CRU emails reveal inconvenient truths about FOI

There has been quite a storm raging on the blogosphere over the last few days about a large batch of emails, climate data and other information that has allegedly been leaked or hacked from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. It's not in the TPA's field or remit to go into the scientific debate but one aspect of the published correspondence is very much on our patch, and it is very revealing.


If the emails are to be believed, then it seems that the scientists at the CRU have been waging a running battle against releasing any information under the Freedom of Information Act. A number of people had been making requests for the release of their data and correspondence - a legitimate target for an FoI, particularly given the large amounts of taxpayers' money flowing into the CRU, the controversy of the topic and the sizeable impact on public policy that the Unit seeks to have.


For the requesters, the responses of the CRU seem to have been frustrating but standard - rejections of their requests on the varied grounds of commercial confidentiality, excessive time involved in gathering the data and pernickety definitional issues.


The emails reveal the horrendous attitude of the CRU towards these requests behind the scenes, and their furious efforts to defy and even break the FoI Act.


Here are a couple of key quotes:


Professor Phil Jones, Director of the CRU, explains how he lobbied to overturn UEA's FoI Officer's instruction to answer FoI requests and schmoozed the person responsible for FoI appeals:


"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 [a popular "sceptic" website] was all about. Once they became aware of the types of people we were dealing with, everyone at UEA (in the registry and in the Environmental Sciences school - the head of school and a few others) became very supportive. I've got to know the FOI person quite well and the Chief Librarian - who deals with appeals. The VC [Vice Chancellor] is also aware of what is going on - at least for one of the requests, but probably doesn't know the number we're dealing with."


Prof Jones's colleague, Prof. Keith Briffa - who is a Reader at the CRU - spells out their attitude towards Freedom of Information quite neatly:


"I have been of the opinion right from the start of these FOI requests, that our private ,
inter-collegial discussion is just that - PRIVATE. Your communication with individual
colleagues was on the same basis as that for any other person and it discredits the IPCC
process not one iota not to reveal the details. On the contrary, submitting to these
"demands" undermines the wider scientific expectation of personal confidentiality . It is
for this reason, and not because we have or have not got anything to hide, that I believe
none of us should submit to these "requests"."


This is of course absolutely disgraceful behaviour on the part of these academics and their institution. They might have felt this was an imposition or an invasion, and they may have felt that their research should have been out of the grubby grasp of the general public, but the law is clear.


This is a rare insight into the attitude within many public bodies towards transparency, and the refusal to accept the principle of the FoIA is undoubtedly all too common. While the people and the media love FoI for the power it disseminates, those who have lost their privileged status still resent it deeply.


Even more serious than their appalling attitude is the instruction by Prof Jones to his colleagues to delete emails that are apparently subject to an FoI request.


On May 29th 2008, Prof Jones instructs colleagues to delete emails in a message helpfully titled "IPCC & FOI":


"Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise. He's not in at the moment - minor family crisis. Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don't have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise."


AR4 is an IPCC report that Keith Briffa and others at the CRU worked on together, and at least one FoI request on exactly this correspondence had apparently been submitted by a David Holland on May 5th 2008.


The Freedom of Information Act 2000 expressly forbids - on pain of criminal conviction - destroying information that has been requested under FoI. As the Information Commissioner puts it:


If information is held when a FOIA request is received, destroying it outside of your normal records management policies will result in a breach of the Act. You must confirm that you hold the information and consider disclosure, subject to any exemption. It will also be a criminal offence to conceal or destroy information if this is done with the intention of preventing disclosure under either FOIA or EIR.


This offence is punishable with a fine of up to £5,000.


Tellingly, another email from Prof Jones later that year shows that UEA's internal FoI team had evidently become concerned about his secretive actions:


"I did get an email from the FOI person here early yesterday to tell me I shouldn't be deleting emails"


If the FoI team were concerned that Prof Jones might be breaking the law - and even committing a criminal offence - on an area that they are legally responsible for, they should have reported him to the Information Commissioner. Perhaps his flowering relationship with the FoI officer and the Chief Librarian precluded this.


Happily, he's never tried to become matey with us, so we're reporting him and his colleagues to the Information Commissioner this afternoon.


Irrespective of how important your subject area is, what your views on the topic might be, or how much you dislike the person making the request, Freedom of Information is too valuable and too important to just be ridden over roughshod like this.

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