HM Revenue and Customs
Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office
3:31 pm

Photo of George Osborne

George Osborne (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Treasury; Tatton, Conservative)

The Prime Minister says that the first duty of Government is the protection of the citizen, and today we discover from the Chancellor that the Government are responsible for breaching that duty of protection to 25 million citizens. Let us be clear about the scale of this catastrophic mistake: the names, the addresses and the dates of birth of every child in the country are sitting on two computer discs that are apparently lost in the post; and the bank account details and national insurance numbers of 10 million parents, guardians and carers have gone missing. Half the country will be very anxious about the safety of their family and the security of their bank accounts, and the whole country will be wondering how on earth the Government allowed this to happen.

The Chancellor has to answer the most serious questions. On the question of safety, what contingency plans have been drawn up with the police lest it become clear that millions of personal details have fallen into the wrong hands? On the question of financial security, I understand what the Chancellor said about the precautionary measures taken by the banks this weekend, and I agree with him that people need not contact their banks, but since he has asked millions of people to monitor their accounts, many may well do so. What steps have been taken by the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority to prepare for any potential financial instability?

If fraud does occur—and of course it is good to hear that there is no evidence of that at present—where will the liability for any losses rest? The Chancellor said at the end of his statement that people would not lose out. Does that mean that the responsibility now rests with the Government, and, in effect, is the Chancellor now offering another general guarantee to depositors and people with bank accounts?

On the question of how this extraordinary security breach could ever have happened, what is the point of the House passing laws to protect the privacy of people's personal information if those laws are not even enforced at the heart of Government? As the Chancellor himself said, this is the third, and by far and away the most serious breach by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs this year. In August, a laptop containing the personal details of 400 taxpayers was stolen after being left in a car overnight, and 15,000 people's details were lost. [Hon. Members: "He said that."] He did say it, and it is worth reminding ourselves why there has been a catalogue of mistakes at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. When did the Chancellor first become aware that the security protocols in his own Department were absolutely worthless, and what did he do about it?

We know that it was about 21 days before the breach in security was brought to the Chancellor's attention—incidentally, two days after it was brought to the attention of senior management in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Why did the Chancellor then wait for four days before contacting the police? Does he remember just who has been running the Inland Revenue for the last 10 years? The Prime Minister. Can he tell us when he told the Prime Minister about this fiasco?

Finally, there is the issue of how we stop this from ever happening again. I welcome the inquiries that are under way, but can the Chancellor confirm that the police are investigating not just the individual responsible for sending the discs, but those above that individual who are responsible for ensuring that the law is properly enforced in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs? Does he agree that today must mark the final blow to the Government's ambition to create a national ID card? They simply cannot be trusted with people's personal information.

Since he came to office less than six months ago, the Chancellor has lurched from one crisis to another. Now his Department has compromised the security and safety of every family in the land. This autumn, the Prime Minister said he had shown that the Government could be competent, and now needed to set out his vision. There are 25 million people whose personal details have been lost by this Government. Never mind the lack of vision; just get a grip, and deliver a basic level of competence.

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