Letters: Lost data crisis

Darling's troubles highlight the folly of government by procedure
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Sir: The travails of Alistair Darling over the lost data discs underlines the folly of government policy in believing that the quality of public services is down to structures and procedures. Yet this Government is all about structures and procedures.

It doesn't matter whether we are transferring data, fixing railway points, treating patients or teaching reading, the only people who can guarantee quality are the people actually doing the work. No amount of rule-making, supervision and inspection will deliver a good service against a background of poor training and poor morale. When things go wrong, the Government appears to think that it is a failure of systems or supervision. It is not. Unless the people doing the work are trained and trusted to do it well, they cannot take responsibility for what they do.

For example, the proposal that all six-year-olds should be able to pass a reading test is nonsense, as is the proposal to foster a particular teaching method. No teacher wants anything less than the best for the children in their care but if they are forced to teach children to read before they are ready or to use methods which they feel are inappropriate then the trust between the teacher and the children is damaged and successful learning does not happen. The morale of both teacher and taught is destroyed, leading to too many children failing to learn to read properly and becoming the drop-outs whom, apparently, the Government intends to tackle by raising the school leaving age.

Apparently, the failure of structures and procedures is to be dealt with by introducing more structures and procedures which will lead to even greater complexity and many more opportunities for things to go wrong. The Government is chasing the end of the rainbow.

David McKaigue

Wirral, Merseyside

After this, how can ID cards go ahead?

Sir: The Government has been careless with the information details of almost half the population; why should we expect them to do better when they have everybody's information?

This loss shows the enormous dangers of the proposed ID card system. Imagine the potential for fraud if a copy of the information on the ID card database went missing. The only really safe data system is not to collect the data in the first place.

James G Fluss

London NW4

Sir: Hospitals and university departments are being closed for lack of cash, and yet we are budgeting for a new nuclear arsenal and a ludicrously intrusive population tracking system, based on technology that does not work.

If this is now a country where the capacity for killing and surveillance is valued more than the ability to heal and to educate, then it is not somewhere I would want to raise my children, and I will seek to emigrate as soon as possible.

Michael Richards


Sir: While I hope that information about me, my friends and relatives has not been disseminated, I nevertheless in part welcome the loss of so much data. With any luck it will vaccinate us against allowing our state to continue its Orwellian momentum. Imagine that this same event had happened in five years' time. The loss of data now is minimal by comparison.

I have had confidential information about me escape at least twice in the past. Each time I have been told that it couldn't happen again – more modern systems were now in place. Do not fall for that line.

Sam Butler

Fleet, Hampshire

Sir: When a package sent by the Inland Revenue gets "lost in the post" the police are called in to investigate. Whenever I have lost high-value items in the post, the police don't want to know and tell me it is a matter between me and the courier in question.

Laurence Williams

Thetford, Norfolk

Sir: I think that I've spotted the cunning plan. Darling has stolen the identities of 25 million families in the hope that he can later raid their bank accounts to pay back the £40bn he owes us for Northern Rock.

Clare Lines

Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

The risk to our bank accounts

Sir: So now the Government has managed to lose computer discs containing personal information on 25 million taxpayers. These are the same people insisting that ID card information would be perfectly safe.

Can you imagine if some of the Eastern European gangs currently committing identity fraud came into possession of that much information? High-street banks are watching out for fraud, but there is no physical way they can monitor 25 million bank accounts. If my bank account is raided or somebody takes out a loan in my name can I claim compensation from HMRC? This government has totally lost control.

Mark Curtis

London SW15

All need to master the technology

Sir: The recent breach of information security at HM Revenue and Customs highlights a wider cultural problem. Technology has accelerated at a breathtaking rate. Technology is faster, smaller and has higher capacity than anyone would have dreamed of even as recently as the 1980s.

It has also become unimaginably pervasive. The proverbial grandmother is using unprotected pocket-sized memory sticks, using portable music players and purchasing products and services online as a matter of course.

This leap in technological ability required a similar leap in computer literacy and a culture of information security. This did not happen and still has not happened. How many people understand the security implications of checking your email or bank account from a public internet cafe computer?

This level of understanding should not be seen as the domain of specialists or geeks. We all understand the risks of a gas leak or badly wired electricity, and yet we don't understand the basics of computer and information security, both of which are becoming an ever-bigger part of our lives.

Tariq Rashid

Richmond, Surrey

NHS database must be in doubt

Sir: The news that a government agency has "lost" the data relating to 25 million citizens has been cited by your leader writer (21 November) as a potential difficulty for the introduction of ID cards.

What is of much concern in this news for me, as a GP and NHS patient, is the continuing intention of the Government to hold a central database of detailed health records for all patients in England as part of the Care Records Service.

Although there will be the opportunity for individuals to withdraw from the scheme, this will not mean the records are not held centrally, merely that they are not available to other users. The loss of 25 million people's child benefit data is horrific, but how much more so would be the loss of even a tiny proportion of the English population's sensitive medical data. While I am sure there is never any intent of the part of government to lose data, the opportunity still exists for inappropriate actions, usually well intended, but potentially malign.

My practice IT manager's first words to me this morning were: "Do you think anyone will want to share their data now?" The answer must surely be no, and furthermore patients must not be expected to have their personal health records held centrally without their specific and well-informed consent.

John Canning


High price for privatisation

Sir: Riots at asylum centres causing considerable damage, convicted felons escaping en route from the courts to prison, data of a most sensitive nature stolen in transit and many other recent debacles that have been in the control of private companies.

When are we going to stop our manic obsession with privatisation and place these responsibilities in the hands of government employees who are answerable to us, and not in the hands of companies who, for all we know, are employing criminals?

John Hamilton

Crowhurst, East Sussex

A nation that can't be bothered

Sir: Although I would not dream of making excuses for the Government and HM Revenue and Customs, I do feel that the recent "data disaster" seems to be the result of some careless clerical individual. It reflects the sloppy attitude that pervades the workforce and I am sick of it.

From plumbers who don't bother to connect up overflows and electricians who don't bother to use all the fixings on a wall socket to solicitors who don't bother to look in their in-trays, you in the British public (you know who you are) need to sort your selves out.

John Mallett


Democracy in the surveillance age

Sir: The disastrous loss of personal data by HM Revenue makes it even more urgent that we bring surveillance and information management under greater democratic control in the UK.

At the same time that the Government is constructing new databases of personal information that will cover identity, medical information, children's data, DNA and more, it is once again demonstrating its inability to carry out basic information management and security.

Surveillance is a mixture of care and control. An excess of the latter is bad enough, but combined with a loss of care and even competence, we have the recipe for the worst kind of surveillance society. It is time for this government to stop and take stock of the combined effects of what it is doing.

Data is now utterly vital to people's lives. With that in mind we need stronger regulation of state and private information gathering and control and a new Information Act, establishing the basis for transparency and accountability of government and corporations to citizens across all surveillance and information management practices.

Dr David Murakami Wood

Newcastle University

Ministers who have never done a real job

Sir: Hamish McRae's analysis of the causes of the Treasury's woes (21 November) contained a repeated theme: politicians' "lack of understanding of how organisations work". Is this not a consequence of the general lack of experience of "real" jobs among politicians? And if we could replace the culprits in the current crises, is there any hope that Labour or either of the other two main parties can offer substantial management experience?

Of cabinet members of all parties, I can think of few whose past experience is deeper than PR, political and social research or the legal profession.

David Humphrey

London W5

Sir: The fish rots from head down, and so it is with the Brown government. The now weekly displays of amateurism by ministers – compounded by lies, half truths and spin – must now be harming Britain's image overseas. Our natural enemies, and those our crude policies make enemies, must be laughing very loudly at our expense.

Mike Abbott

London W4

Sir: I now believe that the greatest threat to the safety of my family is not terrorism; it is our increasingly incompetent and authoritarian government.

Nigel Scott

London N22

Other matters...

Verbal challenge

Sir: Now that we know how to say difficile, could somebody give us a linguistically correct pronunciation of "fuchsia"?

John R G Turner


Teenage wisdom

Sir: What a wonderful article by Ailsa Cameron (21 November). As a parent of three teenage girls, I am constantly amazed by the wisdom, maturity and common sense spoken by the teenagers I come across. OK, some look scary in their hoodies, but people who make the effort to get to know them will find their lives enriched. Maybe what really frightens people is having to justify their own actions in the face of a teenager who can clearly see what's right and what's wrong.

Martin Styles

Billericay, Essex

Pretty politicians

Sir: The last thing the Lib Dems need is a "telegenic" leader (Steve Richards, 20 November). The Tory front bench is stuffed with pretty faces. No, the Lib Dems should avoid Nick Clegg and back Chris Huhne. Ideally, Vince Cable should continue as leader but he's "too old".

Stephen Jackson

Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex

Lies about Menezes

Sir: Further to Robert Senecal's letter (13 November), someone must have deliberately made up the lies that we were told about Mr Menezes vaulting over barriers etc. Has that person ever been identified? Have they been disciplined in any way? Are they still drawing a salary that is paid by the general public that they set out to mislead?

Benj Emmerson

Thornbury, Gloucestershire

English television

Sir: If anyone wonders what kinds of things are driving the Scots desire for independence they only need to take a look at Wednesday night's viewing on BBC1. England playing Croatia, live in the Euro 2008 qualifier. Last Saturday, unless you were fortunate enough to be signed up to a certain satellite sports package, you had zero chance of watching Scotland being cheated out of their chance of qualifying. No wonder Alex Salmond has proposed a new Scottish broadcasting network.

David Catto

Ardgay, Sutherland

Back the ducks

Sir: A golf course is a good landscape spoiled. All power to those against the proposed Trump scheme for the Menie Estate, and all power also to the wood ducks of Sydney (the other golf story in Wednesday's Independent), who clearly share my view.

David Ridge

London N19