The attempt by ministers to blame the loss of personal data on 25 million people on junior officials at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) was undermined yesterday by scathing reports on the incident by two independent inquiries.
They said the "entirely avoidable" loss of two computer discs containing child benefit records on seven million families was due to "serious institutional deficiencies" at HMRC and criticised senior management for not explaining data protection rules to junior staff.
But the Tory Opposition sought to pin responsibility on Gordon Brown, who as Chancellor forced through a merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise. Mr Brown said after the discs were lost in November that ministers could not be held responsible for "the individual actions of officials". His official spokesman said "this was ... not about a failure in the procedures as such". Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, said at the time that the decision to send the two discs to the National Audit Office, where they never arrived, was taken "at a junior level".
Parallel investigations by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and Keiran Poynter, the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, concluded there was no evidence of malice or misconduct and blamed systemic failures at HMRC. The IPCC found "no coherent strategy" for mass data handling. Mr Poynter said data security was not a "management priority" and morale at HMRC was "low".
The Treasury, meanwhile, denied the Government had ever blamed an individual official for the affair.
George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, said Mr Brown created HMRC and did not put in place adequate management structures.
In another inquiry report, the Ministry of Defence was criticised over the theft of a laptop containing the records of 600,000 recruits.
Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said he would serve enforcement notices on HMRC and the MoD over their "deplorable failures" on data security, a move which could result in criminal prosecutions unless they improve their record.