Fri, 17 Jul 2009

Home Office's arrogant approach to the DNA consultation

In Sentenced to genetic probation I pointed out some issues with the quality of the Home Office consultation on 'keeping the right people on the DNA database'. I attempted - without success - to obtain a corrected version of the included research paper and the correspondence the Home Office had about it. Earlier this week, as a last recourse to try to get a version of the consultation of a quality sufficient to address the substantive issue without being too distracted by all its mistakes, I followed the suggestion appearing on p.96 of the annex document:

If you have a complaint or comment about the Home Office’s approach to consultation, you should contact the Home Office Consultation Co-ordinator, Nigel Lawrence. [...] The Co-ordinator works to promote best practice standards set by the Government’s Code of Practice, advises policy teams on how to conduct consultations and investigates complaints made against the Home Office."

As you can see from the email exchange below, this went nowhere. The arrogance shown by the Home Office in its disregard to the audience of this consultation, in publishing a draft statutory instrument only a week after publishing the consultation and in how it deals with complaints about the consultation unfortunately appears rather typical. This morning, Alan Brown, Head of Police Powers and Procedures, Home Office - the person to whom responses to the consultation should be sent to - was a guest speaker at the seminar for black and minority ethnic (BME) groups on the National DNA Database (NDNAD) organised by Black Mental Health and GeneWatch UK. Instead of taking this opportunity to fully engage with a community overrepresented on the NDNAD, Alan Brown answered only a few questions after his intervention and promptly left the building. (A colleague from his department remained in the room but she didn't have the authority to participate in the debate or answer any question.)

Monday 13th July 2009, email I sent to Nigel Lawrence:

Dear Mr Lawrence,

May I request you review the 'Keeping the right people on the DNA databaseKeeping the right people on the DNA database' consultation as it is my understanding that it is in breach of the Cod of Practice, in particular of Criterion 3.

My concerns are:

1/ The chief economist was given an earlier draft (with different options) to review, hence his comments do not all apply to the consultation as is.

The proposed plans (published in the main consultation document) are not consistent with the preferred option in the impact assessment (published in the annex). The impact assessment recommend destruction of all fingerprints after 15 years while the consultation recommends destruction of the fingerprints at the same time as for the DNA profiles.

The different retention periods for fingerprints and DNA profiles is one of the five points Chief Economist John Elliott draws the reader's attention to in his examination of the impact assessment. So it appears he was not informed of the change of mind of the Home Office between when the impact assessment was written and the time the proposed plans were finalised.

2/ The quality of the information that can be verified with the information in the consultation is poor.

For instance the Table 3 on p.15 is incorrect. From the text on p.30 of the annex and the note 8 on p.31, one can infer that the dates in the table are incorrect and should be those found in the text, i.e. 2004, 2005 and 2006. Also, the percentages in the text for the NFA, cautions and non custodial sentences groups do not match those of the table (in one case the figure for the NFA group is higher than for the cautions group and the opposite in the other).

If we look past the typos and try to make sense of the data in this table: this data appear to come from 532 cases from three samples in June over three consecutive years, however, "that data came only from the first of a month, and aware that errors of estimation will be magnified by multiplying the figures to give a monthly total...", so this data is in fact an estimation based on approximately 18 cases (532 divided by the number of days in June) taken over three days at one year interval, or 7, 8 and 3 samples for the respective days. Is that a valid enough sample for such a consultation?

The research by the Jill Dando Institute does not appear to be peer-reviewed.

I can provide you with other examples if you wish.

3/ Most of the research included to justify the Home Office options is not relevant to those options.

Key options are about individuals who have been arrested and not convicted, and whether they may later offend. Included references are to studies about individuals re-offending, i.e., who have been convicted for the initial arrest, and hence are not applicable to the consultation's options.

The confusion this causes is such that even ministers after having had early access to the consultation have demonstrated, when interviewed at the launch of the consultation, their misunderstanding as they kept saying "re-offending" when talking about arrestees who may later commit an offence but have not yet "offended" (for an example where Jeremy Paxman had to keep reminding Vernon Coaker of this essential distinction, check out If even ministers, with all the specialist briefings they have access to, are confused by this essential aspect of the consultation, what chance do potential respondents have?

The samples of some of the surveys are also too specialised to be representative of the population of the NDNAD. For instance the oft referred Cambridge longitudinal study of Lila Kazemian was about "411 working-class males in London", this is hardly representative of either the geographical or gender spread of the NDNAD population or unlikely to have similar racial bias either.

4/ The costs and benefits model, in the impact assessment, is constructed on a tower of "key probabilities and assumptions".

Even more problematic is that some of these assumptions are misleading. For instance in section 25) on pp. 64-65, "The probability of committing an offence following an arrest, but no further action, is the same as the probability of committing and [sic] offence following conviction. The probability of this is 40%9". Note 9 lists the source for this statistics: Re-offending of adults 2006 cohort. The data in this report, from the Ministry of Justice, is about "the reoffending of adults released from custody or starting a community sentence", i.e., it has nothing to do with those offending for the first time after an earlier arrest.

5/ The cost of destruction of DNA samples is likely wrong.

Looking at Option B on p.52 and Option II on p. 56, it appears that the figure of L91,927,500 for destruction of DNA sample likely assumes an unlisted review cost. However, there's no need for review (except in a very small number of cases). As there can be a bulk deletion, this is most likely a mistake.

In view of all the above it is extremely difficult to respond to the consultation when it is of such poor quality and its authors shows such disregard to its audience.

I tried to contact both Dr Ken Pease and Lila Kazemian but neither responded to my emails (surprisingly their work appear to contradict the conclusions reached by the Home Office.). I also attempted to obtain communication between the Home Office and Dr Pease under the FoIA, but this was exempted.

This complaint is another attempt to ensure that a corrected and improved version of this consultation gets published with enough time to respond to it.

Wednesday 15th July 2009, Lawrence Nigel wrote:

Dear Mr Mery,

Thank you for your email (below) which highlighted the concerns you had on the DNA consultation document. You believed the consultation had not followed Criterion 3 of the Government's Code of Practice on Consultation.

Under Criterion 3 of the Code consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits. In this respect we believe the consultation document meets that Criterion.

Running public consultations makes preliminary analysis available for public scrutiny. It also allows additional evidence to be sought from a range of interested parties to help inform the development of the policy or its implementation. We therefore welcome stakeholder views on the details on the policy being consulted on as set out in the document and views of the costs and benefits as set out in the consultation stage impact assessment. We also welcome views from stakeholders where they seek to challenge the information contained in consultations. Together this helps inform the development of the policy and the development of the final costs and benefit impact assessment.

I have taken the liberty of forwarding your comments to the relevant policy lead for inclusion as part of the consultation response. If you wish to add to or amend or withdraw these comments, please write or email these to the addresses at page 23 of the DNA consultation paper. Your views will be considered along with views of other interested stakeholders.

Many thanks again for your comments.

Wednesday 15th July 2009, my reply:

Dear Mr Lawrence,

Many thanks for your prompt response. I find it very disappointing that it doesn't address the specific points I raised. This does not give me confidence that this review process to ensure compliance with the Code of Practice is an effective one. As expressed in my original email, I considered this a last recourse option so that we can have proper evidence and costing to build responses on.

I have no problem with my email being shared and I stand by what I wrote you, but it would have been polite for you to ask me prior to forward it. For your information, I am considering publishing this email exchange so that it can inform others considering raising concerns with this or other consultations.

The only evidence everyone agrees on is that "the number of matches obtained from the Database (and the likelihood of identifying the person who committed the crime) is 'driven' primarily by the number of crime scene profiles loaded onto the Database" (as the Home Office put it in 2005). To dare calling for the retention of DNA profiles of innocents for years, the Home Office must stop this arrogant behaviour more typical of a child... and publish strong peer-reviewed evidence.

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