The Department of Health director responsible for the NHS National Programme for IT was taken to task last week by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on NHS Smart Cards, following an article by E-Health Insider.

John Bacon, the DH’s Group Director of Health and Social Care Delivery, and the senior responsible officer for NPfIT, was questioned on a security breach that occurred when an Essex PCT issued smart cards to staff, each with an identical pin number on the back.

Asking the questions, PAC member Richard Bacon MP, cited "the article I read on E-Health Insider" as the basis of his enquiry. John Bacon confirmed that the incident had occurred.

The DH Director was further asked whether PCT in question had been Castle Point PCT.

John Bacon said that he did not know the identity of the PCT and promised to investigate and report back to the PAC. He said of the incident, first reported by EHI on 7 June, "It would be a serious breach which has happened, as you know doubt know, and we have investigated and taken action accordingly".

Richard Bacon quoted from a source from the original EHI article who had stated that at one of the practices they worked at it was possible to get into the data on primary care system without using a user name or smart card. Bacon asked whether anyone had been sacked as a result.

The DH director responded: "I think I am right in saying that the individual concerned was a contractor and his contract was terminated".

Turning to the question of data integrity Richard Bacon questioned the DH director about reports that clean local data is being overwritten by inaccurate data.

He illustrated the problem by recounting how he’d asked a GP to look up his details, and the record returned gave an address he had never lived at and was "23 years out of date".

The PAC member asked the DH director: "Is it correct that one of the fears hospitals have at the moment is that their recent up-to-date, clean data is being overwritten by old garbage data…?"

John Bacon replied: "One of the reasons this system has taken longer to implement than we expected is just those interconnectivity aspects. The reason we are taking longer and more care is to ensure those problems are kept to an absolute minimum."

Bacon was further asked whether it was correct that "clean data is being overwritten by garbage at the moment which is why people are reluctant to hook up?"

He replied: "I do not think so but again I will double-check. I am afraid I just cannot comment on an anecdotal example."

The questions were asked while the PAC was taking oral evidence on the topic of ‘Patient Choice at the point of GP referral’, on Monday 31, October. All quotes above are taken from the uncorrected transcript of the PAC oral evidence.