Committee says govt should review time limit for prosecutions under s. 77 of the FOI Act

The Science and Technology Committee has published its report on the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. The report recommends that the Government should review the current six month time limit for prosecuting an offence under section 77 of the Act, which makes it an offence to deliberately destroy, alter or conceal a record after it has been requested with the intention of preventing disclosure. This is an issue which the Campaign for Freedom of Information has previously raised and was taken up by Lord Dubs who attempted to make an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill in July 2009 to extend the limit.

If the Minister was correct to assert in July 2009 that the Government had no evidence that the current six-month time limit presents a systemic problem, then it is now clear that such evidence exists. Irrespective of whether or not CRU breached the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we recommend that the Government review the operation of section 77 of the 2000 Act and the six month limit on the initiation of prosecutions provided by section 127(1) of the Magistrates Court Act 1980. (Paragraph 95) 

The report also recommends:

We regret that the ICO made a statement to the press that went beyond that which it could substantiate and that it took over a month for the ICO properly to put the record straight. We recommend that the ICO develop procedures to ensure that its public comments are checked and that mechanisms exist to swiftly correct any mis-statements or misinterpretations of such statements. (Paragraph 91)

There is prima facie evidence that CRU has breached the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would, however, be premature, without a thorough investigation affording each party the opportunity to make representations, to conclude that UEA was in breach of the Act. In our view, it is unsatisfactory to leave the matter unresolved simply because of the operation of the six-month time limit on the initiation of prosecutions. Much of the reputation of CRU hangs on the issue. We conclude that the matter needs to be resolved conclusively—either by the Independent Climate Change Email Review or by the Information Commissioner. (Paragraph 93)  

We have already recommended in paragraph 54 above that in future information, including data and methodology, should be published proactively on the internet wherever possible. However, a culture of withholding information—from those perceived by CRU to be hostile to global warming—appears to have pervaded CRU’s approach to FOIA requests from the outset. We consider this to be unacceptable. (Paragraph 103)

We cannot reach a firm conclusion on the basis of the evidence we took but we must put on record our concern about the manner in which UEA allowed CRU to handle FOIA requests. Further, we found prima facie evidence to suggest that the UEA found ways to support the culture at CRU of resisting disclosure of information to climate change sceptics. The failure of UEA to grasp fully the potential damage to CRU and UEA by the non-disclosure of FOIA requests was regrettable. UEA needs to review its policy towards FOIA and re-assess how it can support academics whose expertise in this area is limited. (Paragraph 104)

Download the report here.

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