The Parliamentary Ombudsman has criticised three government agencies for a "data sharing blame game" after they failed to put a citizen's data problems right after a complaint going back to 2006.
In a report published by Parliamentary Ombudsman Ann Abraham, the agencies are found to have collectively failed to deal with a data mistake, which led to a woman’s personal and financial information being wrongfully disclosed to her former partner, and her child support payments being reduced without her knowledge.
The report, "A Breach of Confidence", is the outcome of the ombudsman’s investigation into a complaint made by the woman against HM Revenue & Customs, the Child Support Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions.
In 2006, one of the government agencies involved incorrectly updated her records to show her living at her former partner’s address, although she had in fact never lived there.
After discovering her details had been changed, the woman tried to find out why and sought an assurance they had been corrected. She was passed from one government agency to the next, each denying responsibility, said the ombudsman. She then took the matter to her MP who subsequently referred it to the ombudsman.
The ombudsman upheld the woman's complaint and in her report found:
-The network of computer systems used by HM Revenue & Customs, the Child Support Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions could make changes to the woman's data without her knowledge or consent, yet an interrogation of that network cannot now locate the source of any errors
-Each of the agencies blamed another for the mistake and took the view that as the mistake had been made by "the system", there was nothing they could do. None of the agencies involved accepted responsibility for what had happened to the woman until the ombudsman became involved
-While these government agencies have computer systems that are networked and communicate with one another, "the agencies themselves clearly do not", said the ombudsman
Abraham said, "The complainant understandably found this experience extremely distressing. She was compelled to spend a good deal of time and money ensuring her records were correct, and she still lives with the fear of a recurrence."
She added, "The woman told us that her ultimate objective in pursuing her complaint was to have peace of mind that the source of the problem has been found and resolved, so that she can be assured the same problem will not happen again. Although the lack of an audit trail means it will never be possible to understand fully what happened, I hope my report will go some way towards giving her the peace of mind she seeks."
The three agencies have been instructed to apologise to the complainant, and to check the details they hold on her. She has also received £2,000 in compensation.
The ombudsman has also recommended that the three agencies, in discussion with the Cabinet Office, agree a "customer-focused protocol" to deal with similar complaints.
The ombudsman also recommends that the Cabinet Office "takes steps to ensure that lessons are learnt from the woman's experience, and that appropriate guidance is disseminated to all government departments".
All these recommendations have been accepted, said Abraham.