‘Sensitive’ data lost after social worker left court bundle on car roof and drove off

Council says it regrets incident that led to loss of documents containing personal data relating to 27 people

woman in car
Photo: tostphoto/Fotlia (posed by model)

Ealing council has been warned over data protection failings after a social worker left a court bundle containing “sensitive” information on the roof of her car and drove off.

Personal data relating to 27 people, including 14 children, was lost following the incident in February. After realising the files were missing the social worker searched the car park, retraced her journey home and made local enquiries but the documents were never recovered.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) criticised the local authority for failing to act on previous advice and improve training for its staff to make sure they knew how to look after personal information.

The council has signed up to measures to improve its data protection practices in light of the incident.

Training shortfalls

Sally-Anne Poole, enforcement manager at the ICO, said: “Many of us have no choice but to take work out of the office. But when that work includes personal data, there is an obligation to ensure its kept safe. People have a right to expect that will happen.

“Losing personal data – especially sensitive data – can cause damage and distress to the people involved.”

The ICO said 27% of Ealing’s social workers were temporary but the authority had no record of them having completed refresher data protection training.

The social worker involved had received training on data protection, but the commissioner’s investigation found only 68% of permanent staff in children’s social care had completed refresher training.

“It’s vital that if councils are using temporary staff they make sure they, as well as permanent staff, are up to speed with how to look after people’s personal information,” Poole said.

An Ealing council spokesperson said: “We regret that this has happened and fully accept the findings and recommendations of the ICO which we have begun to implement.”

30 Responses to ‘Sensitive’ data lost after social worker left court bundle on car roof and drove off

  1. Jim Greer November 17, 2016 at 11:24 am #

    This is an awful thing to happen but it is difficult to see how training can stop human error altogether. The most likely reason for this type of thing happening is that someone is stressed and tired from too much work or pre-occupied about their concerns about their cases or something in their personal life. Good supervision, support and sensible caseloads are the best safeguards to avoiding staff mistakes but nothing can stop them happening altogether. If this social worker is generally a good conscientious worker then I hope she is not treated punitively. Accidents happen.

    • Louise Dutson November 20, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

      I agree where there is human there is error. None of us are perfect and I am sure the sw did not intend to leave the documents on the roof of their car.

  2. chrissie November 17, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    Hopefully the SW will be sacked – to ‘lose’ personal, confidential information on 27 people is surely enough to sack someone – there is NO excuse for such carelessness whether or not they have rec’d training – if they’ve got no common sense or personal responsibility then they are in the wrong job

    • Steph November 20, 2016 at 8:54 pm #

      Unbelievable response!!!

      • Emily November 21, 2016 at 10:21 am #

        We have to empathise with this social worker as well. She is only human and no one in their right senses would just wake up one morning and intend to lose a file with confidential information. This can happen to anyone. Over the years I have learnt that no one is mistake-proof. Even the most careful of professionals are prone to making mistakes, some minor others more serious.

    • Hels November 21, 2016 at 9:39 pm #

      I agree

  3. Amanda November 17, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    Surely no one needs training to tell them not to leave a bundle f papers on the top of a car….maybe should be added to the driving test

    • Jim Greer November 17, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

      I once left a music cassette tape on the top of my car and drove off. Fortunately that was pretty harmless and it had the advantage of making me extra vigilant after that. If people are carrying a lot of baggage then laying stuff on their car roof while they struggle to get their car keys out is the sort of thing they do. Of course we should be especially vigilant with personal data but even the most competent person can forget something important, especially if they are tired.
      There are some pretty critical comments on here but I think any one of us is capable of a lapse of concentration at some point in their career. The only way we could eliminate human error is to replace them with robots.

      • Hels November 20, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

        No excuse it was a court bundle!!

  4. Ruth Cartwright November 17, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    I’m with those who have sympathy with the social worker concerned, although of course to have sensitive information blowing around the streets is not good. It was interesting that the Information Commissioner’s Office took the view that social workers sometimes have no choice but to take confidential information out of the office – I think there have been occasions when the poor social worker has been blamed for having so much work that they have to do this. I think we all need to remember to put any such paperwork in a bag which doesn’t leave our hand between the office door and when we are sitting in our cars.

  5. Jane Perry November 17, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

    Lucky for me, the only thing I’ve left on top of my car roof and then tried to drive away from is my car keys! Difficult to drive off with them not in the ignition, thankfully, it’s so easy to do something silly when you’re in a hurry.

  6. very mature student November 18, 2016 at 10:00 am #

    I am absolutely amazed at the above response from chrissie. I agree ‘losing’ confidential client information is a serious matter, however I very much doubt it was done intentionally. As Jim so eloquently puts it the most likely reasons are too much stress from cases or personal life, this needs to be explored by a supportive manager, without prejudice, and training/support offered as appropriate, this however will only ‘minimise risk’, and not remove it altogether. After all we are all human. As a SW where is your non judgemental, compassion? It is obvious to me it is chrissie who is in the wrong job.

    • Hels November 20, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

      It concerns me to think so many individuals here see this an ok!!! It’s simply not! Clearly the bundle was not being locked in the boot of the car!!! Data breech !!! Regardless as such info is not being moved in accordance with policy n procedure !!

      • very mature student November 21, 2016 at 11:14 am #

        I certainly don’t see it as an ‘ok’, however I am, like the unfortunate SW who made a momentary mistake, a human being and not a robot. We cannot ever remove the human element from SW, thankfully, no matter how hard the beurocrats may try.

    • Emily November 21, 2016 at 10:26 am #

      Can’t agree with you more. We need to stand outside the box and look at situations positively and not only think of punitive but rather supporting the already stressed and overloaded social workers. This can happen to anyone.

    • Hels November 21, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

      Professional judgement is a key area of practice though

      • very mature student November 22, 2016 at 9:27 am #

        Yes I agree, however so is Reflective Practice, an important area we can all learn and develop from, and I’m sure this SW will learn from her momentary lapse in concentration. Supporting her to do this is key.

        • Hels November 22, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

          I feel sure that if your sensitive information was scattered all over the ground, you’d not be so forgiving .

  7. Emma November 20, 2016 at 6:39 pm #

    Comments like Chrissie’s do not help. People forget things when they are too busy, too stressed and under too much pressure. We are all capable of leaving something somewhere when we have a million and one things on our minds. This social worker will have done plenty of effective, positive pieces of work which have improved the lives of other people, but we give her a hard time because of one human error. And we wonder why social work has a retention problem.

  8. Christina November 20, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    I don’t believe it’s about training it’s about the stress and pressure Sw under tiredness kicks in, heads overwhelmed and often you get out of court with another long list of jobs time scales that mean other areas of your work may go out of time scale..tiredness I remember getting up at 4am working till 8/9 pm as going to court in between. Unfortunately mistakes happen

  9. Dawnie November 20, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    This just highlights how easy it is to make mistakes when you’re mind is all over the place. I assume those who want the social worker sacked aren’t social workers, If they are then.may I suggest a refresher on empathy!! For those who judge, think of your computer with hundreds of pages open, it’s gonna crash eventually….. Mind give you an idea of what a social workers head is like!

    I scrapped my car on a car park bollardl last week, rushing to get to a meeting as I was late due to my previous meeting over running, my colleague filled up with petrol and forgot to pay, mistakes are easily made when you’re stressed and busy. Cut her.some slack

  10. Hels November 21, 2016 at 9:39 pm #

    I’m deeply troubled that individuals see this as a mistake!!!! Would they also see it as a mistake if it were their own highly confidential information a drift, would the child see it as a mistake, and what other significant mistakes are we now accepting !!!

    I for one do not view this as a mistake, lapse of thought, judgement or whatever, this s clear breech of policy!!!! How much fine did the local authority get!!!!!! No doubt the worker didn’t have to find any if it

    • very mature student November 22, 2016 at 9:47 am #

      ….and I am deeply troubled that as a SW you are so focused on the breeches of policy etc, and fail to see the bigger picture, the human perspective of this unfortunate incident. Where is your empathy and your people skills?

      This incident is important and a practice area that must be explored with the SW, however she needs strong, robust supervision, not throw the rule book at her.

      • Hels November 22, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

        I disagree and will end right here.

        • very mature student November 23, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

          Social workers will always have different views of professional practise.

          However which type of SW would I want?
          A bureaucratic, tick box SW, or a SW who showed empathy and didn’t make assumptions…..I know which one I would choose.

          Like the people we serve, we are all vulnerable in some way.

  11. Sandra November 21, 2016 at 9:51 pm #

    Hi do agree with most of the above comments, apart from Chrissie who appears as though she/he has never made a mistake in their life. I could only empathise with the poor social worker who was perhaps feeling tired and stress out to the point she forgot the information on top of her car. What I also admired the most the poor soul when she found out the data went missing returned to the scene to try to look for the files.

    No amount of training could prevent this error from happening or ever occurring again. We just all have to be careful with sensitive data making sure we don’t bring too much around in public places.

  12. Hels November 22, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

    Lock it in the car boot, !!! Advocates carry bundles day in day out, they never leave them on the roof!

  13. Martha Burns November 23, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

    Where is the empathy for us mother’s when we lose our children for stupid things, when it is obvious that these people are in no position to judge us, as if they were God Almighty himself.

  14. Stuart November 27, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    Nobody should ever put ANYTHING on a car roof – it scratches the paintwork. And most court bundles I’ve seen lately are so big they should be in a pull-along trolley not the arms of an overstressed worker.

  15. sharon November 30, 2016 at 11:20 pm #

    I feel for the SW and would argue that people are human and make mistakes. we are not super humans and mistakes will happen big and small. it saddens me to see that punishment and not compassion seems to be the way forward for Chrissie. all I can say is to remind people of the old saying . those who have not sinned shall throw the first stone.

    I hope the SW involved is not punished and supported in his matter