The University of East Anglia broke the law when dealing with requests for climate data, according to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.
A statement from the office says emails leaked or stolen from the university’s Climatic Research Unit reveal that Freedom of Information requests “were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation”.
Despite it being an offence under the UK’s freedom of information laws to intentionally prevent the disclosure of requested information, any misdeeds occurred too long ago for the commissioner to take action. “The legislation requires action within six months of the offence taking place, so by the time the action taken came to light the opportunity to consider a prosecution was long gone,” says the statement.
Both the university and Parliament’s science select committee have announced inquires into the so-called ‘Climate-gate’ emails. A major aspect of these is the suggestion that the emails reveal a deliberate attempt by researchers to resist FOI requests and prevent the release of data.
Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the time of the emails, has always denied wrongdoing. Jones has stepped down from his CRU post while the university inquiry takes place.
David Holland, the man who submitted many of the requests and complained to the Information Commissioner, told the Times, “There is an apparent Catch-22 here. The prosecution has to be initiated within six months but you have to exhaust the university’s complaints procedure before the commission will look at your complaint. That process can take longer than six months.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office says it is gathering evidence to push for a change in the law on time-barred cases.
A statement from the university is expected shortly. UPDATE: Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of UEA, said in a statement, “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.”