THE infamous “missing discs” containing records of 25million people, which disappeared from a Wearside office, have probably been destroyed, according to the minister responsible at the time.
Former Chancellor Alistair Darling relives the horror of the scandal in November 2007 when the discs – which contained rafts of personal information on 7.25million families and 25million individuals – were lost after being sent from the HM Custom and Revenue’s offices in Washington.
The discs contained details of all child benefit recipients, and details included recipient and their children’s names, addresses and dates of birth, child benefit numbers, national insurance numbers and, in some cases, bank or building society account details
“It could scarcely have been more dreadful,” said Mr Darling. “In the days that followed, both buildings were scoured from top to bottom. The officials involved were questioned.”
In his memoir, Back from the Brink, the former Chancellor reveals how he was at his Edinburgh home when he was informed of the missing data November 10, 2007.
He ordered a search to make sure the discs were really lost before informing the police on the Wednesday and Parliament the following week.
He also said banks and building societies had to be informed and given time to prepare.
Mr Darling revealed he and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown accepted police had to be involved – but admitted that would “reinforce the view that the Government was not in control”.
He said police and financial regulators did not want a premature public announcement to advertise to criminals that the valuable information might be available to them.
Mr Darling claimed HMRC bosses failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation – and he later ordered an inquiry and accepted the resignation of the organisation’s chairman, Paul Gray.
“More than that, I was told places had been searched which then turned out not to be the case,” he said.
To add to the pressure, Mr Darling had to fly to South Africa for a meeting of the G20 group of finance ministers before informing Parliament.
He said while he did not want to go, he did not want to raise suspicions if he remained in London.
Mr Darling said he was therefore furious to discover that the loss of the discs had been leaked just before he was due to make a statement to Parliament on November 20, 2007.
He said he briefed his Liberal Democrat and Tory counterparts, Vince Cable and George Osborne, on a confidential basis that day – but believes the leak could have come from inside the Government.
He said: “The real problem was that in people’s minds the episode called into question the Government’s competence. Stories started to appear about the loss of sensitive data all over Government.
“The discs never were found. The organisation within the HMRC meant that it was far from clear who was responsible.
“There remains to this day no evidence that the information fell into the wrong hands. My guess is that the discs were destroyed once it was clear that the hunt was on, possibly within days.”