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How DCLG officials hoped to hide delay

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:21 UK time, Friday, 12 February 2010

The "climategate" affair involving FOI applications to climate scientists at the University of East Anglia has focused attention on whether public authorities abide by the rules in the way they reply to information requests.

Often the issue for authorities is whether they comply with the time limits they are meant to meet for freedom of information cases.

I have obtained documents from the Department for Communities and Local Government which reveal that its officials discussed whether to pretend they received one of my information requests later than the department actually did, so that they could avoid breaching the time limit on replying - before concluding that "unfortunately" this was not possible, because proof existed of when it was received.

CLG emails

This relates to my application last year for data comparing the energy efficiency of public buildings. My e-mail was apparently missed initially for several days, so one official wrote to another to ask "can I legitimately claim that I did not receive the e-mail until today?", adding that "unfortunately, the requester is from the BBC".

An e-mail in reply stated that "unfortunately we have proof that he request was received in CLG on 27 April, so that is the date that must be recorded".

The document extracts I have received also shed some light on other aspects of how my request, made under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), was considered. The material I eventually was sent could also have been obtained through the laborious task of visiting 28,000 public buildings and noting down the details on the Display Energy Certificates they have to display, but at first the department told me they could not give me all this data in one go as regulations from 2007 prohibited that.

One official wrote:

"The main head-scratching in this case has been to do with the incompatibility of our EIR obligations with the bar to disclosure in the 2007 Regs... those Regs would in that event potentially put the UK in breach of its EU obligations."

The government then changed the 2007 regulations to allow disclosure and released the material to me.

Some officials advocated seeking to charge the BBC the sum of £1,611 for access to the data, but another civil servant wrote: "I consider it likely that Mr Rosenbaum will cavil at being asked for the cost of extracting the information, when it is something that CLG should be making publicly available in any case."

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