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Senior officials now in frame for HMRC data fiasco

Union says security crisis should mean job cut halt

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UK Identity Crisis Senior officials were involved in the decision to post the UK's child benefit database on unencrypted CDs, it emerged overnight.

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, said decisions were made at a higher level and that the NAO asked for the data be "desensitised" but this was rejected on grounds of expense. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs sent 25m records on two unencrypted CDs three times; the second envelope never arrived at the National Audit Office and is still missing.

As the scandal broke earlier this week, government spinners insisted that the error was down to a junior official at the Washington, Tyne and Wear office, acting well outside their remit.

But Bourn yesterday told a secret session of the Public Accounts Committee that it was a senior manager at HMRC authorised the release of the data and that his email on the data sharing was cc'd to an assistant director.

The Tories described the data loss disaster as evidence of "systemic failure, not individual error by a junior official".

A spokeswoman for HMRC said: "We have no comment to make on individual officials. There is a police investigation ongoing so we cannot comment."

A junior official from the Child Benefit IT department has reportedly been suspended and sent to a nearby hotel with a minder in order to protect his or her identity.

Unions, meanwhile, have simultaneously slammed the scapegoating of a junior member of staff and blamed the government for stretching HMRC to breaking point.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said in a statement that the government's determination to slash 25,000 jobs within the next five years had placed a huge strain on resources.

Since March 2005 the PCS said that the government had made 13,000 job cuts at HMRC with a further 12,500 planned by 2011.

It said: "With additional security checks expected to be put in place for people claiming and making enquiries about Child Benefit we urge the government to put extra resources into HMRC rather than continuing with cutting jobs."

PCS union rep Graham Steel, who has been in talks with the HMRC over the ongoing job cuts on the Capgemini Aspire contract where up to 600 UK workers are expected to take compulsory redundancy, told El Reg that "it was only a matter of time before something went wrong."

He said that the chancellor's attempts to "save pennies" had seriously backfired.

"That's why we don't like seeing work off-shored. It raises all kinds of security issues about sensitive data and the worry is that it could get into the wrong hands."

Asked if the union would support the official at the centre of the data loss storm, Steel said that it was union policy to "represent them just the same as any other case."

Chancellor Alistair Darling also said yesterday that the disaster actually strengthened arguments in favour of ID cards. He rejected calls from the Tories that the government should think again. Darling also denied the recent merger of Revenue and Customs, and associated job losses, had anything to do with the disastrous data giveaway.

There's more from the Guardian here.®

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