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Sceptic thinktank not ‘influential’ enough to reveal funder

By Leo Hickman (The Guardian) - February 21, 2012

The climate sceptic thinktank chaired by former chancellor Lord Lawson, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), has been ruled not “influential” enough to warrant making the Charity Commission disclose its seed funder, an information rights tribunal ruled on Tuesday.

The verdict followed a freedom of information request to identify the individual or organisation that gave the GWPF £50,000 when it was launched in 2009 to lobby against action on global warming, just days before a major climate change summit in Copenhagen attended by world leaders including Barack Obama.

The GWPF’s claim that it had significant influence over policymakers, said the judge, was “rather surprising” given its status as an educational charity. She added that the “claim [is] unsupported by evidence of actual influence” and, regardless, it is a matter for the Charity Commission to investigate, not the tribunal.

The freedom of information request for the funding information had been pursued by Brendan Montague, an investigative journalist and director of the Request Initiative. He was seeking to appeal an earlier ruling by the information commissioner’s office that had judged that there was no public interest in ending the secrecy around the financing of Lawson’s educational charity.

Montague had learned via a separate freedom of information request that the Charity Commission has in its possession a bank statement which reveals the name of GWPF’s seed donor. The only other clue released as to the donor’s identity was that it was a “well-known” person of “considerable personal wealth”.

Judge Alison McKenna said in her ruling: “We are not satisfied that the charity is so influential as to make the disclosure of its financial affairs a matter of legitimate public interest outweighing the privacy rights of the data subject.”

Judge McKenna, who used to work as a legal advisor for the Charity Commission, added that she found it “especially puzzling” that the GWPF’s lawyers had sent an unredacted copy of the bank statement to the Charity Commission during the process of registering as a charity in 2009 “if a policy of [donor anonymity by the GWPF] was already in operation”.

Montague says he is now “seeking legal advice with a view to appealing this decision”, but added that, if granted further leave to appeal by the tribunal, he is prepared to take his case all the way to the supreme court.

Montague told the Guardian: “Judge Alison McKenna has found against me on the grounds that Lord Lawson’s climate sceptic thinktank is simply not as influential as the former chancellor has made out in his own company accounts. We provided evidence of Lawson enjoying private lunches with the current chancellor, George Osborne, and so I only wish I shared her view.”

He added: “The tribunal has found the claims of influence over policymakers by Lord Lawson ’surprising’ in light of the fact the Global Warming Policy Foundation is registered as an educational charity. The judge states this is ‘a matter for the Charity Commission’ and I hope the regulator will now properly investigate this highly-connected lobbying machine.”

As part of his supporting evidence, Montague had gathered statements from prominent climate scientists, including Nasa’s James Hansen, arguing that GWPF routinely misrepresents and casts doubt on climate science. Montague also argued that it was in the public interest to know if GWPF receives any funding from fossil fuel interests.

Before the case was heard by the tribunal, Lord Lawson told the Guardian that he had “no intention of responding to Mr Montague’s political attack on me and on the GWPF”.

Lawson did, however, refer to an earlier statement he published last year alongside the foundation’s first set of accounts, which revealed that it received an income of £503,302 in its first year and had no more than 80 paying members. In the statement, he said: “The soil we till is highly controversial, and anyone who puts their head above the parapet has to be prepared to endure a degree of public vilification. For that reason we offer all our donors the protection of anonymity.”

The GWPF has also stated that it does not accept donations from the energy industry, or anyone with a “significant interest” in the energy industry.