No Climategate FoI prosecutions
I’ve just come off the phone to the investigations office at the Information Commissioner’s office. I had made a request for information to UEA that, while only peripherally related to Climategate, has now turned up some interesting new information.
My original request was from a couple of years ago, asking for any correspondence between the CRU’s Mike Hulme and the BBC in relation to a body called the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme (see here for some background on this story). The original response from UEA was that all Prof Hulme’s emails prior to 2005 had been lost, an admission that appears rather embarrassing in the light of CRU’s suggestion that they had lost some of their original temperature data.
However, when the Climategate emails were released I noticed several email from Mike Hulme predating 2005, which appeared to contradict the earlier assertion that all such emails had been lost. Intrigued, I wrote to the Information Commissioner asking that this be investigated and today I had my response.
First off, I was told that while there appeared to be a problem, I needed to be clear that there would be no prosecutions under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, regardless of the final outcome of the investigation. Although withholding or destroying information is a criminal offence under the terms of the Act, apparently no prosecutions can be brought for offences committed more than six months prior. As anyone who has made a UK FoI request knows, it can take six months to exhaust the internal review process before the ICO even becomes involved. The ICO can then take another six months before starting his investigation.
The upshot is that the FoI Act’s section allowing criminal prosecutions is to all intents and purposes a dead letter and the ICO officer actually volunteered this conclusion himself – “the Act is flawed” was the way he put it. The ICO is apparently going to take this up with the Ministry of Justice, which is fine but will be of little help for those who are interested in seeing justice done.
It seems quite clear that civil servants are able to withhold and destroy information without any consequences and it’s interesting to ponder how such a dramatic flaw can have found its way into the terms of the Act. Of course we in the UK are used to poorly drafted laws finding their way onto the statute books, but we might also consider the thought that Sir Humphrey might have knowingly inserted this crucial error, in order to ensure that when push came to shove he could keep things quiet without any concerns that he might find himself in hot water.
Conspiracy theory? Perhaps, but you have to admit, it’s a possibility.