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No. 10 Morning Press Briefing From 21 Nov 2007


Morning press briefing from 21 November 2007

Briefing from the British Prime Minister's Spokesman on: HMRC, Football and Alcohol

HMRC (HM Revenue & Customs)

Asked if the Chancellor had been correct when he said that the situation at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) had nothing to do with elements such as merging the departments, cutting jobs and the IT system used, the PMS reminded journalists that the National Audit Office (NAO) recognised in a report in February 2007 that where headcount reductions had been made, HMRC's performance had not been adversely affected, and in some areas had improved substantially. In addition, the Adjudicator for HMRC, Dame Barbara Mills, said in her 2006/7 annual report that there was nothing to suggest that the merger of the two former departments had so far had a negative impact on HMRC customers. As the Chancellor had also said, there was of course an independent review being established, being led by the Chairman of Price Waterhouse Coopers to look at HMRC's data handling procedures.

Asked if, in this case, Ministers were taking the blame for what had happened, the PMS said that this particular case was about an individual breaching procedures not about failure in the procedures as such. As he had said, there would be an independent review, undertaken by the Chairman of Price Waterhouse Coopers, looking at HMRC's data handling procedures. The Chancellor was very clear yesterday that what we were talking about was a breach of procedures.

Put that if the procedures were designed correctly then they could not be breached, the PMS said that clearly they had been breached and, as the Chancellor had also said, it was clearly unacceptable that they had been breached in this way. Again, we were talking about a breach of procedures as a result of the actions of one individual, but on the wider point, there would be an independent review looking at HMRC's date handling procedures.

Asked if it was the case that one individual acted completely alone, the PMS said that he was not in a position to comment on the specifics; the Chancellor had provided information to the House of Commons yesterday and that was the authoritative account of what had happened, but no doubt there would be further investigations.

Asked if it was the same junior official who had been involved in the three reported breaches of security, the PMS said he was sure somebody would know the answer but he did not have that information to hand.

Asked if the Government would now look at the question of Government databases and how many people had access to them, the PMS said that the Government was looking at this wider issue which was why the Prime Minister announced, in his Liberty speech a couple of weeks ago, that he had asked the Information Commissioner and the Director of the Welcome trust Professor Mark Walport, to carry out a review of the framework in the UK to ensure the security of personal data. The review will look at Government departments as well as other organisations.

Asked if it was the case that the events at HMRC had in no way undermined the case for Identity cards, the PMS said that the case for Identity cards remained the same; obviously in the design process they were factoring in security measures, as would be expected. Biometrics, such as fingerprints, would link a person securely and reliably to his or her unique identity, which meant that it should become much more difficult to misuse another person's identity, even if the full details of his or her biographical information were known.

Asked how junior the civil servant involved in the case was, the PMS said he was not in a position to make any comments about individuals.

Asked if the Government had such a thing in mind as extra powers and resources to carry out spot checks on Government departments, which the Information Commissioner had called for today, the PMS said that that was something the Government would need to consider.

Asked if it was certain that the situation at HMRC had not been handled by a more senior official, the PMS said that the Chancellor had set out the information on this during his statement to the House of Commons yesterday. The PMS said he was not in a position to comment on specific individuals in relation to this case, but as he had said, an independent review on HMRC databases had been initiated.

Asked if the NAO request for the details had itself been out of order, the PMS said that questions about NAO procedures were best directed to them.

Put that the NAO should have alerted HMRC to the fact that they had not received the discs, the PMS repeated that questions about NAO procedures were best directed to them.

Put that these were questions about procedures between NAO and HMRC, the PMS said that the issues relating to HMRC were being looked at and that would no doubt form part of the independent review that was now underway. He repeated that questions relating to the NAO's role in the events were best directed towards them.

Asked if the Government could give any assurance that HMRC had not successfully been sending discs full of personal data to people who had been asking for it, the PMS replied that there were established procedures in relation to the treatment of data which were not adhered to in this particular case, and again referred journalists to the wider review of data security issues that was being conducted at HMRC.

Asked if the KPMG inquiry would look for and report other incidences of breaching of data handling procedure, the PMS said it was looking at the wider issue.

Put that the vagueness of the language used in regards to the KPMG report suggested that what actually happened and how many times things had gone wrong would not necessarily be looked at, the PMS said that the KPMG report was not a report into this particular case, it was about HMRC security processes and procedures for data handling, which would suggest that the report was looking at the wider set of issues.

Asked if the three cases of security breaches and allegations of further ones would be grouped together and looked at, the PMS said that that was something which would have to be considered by the reviewer. He repeated that the review was not about this particular case at HMRC, it was about wider issues.

Asked if there was a reason why banks were not informed of what had happened at the same time as the police, the PMS said that his understanding was that the banks were told shortly after the police were informed but obviously the first priority was to inform the police from which subsequent action was then taken.

Asked if there was any update on the police inquiry into the loss of the discs, the PMS said no, not from us.

Asked if Ministers were getting regular reports from the Metropolitan Police and Northumbria Police, the PMS said that it was best to check with the Treasury on exactly what information they were getting from the police and how frequently they were getting that information.

Asked if this was just a breach of civil service rules and procedures or if there was any possibility of criminal charges, the PMS replied that that was a matter which the Information Commissioner, who was responsible for enforcing the Data Protection Act, would no doubt need to look into.

Football

Asked if the Prime Minister was going to Wembley this evening, the PMS said no; the Prime Minister would be preparing for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which was dealing with, among other things, the issue of Pakistan.

Alcohol

Asked if the Prime Minister had outlined any specific proposals on alcohol at the seminar this morning, the PMS said that they had had a good seminar with alcohol retailers and manufacturers and enforcement agencies this morning. The purpose of the seminar was to tell the alcohol industry the action the Government was taking over the coming months to tackle binge drinking, to help people drink sensibly and to discuss what more they could do. The Prime Minister summed up the meeting by saying that he thought it was clear that the solution lay beyond the stream of individual measures; it was about creating a cultural shift and having local coordination, better education and enforcement and individuals taking personal responsibility. It was not just about small individual measures, it was about looking at the issue in a much wider context.

Asked if the Prime Minister made any suggestions to the drinks industry regarding what more he would like them to do or might ask them to do, the PMS said that the Government clearly had concerns about underage drinking and the importance of dealing with this issue was emphasised at the seminar. We were already taking action on a number of fronts more generally on alcohol, not least the review of the Licensing Act, which would report early next year.

Asked what the cultural shift should be and whether it implied that we did not need any more revisions of the law, the PMS said that we were not saying we did not need any more revisions of the law and that we were reviewing the licensing laws. It was about more joint work at local levels; having better coordination; better education and better enforcement of existing laws.

ENDS

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