/ 21 November 2007

UK’s Brown faces fury over huge data blunder

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced angry questions from lawmakers on Wednesday after confidential records containing nearly half the population’s bank details went missing in the post.

The disappearance of about 25-million people’s personal data — virtually every family with children aged under 16, likely including Brown’s own — vanished in the biggest-ever loss of personal information by any government.

Finance Minister Alistair Darling was already under pressure over his handling of the crisis surrounding troubled bank Northern Rock, and is now fighting for his political future following the latest embarrassment.

But the incident is also uncomfortable for Brown who, as finance minister under Tony Blair, prided himself on restoring his Labour Party’s reputation for economic competence and oversaw the creation of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the body responsible for the loss.

The loss was expected to dominate Brown’s weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session with lawmakers in the House of Commons at midday local time.

Two password-protected compact discs containing the names, addresses, dates of birth and bank account details of millions went missing after a junior official, who failed to post them as recorded delivery, sent them to auditors.

After telling a stunned House of Commons about the blunder, which happened on October 18, a penitent Darling, whose previous reputation for quiet competence has now crumbled, did the rounds of morning television and radio.

“This is deeply regrettable,” he told BBC television. “I apologise unreservedly to people for the anxiety that has been caused.

“There were procedures there which should have prevented this from ever happening in the first place — unfortunately, those procedures appear to have been breached.”

He stressed there was no evidence that the information had fallen into criminal hands and said police were still searching for the discs.

Britain’s Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, the personal information watchdog, told BBC radio that it was “almost certain” that the government had breached its own data protection laws.

Opposition politicians questioned Darling’s position and suggested some of the blame could be laid at Brown’s door.

“It was the prime minister who created the dysfunctional organisation and systems which the chancellor [finance minister] inherited,” said Vince Cable, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats.

“Where does the buck stop after this catalogue of disasters?”

Banks have told customers to watch their accounts for signs of fraud.

It has already been a tumultuous week for Brown and Darling.

HMRC chairperson Paul Gray, who only took up the role eight months ago after his predecessor quit over multimillion-pound fraud and error in the tax credits system, resigned on Tuesday.

And on Monday, Darling made the first of two statements in two days to Parliament defending his handling of the Northern Rock crisis as the bank said the takeover proposals it had received were significantly less than its market value.

In September, Northern Rock received emergency funding from the Bank of England as it struggled for cash from other sources because of the global credit crunch.

On Tuesday, its shares plunged to an all-time low. — AFP