Hazel Blears breached rules over data on stolen PC

The Government has suffered yet another embarrassing data loss after a cabinet minister breached its rules by holding confidential information on a personal computer.

Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, had left emails containing government documents on a computer in her Salford constituency office. It was stolen during a break-in on Saturday.

It is understood that the emails contained potentially embarrassing rather than highly classified information. It included details of a cabinet split over the Planning Bill, which would streamline the planning process for major projects such as nuclear power stations; plans by Ms Blears' department to tackle extremism by Muslim and other groups; and the state of the housing market.

Under Cabinet Office guidelines, restricted information should not be held on personal computers. Although most of the government documents that Ms Blears reads at weekends are put in the traditional red boxes used by all ministers, officials send some documents to her by email.

The breach is embarrassing for Gordon Brown because his ministers have blamed civil servants for two security lapses last week. A senior Cabinet Office official was suspended after documents about al-Qa'ida were left on a train. Then Treasury papers about plans to clamp down on terrorist funding were passed to The Independent on Sunday after being left on another train. Last November, personal information on 25 million people went missing when two computer discs containing child benefit records were lost.

Ms Blears informed Downing Street on Monday and urged her cabinet colleagues to check their own security arrangements at their weekly meeting yesterday. Mr Brown asked ministers to order their officials to stick to the rules. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has written to all departments stressing the need to do so.

Manchester police are investigating the incident in Ms Blears's office at Salford's Working Class Movement Library. A spokesman for her department said: "The thief broke in through a window, triggering the building's security alarm. A PC was stolen. Nothing else was taken. We understand the building's security staff arrived within minutes. The PC was primarily used for Hazel's constituency business and contained some details of her constituency work.

"None of the departmental material included sensitive personal data about the public or would be of use to criminals. The PC did not contain any secret or top-secret information and the contents of the PC are protected and clearly this is now subject to a routine police investigation."

Opposition MPs demanded a Commons statement on the incident. Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The news that a government minister may have been directly responsible for the loss of data relating to extremism is extremely alarming. It comes after a series of security breaches over which government appears not to have regained control. If Hazel Blears has breached security rules in relation to material she has handled, Parliament must be told exactly how and why this has occurred."

Chris Huhne, home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Cabinet ministers have just ticked off their civil servants about security lapses, but now Hazel Blears shows that the rot starts at the top.

"This is the third breach of secrecy in a week. The Government has to get a grip on the slapdash culture of sloppiness that threatens national security."

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