Tip-offs will produce new wave of data security scandals, watchdog tells MPs

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Indy Politics

Ministers are braced for a new wave of "Datagate" scandals after the Government's information watchdog said he was investigating several possible breaches of data protection laws.

Richard Thomas warned there were more cases "to come out in the wash" after his office received a series of "confessional" calls from public and private sector bodies. The Information Commissioner disclosed that a senior civil servant was already trawling Whitehall departments for evidence of further data breaches, after two discs containing the entire child benefit database of 25 million people were lost in the post by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

"Quite a number of organisations, both public and private sector, have come to us saying they think they have found a problem," Mr Thomas told the Commons Justice Select Ccommittee yesterday. "I think they are coming to us on a confessional basis to bring our attention to problems they have with data security in their own organisations."

Although he said none of the breaches appeared to be as severe as the one last month at the tax office on Tyneside, he added: "There are more to come out in the wash as we go forward." Mr Thomas said the loss of data by HMRC was "a catastrophe", adding: "Previous examples pale into insignificance compared with the scale of this incident."

He also revealed that he submitted outline proposals for a new criminal offence of "recklessly releasing damaging data about individuals" in September, long before the HMRC fiasco.

Mr Thomas pointed out that the basic advice given to even small businesses was to encrypt potentially damaging data if it was to be sent or removed from an office. "If a junior official can allow this to happen," he added, "one needs to ask very searching questions indeed about the entire system. One should question whether anybody should be allowed to download the entire database of this scale without going through the most rigorous information checks."

The prospect of more examples of data mismanagment will alarm the Government as it struggles to recover from the "Datagate" affair and the row over Labour's secret donations of 600,000 from the property developer, David Abrahams.

Last night, ministers came under pressure to say whether Mr Abrahams's money had been paid back, as Gordon Brown promised. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, admitted he did not know. Francis Maude, a Conservative frontbencher, told a Commons debate on party funding: "This has been a sorry tale of law-breaking at the highest levels by one of Britain's biggest parties."

But Labour accused the Tories of running a disinformation campaign after it emerged that a possible fifth proxy donor died years ago. George Crawford, a property lawyer from Newcastle, called in police after he was linked to a donation, claiming that his identity had been used without his permission. Labour officials traced the donation to a 2004 bequest by another George Crawford, who did not live in the North. A senior Labour source said: "[The Tories] got the wrong person. This could be causing distress to the family. It is not just propaganda. They are either badly researched or deceitful."

Labour members of the Scottish Parliament unanimously backed their leader Wendy Alexander, who is under pressure to quit after her leadership campaign team accepted a gift of 950 from the Jersey-based businessmen Paul Green. It was illegal because Mr Green is not a UK resident.

* The Home Office is still not "fit for purpose", its permanent secretary, Sir David Normington, told MPs yesterday. He hinted that a government target of cutting crime by 15 per cent by April was unlikely to be met.

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