The University of East Anglia broke the law by refusing to release data requested under the Freedom of Information Act by climate-change sceptics, a watchdog has ruled.
However, the laws were flouted too long ago to make prosecution possible in the case, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said.
The ruling is the latest twist in the saga that followed the hacking of more than 1,000 emails and papers from UEA’s Climatic Research Unit last year.
The hacked documents led to accusations that scientists had manipulated data to strengthen the case for man-made climate change. They also revealed that researchers were reluctant to co-operate with requests to release raw data for public scrutiny.
The ICO said today that the hacked emails show that requests for documents made under FoI laws in 2007-08 were not handled properly. The emails make clear that Philip Jones, the unit’s head, repeatedly tried to frustrate the FoI process, including advising colleagues to destroy data.
In a statement, the ICO says: “The FoI Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.
“But the legislation requires action within six months of the offence taking place, so by the time the action taken came to light the opportunity to consider a prosecution was long gone.” It says that it will seek a change in the law to address this point.
The commissioner’s office also says that UEA will be advised about the importance of effective records management and reminded of its legal obligations under the Act.
“We will also be studying the investigation reports… and we will then consider what regulatory action, if any, should be taken under the Data Protection Act,” it adds.
Norfolk police are investigating how the emails became public. UEA has also commissioned an independent review into the incident led by Sir Muir Russell, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow.
MPs on the Science and Technology Committee last week began their own inquiry, which includes an analysis of the scope of the Russell review.
UEA declined to comment on the ICO’s statement.
The vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia said on 28 January that the ruling by the ICO was a “grave concern”.
Edward Acton, who said he had learned of the judgment only from press reports, said: “We would always seek to comply with the terms of the FoI 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... I will act accordingly if he finds there is indeed substance in these allegations.”