UEA vs ICO – Epic Fail

There has always been a significant concern regarding the probity of the FOI responses from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Climate Research Unit (CRU) to FOI requests for data and other materials related to its work and published peer reviewed papers. The CRU previously directed by Prof. Phil Jones who has stepped down from the post pending investigation into the now famously know ‘Climategate’ is under inquiry from the House of Commons. In a submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the disclosure of climate data from UAE, the UEA made the following statement at point 3.7.6:

On 22 January 2010, the Information Commissioner’s Office ICO) released a statement to a journalist, which was widely misinterpreted in the media as a finding by the ICO that UEA had breached Section 77 of the FOIA by withholding raw data. A subsequent letter to UEA from the ICO (29 January 2010) indicated that no breach of the law has been established; that the evidence the ICO had in mind about whether there was a breach was no more than prima facie; and that the FOI request at issue did not concern raw data but private email exchanges.

Unfortunately, what the ICO letter really said was, in part,:

…the ICO has been alerted by the complainant and by information already in the public domain via the media, to a potential offence under section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act. The prima facie evidence from the published emails indicate an attempt to defeat disclosure by deleting information. It is hard to imagine more cogent prima facie evidence…In the event, the matter cannot be taken forward because of the statutory time limit.

The letter, signed by the Deputy Commissioner Graham Smith further stated:

 “I can confirm that the ICO will not be retracting the statement …The fact that the elements of a section 77 offence may have been found here, but cannot be acted on because of the elapsed time, is a very serious matter.  The ICO is not resiling from its position on this.”

Here is part of what the UEA has now posted on its own web site:

Thu, 28 Jan 2010

The University of East Anglia has released the following statement from the Vice-Chancellor Professor Edward Acton.

“The University learnt yesterday that the Information Commissioner’s Office (the ICO) had made a statement to the media regarding the University’s handling of requests under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).  We have not received any further information from the ICO although we are urgently trying to contact them.  The ICO’s opinion that we had breached the terms of Section 77 is a source of grave concern to the University as we would always seek to comply with the terms of the Act.  During this case we have sought the advice of the ICO and responded fully to any requests for information.

“Sir Muir Russell is currently conducting an Independent Review of the issues surrounding what has become known as ‘Climategate’ and we very deliberately made our handling of FOI requests part of the terms of reference.  I look forward to receiving his report and as I have said before it will be published and I will act accordingly if he finds there is indeed substance in these allegations.”

Ben Webster, Environmental Editor of the Times Online has written a scathing piece, including the following:

Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat member of the Science and Technology Committee, said: “It seems unwise, at best, for the University of East Anglia to attempt to portray a letter from the Information Commissioner’s Office in a good light, in evidence to the select committee, because it is inevitable that the Committee will find that letter, and notice any discrepancy. It would be a wiser course for the university not to provide any suspicion that they might be seeking to enable the wrong impression to be gained.”

It would appear, at first blush, that the tendency to hide and obfuscate extends beyond just the CRU and may well go all the way to the top of the UEA hierarchy.

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