

The Information Commissioner said the watchdog had started work to consider how councils and other public authorities could make fire safety information available now and in the future.

“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," she acknowledged.

“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 Information Commissioner said people had a right to know how their services and communities were run.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

She added that public bodies should not give worried residents cause to believe it would be months before they got the information they had asked for if they could 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,” Denham said.

“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.”

The Information Commissioner said public bodies should be mindful that some fire safety information might fall under the Environmental Information Regulations, which set 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,” she argued.

“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.”

Denham revealed that, after the Grenfell Tower fire, the ICO was reviewing its position in relation to its guidance on publication schemes, which does not specifically require the routine release of fire safety reports.

“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.”

She added that the ICO would also be looking at how social housing organisations could 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.”

Denham said she would address this issue in her forthcoming report to Parliament about extending the reach of FOI legislation.