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Darling plays wait and see on HMRC disc loss

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The chancellor Alistair Darling today batted away MPs questions on how his department handled the loss of 25 million child benefit records by repeatedly deferring to a report not due for several months.

In a statement to Parliament, he approved urgent measures designed to prevent more humiliating government data losses, which have exposed millions of families to potential ID fraud in the run up to Christmas.

Banks have not reported any "irregular or unauthorised dealings" resulting from the loss, Darling said. "The police have reiterated that they have no information or intelligence that the data has fallen into wrong hands," he added.

MPs demanded to know more details on how the debacle had come about, like why police weren't told until four days after the Treasury found out HMRC had lost the child benefit records, but Darling told them to wait for the final version of the Poynter report.

He backed the urgent recommendations by Kieran Poynter, the chairman of PricewaterhouseCooper, to ban all bulk data transfers via removable media without encryption. Transferring data to removable media from personal computers and laptops will be made impossible.

When removable media are sent, secure couriers should be used. It's thought the package containg the two CDs may have been lost by the Royal Mail.

The emergency measures form part of Poynter's interim report, delivered three weeks after he was appointed to investigate the record-breaking loss.

The chancellor was at pains to emphasise that the government plans to wait for the final report before making any changes or apportioning blame among the higher echelons of HMRC.

"Let us wait and establish the facts rather than jump to conclusions," he said in response to a Conservative question.

The deputy shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Phillip Hammond called Darling's statement "a wholly inadequate response from a wholly inadequate government." He asked for a concrete assurance that such a "catastrophic" loss of data will not happen again. It wasn't given.

The full verdict on the failure HMRC's data procedures is due "in the first half" of next year. Poynter wrote that his work to establish exactly what went wrong is ongoing. The brief interim report is here (pdf).

Straight after Darling's grilling, the transport secretary Ruth Kelly stood up to tell MPs that the DVLA had lost the personal details of three million driving theory test candidates.®

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