The university at the centre of the climate change row over stolen e-mails has been accused of making a misleading statement to Parliament.
The University of East Anglia wrote this week to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee giving the impression that it had been exonerated by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). However, the university failed to disclose that the ICO had expressed serious concerns that one of its professors had proposed deleting information to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act.
Professor Phil Jones, director of the university’s Climatic Research Unit, has stepped down while an inquiry takes place into allegations that he manipulated data to avoid scrutiny of his claims that manmade emissions were causing global warming. Professor Edward Acton, the university’s vice-chancellor, published a statement he sent to the committee before giving evidence to MPs at a public hearing on Monday. He said a letter from the ICO “indicated that no breach of the law has been established [and] that the evidence the ICO had in mind about whether there was a breach was no more than prima facie”.
But the ICO’s letter said: “The prima facie evidence from the published e-mails indicate an attempt to defeat disclosure by deleting information. It is hard to imagine more cogent prima facie evidence.”
The letter also confirmed the ICO’s previous statement that the university had failed in its duties under the Freedom of Information Act by rejecting requests for data. The university had demanded that the ICO withdraw this statement.
The ICO letter, signed by Graham Smith, the deputy commissioner, said: “I can confirm that the ICO will not be retracting the statement …The fact that the elements of a section 77 offence may have been found here, but cannot be acted on because of the elapsed time, is a very serious matter.
“The ICO is not resiling from its position on this.”
The ICO cannot prosecute the university because the complaint about its rejection of the information request was made too late. The ICO is seeking to change the law to allow prosecutions if a complaint is made more than six months after a breach of the act.
Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat member of the Science and Technology Committee, said: “It seems unwise, at best, for the University of East Anglia to attempt to portray a letter from the Information Commissioner’s Office in a good light, in evidence to the select committee, because it is inevitable that the Committee will find that letter, and notice any discrepancy.
“It would be a wiser course for the university not to provide any suspicion that they might be seeking to enable the wrong impression to be gained.”
An ICO spokesman said: “The commissioner has provided the select committee with a copy of the January 29 letter to which the university referred in a press statement.
“This is so that the committee can be aware of the full contents. The commissioner has not been invited to give evidence to the committee but stands ready to assist the inquiry.”
A spokeswoman for the university said: “The point Professor Acton was making is that there has been no investigation so no decision, as was widely reported. The ICO read e-mails and came to assumptions but has not investigated or demonstrated any evidence that what may have been said in emails was actually carried out.”
The university last night published its correspondence with the ICO on its website.