Friday, 22 August, 2008


JACQUI Smith was under fire last night for failing to sack the private contractor which lost personal data on thousands of criminals.

The Home Secretary said PA Consulting - which has won

Government contracts worth £240million since 2004 - broke the rules on secret data.

But Whitehall officials made clear it will continue to be paid vast sums of taxpayers' money.

They are effectively powerless to act because axeing the firm would throw a string of major Government projects into chaos.

This means they will continue running a number of lucrative contracts, including the one involving the most sensitive personal data - the introduction of ID cards and biometric passports. Critics said it raised questions as to whether the Home Office is capable of protecting the personal information of Britain's citizens.

Miss Smith has already come under fire for trying to 'abdicate' her own responsibility for the latest fiasco - in which the names, addresses and even prison release dates of up to 127,000 hardened criminals were lost when a single computer memory stick went missing.

The data had been downloaded onto the portable storage device by an employee of PA Consulting. The shambles follows a string of data loss scandals across Government departments, including the Home Office.

Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: 'The public will be alarmed that the Government is happy to entrust their £20billion ID card project to the firm involved in this fiasco, at a cost of millions to the taxpayer.

'This will destroy any grain of confidence the public still have in this white elephant and reinforce why it could endanger - rather than strengthen - our security. '

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said it raised questions about whether the Government could be trusted to keep any information safe. He added: 'Charlie Chaplin could do a better job running the Home Office than this Labour government.'

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said: 'With every new Government data bungle, another ounce of public trust ebbs away.

'Ministers continue to make overblown claims for the preposterous ID card scheme - when will they ever learn? This is no ordinary scandal, heads need to roll.' Phil Booth, of the NO2ID cards campaign, said ministers had their hands tied by the vast amount of contracts held with private management consultancy firms. He said: 'It would be like trying to unpick a tumour.'

Shadow Police Minister David Ruffley said: "The public will be losing confidence in Jacqui Smith who has failed yet again to tighten security despite a series of data

'This latest failure is in her very own Whitehall offices, not some outpost in the regions. Sensitive data on the whereabouts of over 40,000 serious offenders and their crimes has been mislaid and she hasn't a clue where it is.

'This shambles proves that this accidentprone Home Secretary hasn't even got a grip of what goes on in her own building.'

Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation, said: 'The criminal justice system is already rife with problems but this is a real blow for police officers across the country who work tirelessly trying to put these criminals away.

'Is it hugely embarrassing having a situation where the criminal is the one owed an apology.'

He called for both the Home Office and PA Consulting to suffer the same 'stringent' disciplinary action as a police officer would face.

There was no comment from PA Consulting last night and Miss Smith refused to say the company would lose even the offender management contract involved in the scandal - let alone the others it holds.

The firm, based in London, has been paid £95,577,902 by the Home Office alone in just three years.

The Home Secretary said the loss of the memory stick was 'completely unsatisfactory'.

She added: 'It runs against the rules set down for the holding of Government data and set down by the external contractor and certainly set down in the contract that we had with the external contractor.'

The Tories said the future of ID cards must now be in doubt. PA consulting has already been paid tens of millions of pounds developing the scheme.

Other Government work carried out by the firm includes developing computer systems for the Criminal Records Bureau, project management for the probation service, a review of court escort contracts, developing a new system for the vetting of international visa applications and software to improve the collection of court fines.

It also worked on a joint project with the Home Office and Police on automatic numberplate recognition software, which allows a car to be identified from distance - and its driver fined - using state of the art cameras.

The Home Office was told on Monday that the memory stick might be missing and on Tuesday PA Consulting confirmed to Miss Smith that it had vanished. An internal investigation was launched but it took until Thursday before police were called in to help.

Officers from the Metropolitan Police's Specialist and Economic Crimes Unit were brought in to try and establish what happened to the stick, and have been studying CCTV footage.

Deputy Information Commissioner David Smith said the loss was 'deeply worrying', his office would decide what action to take once it had received a report from the Home Office detailing the findings of the internal inquiry.

The lost information - which was not encrypted - applies to all 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales, and around 43,000 serious and persistent offenders. It is feared they may have to be offered protection from vigilante or criminal attacks if the lost stick falls into the wrong hands.

The Home Office said it was carrying out a risk assessment. PA Consulting said: 'We are collaborating closely with the Home Office. We have no further comment to make at this time.'

In a separate incident, HM Revenue and Customs revealed it has lost saliva samples from 12 suspected smugglers.

The swabs were taken at Heathrow but went missing as they were being transported by contractor TNT.

HMRC is now writing to the 12, several of whom have already been convicted of smuggling, including drugs and tobacco. The samples were taken so their DNA could be entered on to the national database.