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18 June 2008, 13:57

Government fears over stolen PC

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Government officials fear that sensitive documents could fall into the wrong hands, after a PC was stolen from the Salford constituency office of Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, on Saturday the 14th of June. On Tuesday night it emerged that the PC contained documents that had been emailed to Blears in breach of rules designed to protect classified documents.

In a statement, Peter Housden, top civil servant with the Department of Communities and Local Government, said "It is clear that papers have been sent to Hazel Blears in a way that is not fully consistent with the departmental guidance,". He argued no damage has been done because the documents were not classified as secret or top secret, and said the computer was password-protected, however the data on the PC is not believed to have been encrypted. Housden said "I have instructed my officials that departmental procedures, guidance, and the awareness and accessibility of that guidance are now strengthened to ensure this does not happen again," – "I take full responsibility for ensuring this is done."

According to a report in the Financial Times, a spokesman for Blears' office said procedures on the handling of "lower-level" classified material were not "as clear as they should be".

Following the break-in, in which burglars smashed through reinforced glass, Prime Minister Gordon Brown notified his cabinet to have permanent secretaries review security arrangements.

The Conservatives singled out three documents in particular that appear to have been emailed to Blears' computer and which could be problematic. The first is a "narrative" of what the department is doing to tackle violent extremism, including moves to tackle extremism in mosques. The second is an assessment of the housing market, dating from March, and the third is a paper specifying internal cabinet discussions on a planning bill. The Conservatives argue Blears could be guilty of breaking the Official Secrets Act over the affair. Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said threat assessments of extremism could also have been lost. According to a report, Grieve said "The news that a government minister may have been directly responsible for the loss of data relating to extremism is extremely alarming,".

Last week a cabinet office official was suspended and an investigation launched, after secret papers featuring detailed information on al-Qaeda and security conditions in Iraq, were left on a train. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith will be questioned before a House of Commons select committee after plans for attacking terrorist funding networks were also left on a train.

(Matthew Broersma)


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