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Climategate: the email trail

By Katie Razzall, Channel 4 News

Updated on 28 January 2010

The Information Commissioner has said that the University of East Anglia, which is at the centre of the 'climategate' row, broke the law when its scientists refused to hand over raw data requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

Smoke clouds above chimneys

These scientists were already under attack for emails that emerged, appearing to show them attempting to hide data that went against the scientific consensus, that climate change is man-made.

Now further emails have emerged which show Dr Phil Jones, the director of the university's climatic research unit, refusing to comply with Freedom of Information requests.

In one damning email, he wrote to a colleague: "Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Keith will do likewise."

In another he wrote: "If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone. We also have a data protection act, which I can hide behind."

The Information Commissioner's Office told Channel 4 News that the requests made to Dr Jones's unit for data "were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information."

The office said that a case like this would usually be prosecuted through the magistrates courts and could lead to a fine of up to £5,000.

However, the requests for data to UEA were sent in 2007/8. The responses only came to light when a hacker posted emails from the Climatic Research Unit on the web at the end of last year. Prosecutions can only take place within six months of the offence, so the ICO says it cannot act.

However, this afternoon Professor Edward Acton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia told Channel 4 News that they had only heard about the ICO's decision from the media.  He said they have been "urgently trying to contact" the ICO for further information. 

"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."

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