Priti Patel has launched an internal investigation into the accidental deletion of hundreds of thousands of police records, amid claims it took 48 days to identify the error.
Home Office minister Kit Malthouse said the loss of Police National Computer (PNC) data is “unacceptable”, expressed optimism about its recovery and pledged to return to the Commons to update MPs when he knew more about the impact of the incident.
He was unable to give a guarantee that no criminal case could be compromised by the loss of police records, but ruled out any criminal intent behind the “human error” and defective code which led to the deletion of a significant number of fingerprint, DNA and arrest history records.
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) January 18, 2021
Initially, some 150,000 records were believed to have been affected, but it has emerged that the number is far higher than first thought, at about 400,000.
Labour said the faulty script behind the error was introduced into the PNC on November 23.
Mr Malthouse confirmed the script was introduced six weeks ago, but added that it did not run until Saturday “when the error within it became immediately apparent”.
Home Secretary Ms Patel also faced questions about her whereabouts from opposition MPs, given one of her junior colleagues made the statement to the Commons, with shadow justice secretary David Lammy sharing on Twitter a “missing” poster with the Home Secretary’s image on it.
Ahead of the Commons statement, Ms Patel told the PA news agency: “It is our priority always to keep the public safe.
“We are working with our policing partners, our operational partners and we have been every day since this technical coding error has been identified.
“Everyone is working flat out on this. We want to reconcile the data, we want to correct what has happened but that is a major, major technical operation right now and everybody is working flat out on this.”
Mr Malthouse went on to tell MPs: “While any loss of data is unacceptable, I can say that other tried-and-tested law enforcement systems are in place which contain linked data and reports to support policing partners in their day-to-day efforts to keep us safe.”
He added: “I will urge patience while we continue our rapid internal investigation and begin the recovery. I hope the House will appreciate that the task in front of us is a complex one.
“Public safety is the top priority of everyone working at the Home Office and I have full faith that Home Office engineers and our partners in the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the police forces across the country, who they are working with, are doing all they can to restore this data.
“While this is rightly our immediate priority, clearly the Home Secretary and I have commissioned an internal review as to the circumstances which led to this incident so that lessons can be learned. I will update this House regularly on the process.”
Mr Malthouse explained that officials were in phase two out of four in their bid to see if they can recover the data, and he hopes to have an update within days.
It’s shameful – and, frankly, embarrassing – for the Home Secretary not to come to Parliament today.
It’s an abject failure of leadership not to grip a crisis that has seen 400,000 records deleted and criminals set to walk free. https://t.co/Ps6ywDQUyK
— Nick Thomas-Symonds MP (@NickTorfaen) January 18, 2021
For Labour, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds criticised Ms Patel for not answering questions in Parliament.
He said: “I must ask, where is the Home Secretary? 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. It’s what previous home secretaries have done in a crisis – on the passport office, on Windrush, on knife crime, whatever their mistakes, home secretaries came and answered to this House, they didn’t just offer a media clip as has happened today.
“This Home Secretary failing on violent crime, failing on the Windrush compensation scheme, with chaos on border testing, found to have broken the ministerial code, now won’t 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’s nowhere to be seen.”
Labour’s Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) also asked: “Can he give the House an absolute guarantee that no investigation has been or will be compromised because of the deleted information and that couldn’t be cross-referenced?”
Mr Malthouse replied: “We will know the full extent of the impact of this issue over the next few days as our plan swings into action and we are working very closely with police forces across the country, through the National Police Chiefs’ Council, to make sure that any operational impact is obviated or mitigated.”