The personal details of more than three million learner drivers have gone missing in another data blunder, the Transport Secretary admitted yesterday.
The names, addresses and telephone numbers but no financial information for every candidate who applied for a driving theory test between September 2004 and April this year were on a computer hard drive which was lost in May at a supposedly secure facility in the US, Ruth Kelly told MPs.
Her disclosure came on the same day that Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, said he still did not know the whereabouts of two computer disks containing the details of 25 million people. The disks were lost by officials at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
Senior Government sources stressed that the latest data blunder, by a contractor working for the Driving Standards Agency, was not as serious as the loss of child benefit details for seven million families.
"We have to keep this in perspective," said a source close to Gordon Brown. "It was names, addresses and telephone numbers you can get those in a telephone directory. There were some emails but we all get spam all the time on the internet. The Information Commissioner was relaxed but Ruth Kelly made a statement to Parliament because she is conscientious."
The details were lost by Pearson Driving Assessments, a private company based in Iowa City. Ms Kelly was told of the mistake on 28 November eight days after Mr Darling revealed the loss of data by HM Revenue and Customs on Tyneside. "The hard disk drive contained the records of just over three million candidates for the driving theory test," Ms Kelly told MPs. The records contained each driver's name, address, phone number, fee paid, test centre, a code indicating how the test was paid for and an email address.
But Ms Kelly stressed: "The hard disk did not contain details of any individual's bank account or credit card. It did not contain their driving licence number, nor their National Insurance number. It did not contain their date of birth, nor a copy of their signature, and it did not contain the result of their test."
Because banking details were not included in the lost data, individuals were not being informed, she added. However, the latest fiasco will only add to the run of bad luck being experienced by Gordon Brown. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats blamed the incidents on incompetence within his Government. The shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers said: "Quite simply, the Government is failing in its duty to obey its own laws on data protection."
Susan Kramer, for the Liberal Democrats, said the further loss of data from another government department was "mind-bending" and sought assurances from Ms Kelly that fraudsters could not create false identities from the lost data. Downing Street hopes to restore public confidence by increasing the penalties for the existing criminal offence of wilful misuse of data. At present, the punishment is limited to a fine but it could be increased to a possible jail term .
An interim report on the HMRC data fiasco carried out by Kieran Poynter, the chairman of the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, yesterday highlighted the "complexity" of the department, which was created when by Mr Brown merged the old Customs and Excise and Inland Revenue. Mr Darling said there was still no evidence of any fraud from the loss of the two HMRC disks containing names, dates of birth, bank and address details. And he said Mr Poynter's review had prioritised the immediate security measures that were needed. But If Mr Poynter uncovers systemic problems within the HMRC when he gives his final report next month, it could expose Mr Brown to further criticism.
Mr Poynter has said he is carrying out a "forensic" investigation into exchanges of emails between HMRC and the National Audit Office in London. It was the NAO which asked HMRC to forward a pared-down version of the data that went missing. The HMRC refused to do so, saying it would have cost too much.