Saturday, February 27, 2010

Even More FOI Follies: UEA Vs. ICO

From the University of East Anglia (UEA):

The point Professor Acton [whose statements I've referenced here and here] 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.”

Also, UEA has issued the following updated statement:

These confirm that no further evidence had been sought or obtained by the ICO with regard to an alleged breach of Section 77 and that with regard to the Section 50 complaint no decision notice had been issued and no alleged breaches had been put to the University for comment. Any assertion that the University has been found in breach of any part the Freedom of Information Act is incorrect. The ICO had not communicated with the University before issuing the statement and has still not completed any investigations into this matter. Media reports have been inaccurate.

They've also published their correspondence with the Information Commissioner's Office. This first one from the 29th lodges what seems to me to be a perfectly valid complaint in regards to the ICO's original statement:

I do not think it is acceptable that such a statement which has led to an extremely damaging commentary on the University in the press, on radio and television and from the Chairman of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee was first communicated to the University by a journalist. As far as I can ascertain (and you did not disagree) there was no effort by the ICO to inform the University before the release was made.

Mr. Holland has submitted a complaint to the ICO, the University has sought to cooperate fully with you in your consideration of the complaint and our past experience (albeit limited) has been that we have been informed of the investigating officer’s initial conclusions and the reasons for them, to give us the opportunity to make submissions well before a decision notice is issued. We thought this to be the normal practice. In this instance we have been informed of a decision through the pages of the press with no understanding of the breaches which you allege to have occurred and the evidence which is being relied upon, and with no opportunity to put forward an informed defence.

And here is the call for a retraction:

You expressed at least some appreciation of our view that communicating the conclusions of the ICO in this way is entirely inappropriate. I would ask that you acknowledge that the actions of the ICO were not appropriate in this instance, and preferably by return.

You said that, while you had not had the opportunity to review fully the press coverage, it was possible that a number of inferences may have been drawn by commentators which went beyond any conclusions which you might think reasonable or were intended to be drawn from your statement. If this remains the case, I would ask that you issue a further press statement today to clarify that fact before we suffer further damage.

The ICO did not issue a retraction, but did offer a weakened statement that they said their original statement should be read to mean (as I argued here). Acton makes this clear in a final letter, dated February 1st:

Your clarification that the press cannot infer from your statement to the Sunday Times that it has been established that the University (or indeed any individual associated with the University) has breached the terms of the Freedom of Information Act is welcome. As your observations related to the Holland case the reference in some of the papers that your statement referred to “refusing to hand over raw data” must also be incorrect, as were the references to unlimited fines.

So there you have it. My verdict: the ICO jumped the gun in making their press statement, and is now trying to wriggle out of it without issuing a further statement that would make them look stupid.


Paul S said...

Yes, it's OK for scientists to talk to each other about burying data and ignoring FOI requests.

It's all in the spirit of the finest traditions of scientific inquiry.

Lenny said...

Can you tell us what data was "buried", Dumstrum?