AN INQUIRY has been launched after confidential social services files were left in filing cabinets auctioned off by a council.

The pieces of furniture were eventually sold in a Blackburn second-hand shop — and the files were still inside.

Now the Lancashire Telegraph is set to return the documents - which contain intimate details of a vulnerable Accrington man and a Rossendale woman’s foster carer application - after the person who bought the filing cabinet handed them to us.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office, which deals with breaches of the Data Protection Act, said the blunder could end up being treated as a criminal offence.

Lancashire County Council apologised and launched an investigation into how the blunder happened.

MPs said the ‘terrible’ breach should never have happened.

Janet Anderson, MP for Rossendale, said: “This is very worrying and I will be contacting Lancashire County Council as a matter of urgency. It is not acceptable for confidential files to be sold in second hand shops.”

Hyndburn MP Greg Pope, MP for Hyndburn, said: “This sounds like a terrible breach of client confidentiality and I am shocked to hear that these personal details have leaked out into the public domain.”

The files include: • All the Rossendale woman’s personal details, a profile of her family, information about her personal life, her friends and her interests.

• Information about her entire career and educational history, including the sets she was in at school, which subjects she disliked and where she has worked to the present day.

• The names and addresses of people who have agreed to act as her referees are also given and there is information about her relationships and a description of her lifestyle.

• The vulnerable Accrington adult’s file has monthly updates about his life from October 2001 until September 2003.

• There are details of his medical history, his relationships and personality. It depicts his strengths, hopes and needs and gives a full account of his life.

• Minutes of a review meeting between the man and his social worker and action plans for his future are also in the files.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office, said: “We would have to review all the evidence and if we deemed that there had been a breach of data action would have to be taken.

“The action taken would depend on how serious the breach was and it could end up in the courts and the council or persons in question could face a fine.”

In October last year shopkeeper Javaid Ahmed bought the two filing cabinets from an auction house.

He then sold these to a customer at his Second Hand Corner shop in Johnston Street, Blackburn.

Mr Ahmed said: “We go to auctions every week and we always find papers left in drawers and cabinets.

“People just can’t be bothered to check if they’ve left anything in before they get rid of there belongings. It happens all the time.”

The 70-year-old great grandfather from Blackburn who bought the cabinets said he was amazed when he found the files, The man, who declined to be named, said: “These confidential details should have been shredded.

“The social services people do a great job but this really lets them down.

“Someone is responsible and they need to get their act together because these files could have fallen into the wrong hands, which is really disturbing.”

Jeff Pogson, director of business services at the county council, said they had strict procedures for disposing of confidential material.

He said: “We are very sorry this incident has occurred and take any data security breaches extremely seriously.

“Confidential files that are no longer in use are destroyed and our office equipment is recycled within the county council, where possible.

“Regular contractors are used to dispose of any office equipment that cannot be reused who are familiar with the County Council's requirements around confidentiality and data protection.

“We are now looking into this incident to establish how this has happened and as a result will be reviewing our procedures to ensure it doesn't happen again.”