The government has lost in the region of 3,500 security passes in the past seven years, according to new figures.
The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) were responsible for the bulk of the lost passes, mislaying an astonishing 3,492 security passes between 2001 and July this year. Up until last year, staff at the two departments were losing passes at the rate of 463 a year, or around nine a week, for much of the period studied.
The figures, obtained by the Liberal Democrats, showed that Home Office staff were particularly careless, losing 2,039 passes between 2001 and 2007. The Ministry of Justice lost 1,202.
A spokesperson at the Home Office said security procedures are strong. "All 20,000-plus members of staff working at Home Office are made fully aware of our robust security procedures," he said. "In those instances when passes are lost or stolen, they are promptly deactivated to prevent entry to the buildings." He added that security passes would not work without a PIN code.
The MoJ added that it took security seriously and insisted: "Staff members are made fully aware of the need to carefully look after their pass and to report any loss or theft immediately." At the MoJ too, cards reported lost are immediately deactivated.
But Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary, said the figures suggest a "culture of carelessness" among the people responsible for prisons and police forces.
The past year has been marked by some serious losses of data in government departments. Last year, HM Revenue & Customs lost the records of 25 million citizens. Aside from this the government, across all departments, lost the data of one in every 15 people in the country. A week ago, the Ministry of Defence admitted that a lost computer drive could contain the details of 1.7 million people.
All of the losses raise serious concerns over the government's ability to handle the security of its large IT databases, and control who accesses them, the Lib Dems said. The government has revealed plans to create a super database that would track the phone calls, emails and internet access records of citizens.
The government is also creating a central database of NHS patient records under the £12.7bn National Programme for IT, and an identity register of everyone in the country under the £4.7bn ID card programme.
Huhne said: "This government wants powers to build a database of every phone call and email, but the evidence of lost security passes suggests they could not be trusted to run a nightclub door.
"They must scrap ID cards before they are allowed to treat our most sensitive data in the same slapdash manner."
The Ministry of Justice had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.