Britain’s banks have denied claims by chancellor Alistair Darling that they wanted him to delay his statement to Parliament about the loss of 25 million people’s records by HM Revenue and Customs.
In his Commons statement on Tuesday 20 November, Darling told MPs he had been informed of the huge data security breach – Britain’s biggest – on Saturday 10 November, 10 days previously.
But Darling said he had waited before informing MPs because of the need to “balance the imperative of informing the House and the public at the earliest opportunity with ensuring that when I did so the appropriate safeguards were in place to protect the public, including in relation to bank accounts”.
He added: “Indeed, the banks were adamant that they wanted as much time as possible to prepare for this announcement.”
Darling said he had also discussed the matter with the information commissioner on Thursday 15 November, “who agreed that appropriate remedial action needed to be taken before a public statement was made”.
But a spokesperson for the British Bankers Association said: “No bank asked for any delay to prepare for this announcement. The banks were informed last Friday (16 November) about the compromise, and data was released to the individual banks by Apacs at 9.30am on Monday (19 November) after clearance from the government.
“Banks than put ‘protective registration’ on those accounts, meaning they are being analysed for signs of fraudulent activity,” the spokesperson added.
The chancellor repeated his claim that the banks’ requirements were the reason for his delay during his Commons grilling.
Under pressure from opposition MPs, Darling reiterated: “I think I had a duty to give the banks time to put in place the necessary protections, especially when I was advised that that was the right thing to do by the information commissioner and especially when I was told by the banks that they wanted as much notice as possible before this became public knowledge.”
The chancellor had hoped that HMRC might be able to find the missing CDs holding the date. But by Wednesday 14 November it was clear that the missing CDs were not going to be found by customs officers who were conducting a search and he said the banks were notified on this date.
He told the Commons: “That is when the Metropolitan police were called in. At the same time — this is an important matter — I was acutely conscious that we had to give the banks time to put in place sensible precautions before it became public knowledge that the information was out there.
“The banks said that they needed time to put in place proper defences and it would have been wrong of me to ignore that advice.
The official spokeperson for prime minister Gordon Brown refused to answer questions about the chancellor’s comments on the banks at a press briefing on 22 November, where it was put to her that the banks had categorically denied asking for a delay. She replied that she was not going to get into any of these issues and had nothing to add to Darling’s statement.