Angry courier firm tells Darling: You can't blame us for lost computer discs


Last updated at 21:52 24 November 2007

Chancellor Alistair Darling faced fresh criticism last night over his handling of the child-benefit data crisis - from the company he blamed for losing the two computer discs.

Courier firm TNT, which Mr Darling named in his emergency statement to MPs last week, said that there was "no evidence" that it was responsible.

And it has become clear that Royal Mail and private courier DX also operate postal services at HM Revenue & Customs, the Government department that lost the data.

Royal Mail admitted that an emergency search for the CDs took place at its Belfast office on Friday morning. Sources said a similar investigation took place at DX, although it has refused to confirm this.

A spokesman for TNT said: "We were disappointed to be mentioned by name. The Chancellor did not have any evidence to show that we were to blame when he made that statement to Parliament.

"Indeed, HMRC last week said in a letter to millions of people that it is likely the discs are still within Government property.

"Neither the police nor HMRC has said there is 100 per cent proof that we handled the package. There are three sacks at the tax office in Washington - one for TNT mail, one for the Royal Mail and one for DX. It could have gone into any one of these."

The disclosure heightens concern about the embattled Chancellor's handling of the calamity. Mr Darling's initial claim - that the biggest loss of personal data in history was down to a blunder by a junior official - has also proved to be false.

Emails have shown that Nigel Jordan, a senior official at HMRC, was told of the decision to post the two discs containing the entire child benefit database, including recipients' bank account details, to a Government auditor.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said last night: "Alistair Darling must now return to Parliament to explain himself."

The CDs were lost while being posted from HMRC's office in Washington, Tyne and Wear, to the National Audit Office (NAO) in London. It had requested partial information and warned HMRC to be careful with the data. But HMRC decided it could not afford £5,000 to "desensitise" the CDs and sent the entire child benefit database in unregistered and unrecorded post.

The news provoked panic, with thousands of people rushing to change their bank details.

Mr Darling told Parliament: "Two password-protected discs containing a full copy of HMRC's entire data in relation to the payment of child benefit were sent to the NAO by HMRC's internal post system operated by the courier TNT."

Yesterday, police searched TNT depots at Durham and Bermondsey in London. But the widening of investigations to include the Royal Mail and DX has increased fears that the data could fall into criminal hands.

The junior official at the centre of the scandal was last night offered lifelong anonymity to protect him from vigilante attacks. Unions at HMRC have vowed to protect him from a "witchhunt".

The move triggered calls for Mr Jordan, who is in charge of child benefit at HMRC, to show himself. The 49-year-old divorcé, who has since had gay relationships, has not been seen recently at his mock-Tudor home in West Wickham, Kent.

A spokesman for Royal Mail said: "HMRC asked if we would check our office in Belfast to see if the missing package had mistakenly been posted there."

DX declined to comment.

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