Sun, 25 Oct 2009

National DNA Database, more and less of the same

More of the same (for longer)

Recent news headlines (e.g., Guardian and Daily Telegraph) may have given you the impression that the Home Office had done a U-turn and dropped its plan to retain DNA of innocents. These articles were misleading. No such radical change has happened. What the government has announced is that it is again delaying its response to the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In the meantime it'll keep adding more and retaining DNA profiles of innocents and guilty alike.

Lord Brett explained the government's position in the Lords debate about the Policing and Crime Bill:

Given that strength of feeling, we feel that it is important to move forward with consensus, if possible. We therefore accept the view that this issue is more appropriately dealt with in primary legislation and have decided to invite Parliament to remove Clauses 96 to 98. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will bring forward appropriate measures which will place the detail of the retention periods in primary legislation, allowing full debate and scrutiny of the issue in both Houses.

Baroness Neville-Jones summed up the frustration of everyone else:

Our problem is that the effect of withdrawal and no replacement in legislation results in yet further delay. The relevant judgment occurred in December last year; the consultation on the Government’s recommendation closed at the beginning of August—more than two months ago—and the whole matter has been debated for several years. The Government could have acted administratively to change policy without waiting to change the law, but they have chosen not to.

Not much of a surprise. Here's the relevant paragraph in Sentenced to genetic probation an article I wrote five months ago:

Perhaps, the Home Office realises how weak its arguments are as it is keen on avoiding parliamentary scrutiny. Several MPs have repeatedly demanded that basic protections regarding personal data, the DNA database and its oversight be embodied in statute after been given enough Parliamentary time. The Home Office has instead pushed through Parliament clauses 96 to 98 of the Policing and Crime Bill, which is now reaching Committee stage in the Lords. These give a blank cheque to the Secretary of State to implement by statutory instruments changes to the retention, use and destruction of DNA profiles and samples, fingerprints, footwear prints and photographs. A draft statutory instrument (zip) to implement the regulations proposed in the consultation has already been published. Only a week after the consultation. Will the Home Office read any response to its consultation?

No legislative change, only a change of the current police guidance, is required to cease the 'blanket and indiscriminate nature of the powers of retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offences' as demanded by the obligation of cessation from the ECtHR ruling. The change of law is needed only to comply with the obligation of non-repetition to ensure that the police can't issue guidelines similar to the current ones in the future.

Less of the same

The National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), custodian of the National DNA Database (NDNAD) published the NDNAD Annual Report 2007-2009. Here's the summary of key facts and figures starting the document:

As at 31 March 2009:

Chief Constable Peter Neyroud, CEO NPIA, starts his foreword with 'The NDNAD continues to provide the police with the most effective tool for the prevention and detection of crime since the development of fingerprint analysis over 100 years ago.' As can be seen above, detections of crimes in which a DNA match was available though didn't make it to the summary, however the full report includes some interesting data about these crime detections. With the large number of profiles added (553,880 DNA profiles of individuals and 52,494 DNA profiles of crime scenes added on average each year, for the 2001-2009 period), intuitively the number of matches and detections should keep going up. This is not the case, numbers have gone down since 2005.

DNA matches and detections
('Matches' include cases where the individual had an innocent reason for being at the crime scene and cases where it was not possible to take the investigation forward. A 'DNA detection' means that the crime was cleared up and a DNA match was available. 'Additional detections. occur when, for example, a suspect, on being presented with DNA evidence linking him to one offence, confesses to further offences.)

There is not enough data in the report to understand exactly why DNA matches and crime detections in which such a match is available are down. These trends do raise questions about the efficacy of the NDNAD. One possible scenario could be that the bulk of crime detections happens very soon after a profile is loaded, i.e. retaining them may not help clearing crimes. This scenario would be consistent with the number of detections going down while the NDNAD grows larger and larger. It would also be consistent with the theory of criminal specialisation where criminals go on to commit related offences only shortly after they start their criminal career. I've sent a Freedom of Information request to the NPIA to find out if there's data available about how long the scene of crime DNA profile and the subject DNA profile that match in a detection had been retained for. This may help support or invalidate this scenario.

The NDNAD Annual Report has one page (p.44) about Freedom of Information requests: '[these] received mainly from the media, cover largely the same issues. These can also be complex and wide ranging, as shown by the following example'. The example included is the uncredited full text of a request I made last year!

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