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Southwark council breached the Data Protection Act after it left an unencrypted computer and papers containing sensitive information on 7,200 people in one of its buildings when it was vacated, which were then disposed of by the building's new tenant, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said.

The local authority vacated the building in December 2009, but the breach was reported in June of this year shortly after the information was found in a skip. The information stored on the computer and the papers included details of peoples' names and addresses, along with other information relating to their ethnic background, medical history and any past criminal convictions.

While the council did have information handling and decommissioning policies in place, the privacy watchdog said that the policies were not followed when the offices were vacated.

Southwark council has now agreed to take action to keep the personal information it handles secure. This includes introducing new processes governing the transfer and disposal of personal information and making sure that all portable devices used to store sensitive information are fully protected. The local authority has also agreed to an ICO audit in the new year to help them improve their compliance with the Data Protection Act.

Sally Anne Poole, acting head of enforcement, said: "The fact that thousands of residents' personal details went missing for over two years clearly shows that Southwark council's policies for handling personal information are below standard. As this information was lost before the ICO received the power to issue financial penalties we are unable to consider taking more formal action in this case.

"Southwark council has committed to putting changes in place and we look forward to completing an audit next year to help them to identify further improvements."

Separately, Central Essex Community Services has signed an undertaking after the loss of a birth book containing information about the general health of 249 mothers and their babies. The book, which should have been stored in a locked filing cabinet, was stored on top of the cabinet in a locked room due to no secure storage space being available. The book has never been recovered.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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