Britain's Brown apologises over lost data

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LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised today for Britain's tax authority losing the personal details of nearly half the population in an error which has dealt a new blow to his Labour government.

The loss in the mail of two computer discs containing data on 25 million people exposed victims to the risk of fraud and is potentially Britain's biggest data security lapse.

It also increased pressure on finance minister Alistair Darling, who was accused by the opposition conservatives of making an appalling blunder and is already under fire over a banking debacle involving mortgage lender Northern Rock.

''I profoundly regret and apologise for the inconvenience and worries that have been caused to millions of families...,'' Brown told parliament when questioned about the data loss.

''When mistakes happen in imposing procedures we have a duty to do everything that we can to protect the public,'' he said, promising a review of personal data security.

The government says there is no evidence the discs, which disappeared after being sent via Dutch mail and parcel company TNT NV , have fallen into criminal hands.

But Conservative leader David Cameron said: ''Millions of people today will be worrying about the safety of their bank accounts and the security of their family details ... they will be angry that the government has failed in its first duty to protect the public.'' In noisy clashes in parliament, Cameron said the breach pointed to a systemic failure in a department overseen by Brown during his decade as finance minister before he replaced Tony Blair as prime minister in June.

DARLING UNDER FIRE The data loss was a new setback for Darling because he is responsible for the tax authority.

He has been heavily criticised over the situation at Northern Rock, which suffered the first run on a British bank in more than a century. Its borrowings from the Bank of England have reached an estimated 25 billion pounds (51 billion dollars).

Political analysts said the data loss, which prompted the resignation of the head of the tax authority, could badly damage the government.

''I think it's just a colossal error that I think could really rebound on the government's popularity,'' said Lancaster University politics professor David Denver.

''What people think about governments these days is not so much about ideology, but about competence, and here we have truly massive incompetence,'' he said.

After an initial strong start, Brown's fortunes have turned after he raised expectations of an early parliamentary election only to rule it out following a surge by the Conservatives.

His Labour Party, which had an 11-point opinion poll lead in September, now lags the Conservatives by up to six points.

The scandal led to calls for Britain to scrap plans to introduce compulsory identity cards but Darling said the government would press ahead with the plans.

REUTERS RSA RN2157

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