The Information Commissioner's office wants to plug a loophole in the UK’s sunshine laws, after academics at the centre of the ‘Climategate’ scandal at the University of East Anglia escaped prosecution on a technicality.
The ICO has said the Climatic Research Unit breached Section 77 of the Act - the so-called "shredding offence" - by failing to comply with requests to hand over data made in 2007 and 2008.
Because CRU delayed releasing the information for more than six months, they evaded prosecution. Prevarication pays, it seems, because "the legislation requires action after six months", the office told The Times.
“The ICO is gathering evidence from this and other time-barred cases to support the case for a change in the law,” a staffer told the paper. Internal FOIA procedures may take six months to process internally, before a requester can refer the matter to the ICO.
The FOIA requests were submitted by UK citizen David Holland and the trail of excuses is recounted here.
CRU's prevarication couldn't be clearer.
CRU director Phil Jones writes of refusing FOIA requests on principle, regardless of validity, because they would aid critics of the manmade global warming hypothesis. Jones also instructed his team to release as little as possible.
"We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind," Jones wrote in 2005.
Later he indicates that he coached the University's FOIA team:
"When the FOI requests began here, the FOI person said we had to abide by the requests. It took a couple of half hour sessions - one at a screen, to convince them otherwise showing them what CA was all about. Once they became aware of the types of people we weredealing with, everyone at UEA (in the registry and in the Environmental Sciences school - the head of school and a few others) became very supportive," he emailed American colleagues.
Attempts to close the loophole have been made before.
"Section 77 is a very difficult section to use. You've got to prove intent, which is difficult, and you've got the six-months limit," the ICO tells the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum, who describes earlier attempts to get the six month statute of limitations lifted.
The Times was following up a story by Andrew Montford, better known for the blog Bishop Hill, and author of a new book on the Hockey Stick scandal.
The leaked emails are widely believed to be the work of an insider in response to the delaying tactics. Data was collected up to a couple of days before a FOIA request was formally declined, and then released in an archive called FOIA.ZIP.
Perhaps seeking to repair its environmental reporting credibility - after a recent ad campaign made misleading claims - The Times put the story on its front page. But it felt it necessary to haul in one of the UK's most senior warmists, Vicky Pope of the Met Office's Hadley Centre, to assure that there was nothing to see, the science was sound, scientists were "human", and it was all a clumsy choice of words.
Bless her. She thinks she's helping. ®