THE identities of prosecution witnesses in a case against defence giant BAE Systems were among thousands of documents lost by the UK’s anti-fraud squad, the government has said.
The sensitive material was found in a storage facility which was also being used as a cannabis farm in east London, according to shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry.
She said she was “profoundly shocked” the confidential details of witnesses had been lost by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
In a written parliamentary answer to Ms Thornberry, Westminster’s solicitor general, Oliver Heald, said the witnesses’ identities were among the 32,000 documents, 81 audio tapes and electronic media from 59 sources the SFO accidentally sent to the wrong owner.
In a separate answer, he said the SFO has spent more than £10,000 finding the files and investigating their disappearance.
Last month, the SFO said 98 per cent of the material, which was part of its discontinued investigation into allegations concerning BAE Systems’ international dealings, had been found.
As part of the process after halting the investigation, one of the suppliers of evidence had asked for it to be returned. The SFO complied with the request but accidentally sent additional files which did not belong to that recipient.
It said none of the data which had been lost between May and October 2012 related to national security. The loss was identified in May this year.
Ms Thornberry said she had been told the documents were found at a storage facility in London’s Docklands that was also being used as a cannabis farm.
She said the SFO had been beset with problems for a number of years, as she blamed the government for cutting the SFO’s budget by 27 per cent.
Ms Thornberry said: “I want the SFO to succeed and this is another dreadful mistake.
“I understand that they are doing their utmost to make sure something like this never happens again.
“(The files) ended up being in storage in the east of London in a storage facility that was also being used a cannabis farm.
“I’m really shocked, I’m profoundly shocked by this, and I am quite sure that members of the public who were giving assistance to the authorities, they certainly never expected their identities to be abused in this way. If (the identities are) found in this paperwork and it ends up in a storage facility which is being used for crime, I think it just makes it so much worse. I am almost lost for words.”
She added: “The fact of the matter is we get one huge mistake after another.
“I don’t think it makes life any easier for them also to be subjected to 27 per cent cuts – I point the finger of blame at the government. They are the ones that have made the decision.”
The SFO’s investigation into BAE began in 2004, prompted by allegations concerning the company’s dealings with Saudi Arabia.
Eventually, it was looking into contracts between BAE and a number of other countries including the Czech Republic, Romania and South Africa.
The Saudi Arabia investigation was discontinued in December 2006 “in the interests of national security”.
BAE was also under investigation in the US over contracts with Saudi Arabia and central and eastern Europe, but reached a settlement with the American Department of Justice (DoJ) in 2010, paying $400 million (£255.7m) and pleading guilty to one charge of conspiring to make false statements.