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Friday, 14 February, 2003, 07:48 GMT
Whitehall computer abuse unveiled
Computer mouse and keyboard, Eyewire
E-government has its problems too

The scale of computer misuse in government departments has been revealed in new figures - with a handful of civil servants leaving their jobs or put on final warnings.

Figures for recent years released in a set of parliamentary answers show Whitehall has not escaped the problem of computer misuse and "cyber slacking".

Dismissed: 0
Downgraded: 1
Financial penalty: 2
Reprimand: 199
Source: Treasury
On the figures so far released the Inland Revenue, with its 70,000 staff, has suffered the most cases of misuse, but there has also been disciplinary action in other departments.

Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb, who asked for the figures, suggested they confirmed fears about giving government officials too much access to information.

The trade union representing senior civil servants, however, says the number of cases is "fairly low" for the numbers involved.

Tax staff

Government is hardly alone, however, with a recent survey suggesting cyber slackers were costing Britain's small businesses almost 1.5bn per year.

The computer misuse among taxmen has already prompted the Inland Revenue to warn its staff.

That warning came after it was found some employees were looking at celebrities' tax returns.

Steve Webb
Webb: Figures show some worrying trends
Last year, disciplinary action was taken in 205 cases, up from 56 in 1998.

Figures given in a parliamentary answer to Conservative MP George Osborne show three people were dismissed last year because of misuse at the Inland Revenue.

Another person was "downgraded", said Treasury Minister Dawn Primarolo, two paid financial penalties and another 199 received reprimands.

No staff were prosecuted, however.

Professor Webb said the figures he had so far received showed different levels of abuse for different departments.

"Clearly there are some worrying trends, such as the fact that Customs and Excise have now investigated 101 cases this year and it was only one case three years ago," he told BBC News Online.

"Either it was going on for a long time and no one has noticed, or there is a growing problem.

"One of the problems is that there is a tendency in government to pooh-pooh anyone who says we are not sure about giving officials access to information."

The new figures suggested officials were not always as good as they should be, added Prof Webb.

Strict e-mail rules

Customs and Excise has more than 20,000 staff, most of whom have access to internal e-mail and external internet services.

Disciplinary action was taken in 42 of the 101 cases investigated last year, according to Treasury figures.

But a Customs spokesman stressed that 83 of the cases investigated were about e-mail.
Whitehall has not proved immune to computer abuse problems

"Regulations with regard to use of e-mail are fairly strict," he said. "For example, you cannot send Christmas cards."

There were no serious infringements concerning personal data, he said.

Six of the cases concerned IT systems and four database access.

The Customs spokesman stressed it was very difficult for staff to do any "celebrity browsing" of customs record, as they were not recorded by name, only by VAT number.

There are fewer cases of misuse in other departments, which have fewer staff, but some of those appear to be more serious.

Downloading porn

Culture Minister Kim Howells said there had been 11 cases in his department in the last five years - all in 1999.

Two of the cases involved "accessing inappropriate material in the internet" - which saw one employee resign and one given a final written warning.

The other nine cases were over "inappropriate use of e-mail", with one person instantly dismissed, five given verbal warnings and three receiving final written warnings.

At the Foreign Office, minister Bill Rammell said disciplinary action had been taken in five cases in the last five years.

One of those was for "downloading pornographic material", Mr Rammell said in his written answer.

'Fairly low'

Another was due to offensive language being used in an e-mail and there were four cases of browsing "inappropriate internet sites".

At the Cabinet Office, a total of 25 people have been disciplined for "inappropriate use of the internet" since 1998 - with only one case last year.

A spokesman for the First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants, said the number of cases were "fairly low given the number of employees involved".

The association was working with all departments to develop reasonable policies on internet and email use, he said.

Transparency was the priority "so staff know what is and is not considered acceptable practice".

See also:

17 Jul 02 | Business
15 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
09 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
04 Sep 02 | Technology
05 Mar 02 | Business
06 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
21 Jun 02 | Science/Nature

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