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

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 Commiss-ioner’s Office (ICO).

David Murphy, from the ICO, confirmed the watchdog is 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 said: “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.

The borough council said the personal information was sent in reply by mistake. The council has not been able to contact the person who received the information since the mistake was spotted.

A 47-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, received a letter from the borough council to say her details had been released.

She said: “I am worried and I am annoyed as well – there is a risk of identity fraud. I called them (the borough council) straight away and they listed what to do to protect myself. They have said they are willing to pay for us to sign up to the UK’s Fraud Prevention Service and they are saying they will pay for everybody. They are obviously very worried and they were very apologetic on the phone.”

Laura Taylor, director of governance and commissioning at the 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 extre-mely seriously and we get a high volume of Freedom of Information requests.”