The Housing Corporation, the quango responsible for distributing more than £2bn a year to housing associations, is refusing to disclose the results of an independent investigation into its problematic £17m IT modernisation programme.
The corporation has opposed an application from Computer Weekly under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose the results of an investigation by Methods Consulting which could offer valuable lessons for other major IT projects.
Computer Weekly lodged a complaint with the information commissioner this month, arguing that the Housing Corporation had wrongly approached the request by starting from the assumption that the report should not be disclosed. Computer Weekly argued that it should at least publish a redacted version under the FOI Act.
Computer Weekly has learned that the Housing Corporation sought advice from the Treasury solicitor's department on how to refuse any possible FOI applications within weeks of commissioning the Methods Consulting report.
Housing Corporation chief executive Jon Rouse, who inherited the application service provider (ASP) project when he joined the corporation in June 2004, asked officials to investigate the legal position that could be used to defend FOI Act requests, Computer Weekly has learned.
Months before any findings were known, the Housing Corporation's freedom of information officer Matthew Sabourin drafted a memo to executives detailing legal exemptions and public interest arguments that could be used in the event of an FOI request.
"The chief executive has asked me to look into possible exemptions in the FOI Act to disclosing the report," he subsequently wrote.
"I have identified a number of possible exemptions. It is very difficult to give specific advice at this stage because the complete findings of the report are not known."
The Housing Corporation claims that the contents of the Methods Consulting report, which was delivered in its final form in April last year, are so commercially sensitive that it is unable to publish even an edited version of the findings.
The corporation issued a formal response to Computer Weekly in January, arguing that publication of the report would damage its commercial interests and those of its former supplier, Elonex, and would inhibit the government's independent Gateway process for reviewing public sector IT projects.
The corporation also claimed that the report contains "personal information" that could impact the privacy of individuals.
Computer Weekly is challenging these arguments, and calling for the Housing Corporation to publish at least a redacted version of the report's findings.
The Housing Corporation's approach raised questions over whether officials are giving weight to the public interest arguments in favour of disclosure, said Dai Davies IT lawyer at commercial law firm Brooke North.
"The legislation requires the authority to determine whether to reveal information or not. They appear to have prejudged that issue by the arrangements they have put in place in advance not to release the information," he said.
The Housing Corporation said it did not want to comment on the FOI application. Gideon Wetrin, former CEO of Elonex, has also not commented.
Related article: Housing Corporation orders a review of £17m ASP IT project
Related article: Housing Corp ends Elonex contract
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This was first published in March 2007