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21 November 2007, 15:23

As reported earlier the loss of the Child Benefit database by the UK tax authority has caused the resignation of the agency's Chairman.

Numerous commentators have mentioned the unprecedented scale of the potential leak and the possible consequences in terms of fraud and "identity theft". A suitable sacrifice has also been offered up to appease the public until the next such incident overshadows this one. However, in the rush to protect our bank accounts, those responsible for the incident and its possible aftermath seem to have missed the point. Unlike the September loss from the same Office, this time it's no ordinary database that has gone missing.

Let's pause for an instant and look at what it is: the Child Benefit database. It must necessarily include a record of the name, address, gender and age of every child under 16 years of age in the country. In terms of intrusion into privacy, this puts the currently controversial fingerprinting of school children rather in the shade, and in terms of Child Protection it is necessarily in a completely different league. But surprisingly, this has attracted little attention in the media.

Terri Dowty, Director of Action on Rights for Children has gone further, commenting “This appalling security lapse has placed children in the UK in immediate danger especially those who are already vulnerable." Indeed, the information collected from Child Benefit applicants easily allows a detailed profile to be built of domestic stability and vulnerability.

Given that this is not the first incident this year and the errors that led to the last were identical, HMRC clearly need to get their act together. But in view of the special sensitivity of this database it is indeed amazing that it was not specially classified. Nevertheless, the loss of the Chairman is unlikely to contribute positively to the solution of what are clearly low-level procedural problems, and might indeed trigger departmental reorganisation of a broader nature in the throes of which the critical problem and its solution could be overlooked.

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