AN INVESTIGATION has begun into a data leak blunder involving the personal details of 1,900 housing benefit claimants in Basingstoke and Deane.

As exclusively reported last Friday, the information, which includes each claimant’s name, address and National Insurance number, was accidentally released by Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council to a person who made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. No bank details were released.

The borough council has written letters of apology to those affected, warning them that their personal details have been released, and offering advice on how to combat fraud.

It has also said it will carry out an investigation and has referred the leak to Hampshire Constabulary and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

David Murphy, from the ICO, confirmed that the watchdog was looking into the potential breach of data protection laws, and said potential outcomes could include issuing an enforcement notice or imposing a fine of up to £500,000.

He added: “The first job is to investigate and find out what happened, and then to find out what appropriate action to take at the end of it.

“Not releasing bank details is not necessarily a reason for this not to be considered a serious case.”

The mystery person making the FOI request had asked for information about people who claim housing benefit, and who also rent a property from a private landlord.

Laura Taylor, director of governance and commissioning at Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, said: “I am very sorry that this mistake has happened and for the inconvenience and distress this may cause.

“We take the security of personal information extremely seriously and we get a high volume of Freedom of Information requests. We have taken immediate steps to further tighten our procedures and will act on any lessons from the review and investigation.”

She added: “It is likely that the person who got the information was making enquiries to lots of different councils to compare statistics and will not even realise that they have the personal information, but we cannot be 100 per cent certain.

“I do not want to worry people unnecessarily but felt that it was only right that we let the people affected know what has happened, and give them advice on what they can do to protect themselves with our help.”