Exclusive: Theft of council laptop with names and addresses of abused girls kept secret from Rotherham victims

Riverside House, headquarter of Rotherham Council
Riverside House, headquarter of Rotherham Council
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The theft of a laptop containing the names and addresses of Rotherham child abuse victims was kept secret from those affected by council and police bosses, The Star can reveal.

Twenty-one laptops were stolen from Rotherham Council’s Norfolk House offices on the night of October 26, 2011 – with no signs of a break-in.

Former children's services director Howard Woolfenden - now in a high-paid job with Birmingham Council

Former children's services director Howard Woolfenden - now in a high-paid job with Birmingham Council

It has now been revealed five of the laptops contained sensitive personal information – with one holding details about an ongoing police investigation into alleged child sexual exploitation offences in the town involving taxi drivers.

That laptop contained details about suspected abusers and victims, including details of dates of birth and home addresses.

Four of the named victims were still living at the same address contained in the data at the time it was stolen.

But council bosses and South Yorkshire Police did not inform those whose information had been stolen – on the grounds it would cause them ‘unnecessary anxiety’.

An email in December 2011 from then-children’s services director Howard Woolfenden – now in a £85,000-per-year job with Birmingham Council – said: “We felt it was in the interests of all the named individuals that they should not be informed.”

READ MORE:

Emails reveal how council bosses ‘covered up’ laptop theft details

A police investigation was launched after the thefts but the laptops have never been recovered and no culprit identified.

Concerns about how Rotherham Council handled the issue were raised by Louise Casey as part of her damning report in February.

Her report said a whistleblower had told her inspectors that the council initially decided not tell the Information Commissioner’s Office about the theft of the laptops and the issue had been discussed at a meeting of the authority’s Corporate Governance and IT Governance Board in November 2011, chaired by former deputy leader Jahangir Akhtar.

The ICO was only alerted to the issue by an article about the theft by a newspaper article in February 2012 and wrote to council chief executive Martin Kimber to ask for an explanation.

Ms Casey said at the time of her report: “Whilst it is not possible to prove exactly what was held and therefore what was lost, evidence seen by inspectors confirms that the council did cover up the scale of the loss known at the time.”

But now a Freedom of Information response by the ICO has revealed details of precisely what was contained on the stolen laptops.

Letters between the ICO and the council have been published, in addition to partially-redacted email exchanges between council bosses about the theft and their response to the Information Commissioner.

A South Yorkshire Police spokesman today said they were ‘unable to ascertain from the limited information what investigation this data might relate to’.

A Rotherham Council spokesman said there was ‘no merit’ in reopening the matter after being asked by The Star whether people who were affected would now be informed of what had happened.

A council spokesman said: “The remedial steps taken at the time were appropriate and completed to the satisfaction of the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“An investigation into the incident found that it would be highly unlikely that any personal data could be accessed given the security arrangements in place on the laptops, and to notify those affected would have caused them unnecessary distress. Given this, there would be no merit in reopening this matter at this time.”

Mr Woolfenden did not respond when asked questions by The Star through his current employer Birmingham Council about what his role in the decision had been and whether he wished to apologise to those involved.

A spokesman for Birmingham Council said the authority had not been aware of the matter when Mr Woolfenden was hired but consider that ‘it does not impact’ on his current role.