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Info commissioner finds saintly CRU crew guilty

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Climatic Research Unit director Phil Jones was being whisked back to his desk at the University of East Anglia by the University's Russell enquiry yesterday.

But with exquisite timing, the Information Commissioner's office chose the same day to confirm that CRU had twice broken the Freedom of Information regulations - once by ignoring the request, and twice by refusing the actual data. The breaches carry a civil penalty.

More is to come, as this was one of four complaints by David Holland under consideration by the ICO, which adjudicates on both FOI requests and EIRs, or Environmental Information Regulations. Other bodies include the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Met Office.

Bodies involved in the IPCC's procedures are obliged to "ensure that the assessment was undertaken on a comprehensive objective open and transparent basis; … ensure that all written expert and government review comments were retained in an open archive for a period of at least 5 years, and ensure that Review Editors who supervised the assessment submitted a 'written report' - by the IPCC's own rules.

The Met Office initially responded to Holland by claiming that it had destroyed the data - it had kept no working papers and no correspondence. Then the Met changed its excuse. It said it hadn't destroyed the data - but that its Director of Climate Science John Mitchell OBE (who has since left the Met) was conducting his work as Review Editor for the IPCC in a personal capacity, and so it wouldn't say what he was doing.

When it emerged that the taxpayer had paid for Mitchell to perform his work for the IPCC (the Met even met his expenses), the excuse for refusal changed once more, claming it wasn't in the public interest.

Holland tried again, under EIR Regulation 11, hoping for a speedier result than the prevarication with which public bodies meet FOI requests. Under FOI they can stall until they are no longer obliged to disclose the information. CRU refused to provide the reviewers' comments outright.

The Met stalled, at first refusing to consider the request under EIR rules, then claiming a loophole, regulation 2(1) that "These archiving and contribution procedures, instructions and correspondence are administrative information and not environmental information"

The UEA claimed the same loophole as the Met. In yesterday's ruling, the ICO reminded UEA that the 2(1) could not be interpreted so narrowly, and that public bodies had to interpret it as widely as possible. His notes are here.

The damning archive of emails, source code and station data was called FOIA.ZIP, and is believed to have been to have been compiled by an insider.

In January, the ICO said it had prima facie evidence that CRU academics had broken the law - repeatedly promising to evade requests and asking colleagues to remove data that Holland had requested. The evasion began in 2005, long before the trickle of polite requests became a deluge last year. In one case, Jones even requested Briffa to delete data the very day after one of Holland's requests.

Remarkably, the Russell inquiry did not ask Jones whether he deleted any email. Russell's report cites two of the most damning deletion requests, then declares: "There seems clear incitement to delete emails, although we have seen no evidence of any attempt to delete information in respect of a request already made."

One of the inquiry team, Lancet editor Richard Horton declared in a newspaper article that this would be the "final inquiry". He's either being hasty, or optimistic. MP Graham Stringer described the Russell inquiry as inadequate and called for Parliament to re-open an investigation. ®

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