HM Revenue and Customs

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 20th November 2007.

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Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Chancellor of the Exchequer 3:31 pm, 20th November 2007

I think the whole House will agree that the way in which this was handled was inexcusable. HM Revenue and Customs has well laid down and established procedures which were breached, and which there is no excuse whatsoever for breaching. As I told the House, it is a matter of extreme regret that so many people will be caused anxiety as a result of what happened.

There are two points. First, the police investigation is continuing, and as we ascertain more about what happened, we will be able to learn lessons for the future. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked what was being done in the meantime. Senior management have instructed that no information is to be downloaded from computers in this way without the authority of a very senior member of the Revenue and Customs, and that in the event that it proves necessary to make that information available to other people, the procedures will be tightened up.

It is obvious to me from the information that I have that in the event of the NAO's wishing to audit a large amount of information of this kind, procedures will provide for the NAO to go to where the information was stored rather than its being transmitted. The senior management have tightened up on those procedures so that this does not happen again, but we will obviously want to learn from the conclusions of the inquiry that I have asked Kieran Poynter to carry out.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. First, as I have said, the banks have put in place all the precautions they think they can reasonably put in place to guard against any unusual activity. I repeat that neither the police nor the banks have any evidence to suggest that the information has fallen into the wrong hands or that it is being used for fraudulent or other criminal purposes. The hon. Gentleman asks what would happen if a particular set of circumstances were to arise. I hope that he realises that for obvious reasons the police do not particularly want me to speculate on what they might do in the event that they suspect a crime is taking place, but I can assure the House that the Metropolitan police is very aware of the risks and is addressing them.

The hon. Gentleman also asked specific questions about when I was told and what I did. As I said in my statement, I was told about this on the morning of 10 November and I instructed that there should be an immediate, thorough search by experienced, trained customs officers of every place where the discs might be found. That took place. I also asked that HMRC undertake a thorough investigation of what should happen. However, despite being told on Monday that there was every chance that we would be able to recover the disks—which would, of course, have been the preferable course of action—it was clear to me that that was not going to happen, which is why I asked the Metropolitan police to be called in.

There was one thing I was very conscious of, and it was why I took advice from the Information Commissioner: that before I made a public statement the House would expect me to do everything I reasonably could with the banks to put in place measures to protect the public. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman disagrees with my judgment on that, but I think I had a duty to give the banks time to put in place the necessary protections, especially when I was advised that that was the right thing to do by the Information Commissioner and especially when I was told by the banks that they wanted as much notice as possible before this became public knowledge. The hon. Gentleman asked when I told the Prime Minister. Within about half an hour of my being told, I spoke to the Prime Minister. The two of us discussed what we ought to do, and I have kept him informed ever since.

The last point that the hon. Gentleman makes way in relation to identity cards. The key thing about identity cards is, of course, that they will mean that information is protected by personal biometric information. The problem at present is that, because we do not have that protection, information is much more vulnerable than it should be.

In conclusion, as I have informed the House, this is a deeply regrettable incident that should never have happened, but I am now doing everything I possibly can to safeguard the public interest because that is the right thing to do.