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A local authority has signed an undertaking to improve the security of the personal data it holds after information about six vulnerable home support clients was stolen from a worker, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said.

North Lanarkshire Council's guidance on how workers should use, transport and dispose of sensitive documents was "inadequate", the ICO, the UK's data protection watchdog, said.

"North Lanarkshire Council breached the Data Protection Act after the theft of a home support worker's bag containing papers which included sensitive personal information," an ICO statement (3-page/28KB PDF) said.

Organisations responsible for holding personal data must secure it from "unauthorised or unlawful processing ... and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data," a principle of the Data Protection Act provides.

The ICO said North Lanarkshire had alerted it to the theft in October last year.

"The bag – which was not locked – contained the worker's visiting schedule for the next two days," the ICO statement said. "The schedule included information relating to the mental or physical health of six vulnerable adults who were being supported by the council's Housing and Social Work Services department."

North Lanarkshire will make sure it has adequate policies and procedures for storing, use and disposal of hard copy documents containing personal data, and will train staff how to comply with those policies, the Council's undertakings said.

"Hard copy documentation will contain the minimum amount of personal data required for its purpose, and will be anonymised where possible," the Council committed to in its data protection undertakings (2-page/67KB PDF).

Adequate physical security measures will be implemented to prevent unauthorised access to personal data, the council said, and it also has discretion to use other security measure that would ensure the information is protected, the Council's undertakings said.

"Organisations have a responsibility to make sure that any personal information used by their workers outside of the office remains secure," Assistant Commissioner for Scotland, Ken Macdonald said in the ICO's statement.

"It is never acceptable for papers containing sensitive personal information to be left in an unlocked bag without necessary precautions," Macdonald said.

"The council's guidance on the handling of this type of information was inadequate and failed to advise staff on the best means of keeping information safe," Macdonald said. "We are pleased that North Lanarkshire Council has taken action to ensure that its service users' personal information will be better protected in the future," he said.

North Lanarkshire Council said it considers that its procedures and processes generally comply with data protection requirements.

"No system of retaining information can ever be foolproof, such as when the theft of a handbag is involved," a spokesman for North Lanarkshire Council said in an emailed statement. "But it is accepted by the Council that certain personal information was stolen," the spokesman said. "The Chief Executive has made it clear that he expects all services to comply fully with appropriate security standards,” the statement said.

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