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In a major coup in the government data loss stakes PA Consulting - which until Monday was one of the Home Office's favourite consulting outfits - has contrived to lose the entire prison population of England and Wales. Personal details of the 84,000 people behind bars, along with those of 10,000 prolific offenders, have vanished on a memory stick, it was revealed last night.

It's by no means the biggest of government data losses, but it shows style. Historically the prison service hasn't found it particularly easy to tally up precisely who they've got and where they are - leading to bizarre cases where we've been told that escaped prisoners might have been recaptured, but they can't be sure - so it's an achievement to get them all in the one place and then mislay them. And as it's actually the Ministry of Justice that runs the prison service these days, it wasn't even the Home Office's data, really.

Take that, Jack Straw.

PA held the data as part of a contract to work on JTrack, a project to manage Prolific and Priority Offenders (PPOs). It's a database made up of information contributed by police (details of arrests and charges, the Crown Prosecutions Service (trial outcomes) and the Prison Service. It has 2,500 users, and is intended to allow police forces and the CPS to "co-ordinate their approach to targeting PPOs." The presence of the entire prison population on this database might in that sense seem overkill, given that they're not all PPOs (although in 2004 the Home Office estimated that there were 100,000 of them, more than the total lost this week).

The data was held on PA's computers, in "a secure format" according to the Home Office, but was downloaded onto a memory stick and "for processing purposes." This was then lost. A search of the company's premises has failed to recover the stick, and the transfer of further data to PA has been suspended pending an investigation.

So that's at least one thing Gary Glitter can breath easy about today.

In its capacity as one of the Home Office's favourite consultants, PA was the development partner for the ID card scheme, working on "design, feasibility testing, business case and procurement". The Home Office spent £148 million on consultants on 2006-7, and forecast £100 million for 2007-8. From April to September in that year, PA was paid £7,163,806, and was indeed the Home Office's top trousering consultant for the period. ®

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