The UK's anti-fraud unit has come under fire after it admitted losing tens of thousands of documents from an investigation into defence giant BAE Systems.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO), an independent Government department, has revealed it accidentally sent 32,000 pages, 81 audio tapes and electronic media belonging to 59 different sources to the wrong address. Ninety-eight per cent of this material has been recovered, and none of the data relates to national security, the SFO added.
Labour MP Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general, said: "This is Government incompetence of the first magnitude. The SFO has stumbled from shambles to shambles, with the Attorney General completely failing to get a grip."
Ms Thornberry said the account of what has happened "raises more questions than it answers". She said: " How did this happen? What category of documents are we talking about here? Who received them by mistake? How much of the evidence has been destroyed? What is the Government doing to ensure that this never happens again?"
The SFO started its investigation into BAE in 2004. The investigation, which was prompted by allegations received concerning a defence contract with Saudi Arabia, ultimately also included contracts between BAE and a number of other countries including the Czech Republic, Romania and South Africa.
The SFO investigation relating to Saudi Arabia was discontinued in December 2006 in the interest of national security. BAE agreed a settlement in February 2010 with the US Department of Justice in relation to contracts with Saudi Arabia and central and eastern Europe, and with the SFO in relation to a Tanzania contract.
The FTSE 100 giant was fined £500,000 at Southwark Crown Court in December 2010 after admitting it had failed to keep adequate accounting records in relation to the defence contract for the supply of an air traffic control system to the government of Tanzania.
The SFO identified the data loss, which took place between May and October 2012, in May this year. A Serious Fraud Office spokeswoman said: "The SFO is dealing with an incident of accidental data loss. The data concerned was obtained by the SFO in the course of its closed investigation into BAE Systems. The SFO has a duty to return material to those who supplied it, upon request, after the close of an investigation. In this instance the party requesting the return was sent additional material which had in fact been obtained from other sources."
The data made up 3% of the total data in the case, the spokeswoman added. She went on: "Any loss of data is a serious matter and the SFO has taken action to ensure no further material can be wrongly sent out."
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said: "The Attorney General's Office is aware of this incident and takes this issue extremely seriously. We are working with the new management team at the Serious Fraud Office to ensure all possible steps are taken to ensure that this incident is not repeated. The Attorney General supports the package of measures taken by the director of the SFO following this incident which will help improve the way that the organisation handles information in the future."