Now police reveal SIX more discs filled with confidential data have vanished

Last updated at 18:12 24 November 2007


Alistair Darling

Police were today searching buildings belonging to courier firm TNT in the hunt for the missing computer discs at the centre of a massive political row as it emerged that another six discs have vanished.

Scotland Yard confirmed that the search of the HM Revenue and Customs child benefit office in Washington, Tyne and Wear, from which the discs were sent, was completed last night without finding any trace of the missing package.

But HMRC said today that all the evidence pointed towards the discs - which contain personal details of 25 million child benefit claimants - still being on their premises.

The department also confirmed it was looking for another lost package containing six discs which went missing in the post after being sent on October 10 from a tax credit office in Preston to its Whitehall HQ in London.

These discs held recordings of phone conversations between an individual tax credit claimant and an HMRC helpline, which were despatched through an internal mail system operated by TNT - the same courier service used to send the two child benefit discs from Washington to London last month.

Neither TNT nor Scotland Yard would today confirm the locations of premises being searched by police.

The company has a depot at Houghton le Spring, Tyne and Wear, not far from HMRC's Washington child benefit offices.

A TNT spokesman said the company was co-operating fully with the police investigation ordered by Chancellor Alistair Darling on November 15, five days after he was informed of the discs' disappearance.

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But the company stressed that, as HMRC did not use track-and-trace services for the mailing, there was no way of proving whether or not the package ever entered its system.

"We have been given absolutely no proof either from HMRC or from the police that these discs ever entered the TNT system, let alone that we have mislaid them," said a company spokesman.

"HMRC confirmed to us last night that they use two other companies for internal mail."

An HMRC spokesman confirmed that the agency used other courier services, but declined to identify them. The hunt for the missing discs was "wide-ranging and comprehensive" and would look into every aspect of where they could be, he said.

But he added: "All the evidence points to the fact that these discs are still on our premises."

The Royal Mail yesterday carried out an internal search of its Returned Letter Centre in Belfast at HMRC's request, but turned up no trace of the missing package.

The centre deals with mail within the Royal Mail system that has been wrongly or incorrectly addressed.

A Royal Mail spokesman said: "HMRC asked us to check our Belfast Returned Letter Centre to see if the missing package sent by TNT had mistakenly been put into our system.

"But HMRC has stressed to us there is absolutely no reason to suppose the package had erroneously entered the Royal Mail network."

The political fall-out from the massive data loss, which led to the resignation of HMRC chairman Paul Gray, was today reflected in the first opinion poll since the news broke on Tuesday.

The IMC survey for The Guardian, carried out on Wednesday and Thursday, put Labour down four points over the past month on 31 per cent.

But it suggested that the leaderless Liberal Democrats, and not David Cameron's Conservatives, are capitalising most on the Government's difficulties.

Buoyed by well-received performances by acting leader Vince Cable in debates over the data loss and the Northern Rock credit crisis, the Lib Dems boosted their rating to 23%, while the Tories slumped three points to 37 per cent.

Labour MPs are dreading further revelations in the Sunday press, and the incident will be put under the spotlight once again on Monday, when Data Protection Minister Michael Wills is due to face a grilling from the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.

Shadow home secretary David Davis branded the HMRC case "the worst and most catastrophic loss of data in the history of humankind" and said it added weight to the arguments against ID cards and the national identity register.

Mr Davis confirmed that he would cancel the register's centralised database if the Tories came to power, and suggested that Mr Brown may come under considerable pressure from Labour backbenchers to drop it.

In an interview to be broadcast on GMTV's Sunday Programme tomorrow, Mr Davis said: "A key thing to look for is the removal of the central database.

"Frankly, I'd be relatively kind to them if they do that. We would be sensible about it and we'd encourage it."

Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said: "ID cards will help to prevent illegal migration and identity fraud by making it harder for criminals to assume the identity of law-abiding members of the public.

"The National Identity Register uses existing Government databases. By linking biometric information to those records we will, in fact, be making existing records more secure."

Meanwhile the Scottish government has become embroiled in its own data fiasco after the personal details of 200 people were also lost in the post.

The executive said the loss of the package containing pension benefit statements was a "serious matter".

The package was one of 162 dispatched from the Scottish Public Pensions Agency (SPPA) to NHS Greater Glasgow on October 26, and contained names and National Insurance numbers, but no addresses and no bank account details,

A Government statement said: "We consider this to be a serious matter and our inquiries are continuing to ascertain the whereabouts of the unaccounted-for package.

"There is no reason to suspect fraud or theft and Fed Ex are currently working to trace the package.

"If the package remains unaccounted for once inquiries are completed, affected individuals will be fully informed.

"There is a review under way around data handling issues in the Scottish Government."

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