Nick Thomas-Symonds – 2021 Speech on Data Loss at the Home Office

The speech made by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2021.

I am grateful to the policing Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it, and I am grateful to him for his briefing over the weekend, but I must ask where the Home Secretary is. The loss of hundreds of thousands of pieces of data—data so important for apprehending suspects and safeguarding vulnerable people—is extraordinarily serious. It was the Home Secretary who needed to show leadership and take control. That is what previous Home Secretaries have done in a crisis. On the Passport Office, Windrush and knife crime, whatever their mistakes, Home Secretaries came to and answered to this House; they did not just offer a media clip, as has happened today. This Home Secretary, who is failing on violent crime and failing on the Windrush compensation scheme, with chaos on border testing, and who was found to have broken the ministerial code, will now not even answer to Parliament and the public on this most serious of issues. The Home Secretary likes to talk tough, but when the going gets tough, she is nowhere to be seen.

Will the Minister tell us when the Home Secretary first knew about the data loss and why the public had to find out from the media? Given that the initial reports were of 150,000 items of data, and the figure now seems to be over 400,000, can the Minister be sure of how much data has actually been lost? In his statement, the Minister said that on 10 January the process of deletion was stopped, but will he confirm that the faulty script was introduced into the police national computer on 23 November, meaning that the problem was not identified for 48 days?

The Minister said in his statement on Friday that

“the loss relates to individuals who were arrested and then released with no further action”.

This is serious in itself. For example, let us consider cases of domestic abuse: when suspects are released, the data becomes very important to protecting victims and making further arrests. In a letter, Deputy Chief Constable Malik, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for the police national computer, said that the deleted DNA contains

“records…marked for indefinite retention following conviction of serious offences.”

This is, therefore, not only data on individuals released with no further action; it includes data about convicted criminals, so will the Minister now correct the statement that he issued on Friday?

Will the Minister confirm whether 26,000 DNA records and 30,000 fingerprint records held on separate databases have been deleted? Will he assure the House that the engagement with the PNC to delete the Schengen information system—SIS II—database was unrelated? What is the full impact on the UK visa system from the data loss, and how is it affecting ongoing police investigations and intelligence gathering?

The PNC and the police national database are due to be replaced by the national law enforcement data programme, but the assessment by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority is that the successful delivery of the project is in doubt. Is it still in doubt? If so, why? There are reports that 18 months ago senior police outlined that the Home Office was not investing in the PNC and that it presented a significant risk to the police’s ability to protect the public. Was that warning heeded?

Finally, if it is not possible to recover data via the process currently under way, what contingency plans are in place to seek to recover the data via other means? Does the Minister accept that maintaining the security of this vital data is critical to addressing crime, bringing criminals to justice and keeping our communities safe, and that if the Home Office is not doing that, it is failing the public?