The tax man has warned North-East staff they could be fired for dipping into celebrities' computer records.

The Inland Revenue has issued the warning to its 74,000 employees nationally after an investigation revealed that some delve into the files of the rich and famous for fun.

The organisation, which has offices in places such as Durham City, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Darlington and Stockton, says it is tightening security and disciplinary procedures to stamp out "celebrity browsing''.

Some are doing it out of idle curiosity but some are selling the information and looking at the records of their former spouses and passing it on to bodies such as the Child Support Agency.

Staff were warned in the internal magazine that management is aware of unauthorised access to data, in breach of the Data Protection Act, and reminded that computer systems automatically log how they are used.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas said he was not aware of staff *selling tax details but warned those who did could be prosecuted.

Tony O'Dwyer, of the Inland revenue's human resources conduct and discipline section, said: ''There have been a number of instances of celebrity browsing, or looking up the details of family or friends out of idle curiosity.

''But there is also evidence that some people are using the information maliciously, for example finding out how much an ex-spouse earns and passing information to the Child Support Agency or even selling the information to outside agencies.

''This is clearly a breach of customer confidentiality and the Data Protection Act.'' In 2001, 225 staff were disciplined for computer, which also includes sending personal e-mail messages. Only two were prosecuted.

Roger Bingham, of the civil liberties organisation Liberty, said: "It shows how important that data protections laws are obeyed and that there are real questions about how much we can trust people with our information if the safeguards aren't there.''