Thu, 06 Aug 2009

Engaging in the DNA database debate

With close to 8% of the UK population on the National DNA Database (NDNAD), you must know someone whose DNA profile is on it. Finding out how to get off it and attempting to engage in a proper debate about its future I found the Home Office wasn’t listening but NGOs were really helpful.

There are plenty of reasons to want to be off the NDNAD, especially if you’re innocent or were arrested for some trivial matter:

Seeking deletion of your DNA profile from the database (and destruction of the DNA sample) is an arcane process. It took me much searching of Home Office and Police documents to understand how this works. Not even MPs debating an NDNAD related amendment at the end of 2008 were fully aware of the process!

Few have done it. Combined figures for 2008 obtained from 20 police forces that did record this information show that out of 535 requests received, 211 succeeded. The Chief Constable of the force that arrested you owns your DNA and, once asked, will relent to delete it only in exceptional cases. The Chief Constable may have a different opinion from you of what is exceptional. Being among the 350,000 to a million innocents on the database (the exact number is not known as not all profiles are reconciled with the Police National Computer) helps. Earlier this year, a coalition of NGOs addressed this issue by launching the ReclaimYourDNA website.

Following the European Court of Human Rights ruling against the UK, the Home Office eventually published a consultation: Keeping the right people on the DNA database (closing tomorrow). It’s a rushed job. The included research was described as “possibly the most unclear and badly presented piece of research I have ever seen in a professional environment” by Ben Goldacre. I contacted its author but got no reply. I asked the Home Office for its correspondence about it, but that was exempted. Eventually I sought the statistics used by the Home Office in creating the consultation and was told that they may respond after the consultation closes. The consultation documents are flawed in other ways. For instance, the chief economist was given an earlier draft to review, with different options, and the costing for removing DNA wrongly assumes each removal has to be individually reviewed. I wrote to the Home Office consultation co-ordinator to complain but he does not find any problem with the consultation documents. Attempts to engage with the Home Office to obtain valid data and a corrected up-to-date version of its plans were all frustrated.

Time again, NGOs came to the rescue to help make sense of these confusing documents. I attended a briefing for the children’s sector organised by ARCH and GeneWatch UK, and a seminar for Britain’s black communities held by Black Mental Health and GeneWatch UK. Alan Brown, Head of Police Powers and Procedures, Home Office, was a guest speaker at the seminar. Consultation responses are to be sent to him, so I was looking forward to get some clarifications. About the plans to retain DNA of innocents for six or 12 years, he offered: “More than happy to take constructive criticism. Indicate why you think it’s wrong. But we do feel we need retention whether it’s one or 15 years.” However he promptly left the building after only a few questions missing an opportunity to participate in the panel discussion and engage directly with a community over-represented in the NDNAD.

Where the Home Office brings confusion and pretends to be open to constructive criticism, small NGOs are doing an impressive work of public education and engagement. You have one day left to respond to the Home Office consultation. If you need help answering it, GeneWatch UK has published a briefing document (doc).

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