Pressure builds over missing data

Other News Materials 23 November 2007 05:08 (UTC +04:00)

Senior officials knew about a decision to include financial details of millions of Britons on computer discs that then went missing in the mail, the Conservatives said on Thursday.

Citing an internal e-mail, members of the Conservative party said blame for the scandal went higher than just the junior civil servant so far blamed by the government for violating security rules.

The latest claims increased pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who acknowledged this week that discs had gone missing containing the names and bank account details of 25 million people. The discs were sent between two government offices by internal mail and were not encrypted.

The scandal has damaged the government's reputation for competence at a time when Brown's popularity has fallen to its lowest level since he took over from Tony Blair in June.

"This was a systematic failure, not individual error by a junior official, and Gordon Brown needs to tell us the whole truth of why the security of all families in this country has been put at risk," Conservative treasury spokesman George Osborne said in a statement.

An investigation is under way and the senior civil servant who headed the tax collection office, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, has resigned over the affair.

But Conservatives accused the government of trying to pin the blame on a 23-year-old junior civil servant, who mailed the discs from HMRC to the National Audit Office, which wanted the data for a study.

The National Audit Office says it asked for the data to be stripped of confidential personal information, but HMRC included all the data in the missing discs.

Conservative members of parliament said they had learned that a copy of an e-mail discussing the decision to send all the data had been sent to a senior HMRC official.

"As far as I know he is at the assistant secretary level," Edward Leigh, the Conservative head of parliament's cross-party Public Accounts Committee told Reuters.

"He is not a junior clerk and presumably could have decided to do what the NAO wanted and just give the desensitised information."

Media reports said internal emails revealed that HMRC had justified including all the data on the discs on the grounds it would cost too much to pare it down.

Brown's office said it would not comment on any e-mails while an inquiry was under way.

"We're aware of the report. There is an ongoing investigation now into this and it's important that that takes place," Brown's spokesman said.

But Leigh said he wanted the e-mails released immediately.

"You can't have an investigation which pushes everything into the long grass for weeks and avoids parliamentary responsibility and parliamentary scrutiny." ( Reuters )