Laptop with thousands of children's details stolen

A major investigation has been launched after a computer holding information about 33,000 Wigan schoolchildren was snatched from education headquarters.

Families all over the borough are receiving letters from the Wigan Council seeking to reassure them following the theft.

The burglary at Progress House - the main offices of Wigan Council's Children and Young People's Services - actually took place on the evening of Tuesday January 27.

Metro chiefs today defended withholding the information for more than two months, saying they wanted to seek advice from both the police and Information Commissioners before deciding what to do next.

Both the commissioners and the council have already instigated inquiries into the theft, whether security should have been tighter or how it could be improved in future.

During the raid several laptop computers were taken, one of which contained information from one of the authority's main school improvement databases.

However the information is password protected and bosses believe that it will be of little use to those who stole the computer.

Wigan Council's Director of Children and Young People's Services Nick

Hudson, said: "This database includes information on most children and young people in Year 3 and above in Wigan's schools.

"The information includes names, dates of birth, postcodes, ethnicity and, where applicable, details of any special educational needs or eligibility for free school meals.

"There is also data on achievement in national curriculum assessments, which is the main purpose of the database."

It is believed that the database contains information on up to 33,000 children and young people. CYPS bosses are currently in the process of writing to the parents and carers of all those affected.

Police in Wigan have been informed and are investigating the break-in.

Mr Hudson said: "Apart from the names, the data on the children is in the form of numbers and codes and there are no comments or individual case note.

Click next page for more ..."We think it is unlikely that the thieves have tried to access the data, which is password protected.

"We have taken the step of informing the public of the borough about the theft because we believe people deserve to know what has happened."

Oppostion councillor Gareth Fairhurst, however, said there were several questions that needed answering about the theft, not least whether the computers had been kept in a locked cupboard and whether the data was encrypted as well as password-protected.

He said: "As a parent with one of my children's details on this laptop, I am outraged. I have asked if the laptops were in a locked cupboard and encrypted. If neither these basic principles are in place and there has been a lapse on Wigan Council in the simplest matter I will not hesitate to report Wigan Council to the Data Commissioner on this matter.

"I will be writing to the Chief Executive once I have had a response to my inquiries."

The theft has also been reported to the national Information Commissioner's Office, which will produce a report that will include any steps that should be taken to prevent any future such losses of data.

Mr Hudson added: "We believe that this information will be of no use or interest to the people who stole the computer and it is possible that it has already been deleted. However we are investigating this incident thoroughly and we are working very hard to learn the lessons and to ensure that our children's privacy is protected as well as possible in the future."

As far as the delayed release of the information is concerned, a council spokesman said: "We held consultations with both the police and the Information Commissioners about what the best approach would be and these have taken some time.

"We are not under a legal obligation to publish details but we wanted to be up-front about this. We also wanted to ensure that parents found out by letter before reading about it in the paper."

Anyone with information about the burglary or the whereabouts of the stolen laptops is urged to contact the police.

Parents who have concerns about the incident can contact Wigan Council's Children and Young People's Services Department on the following numbers: (01942) 486123 and (01942) 486124.