Sat, 16 Jan 2010

GeneWatch UK on the National DNA Database

GeneWatch UK has published two excellent documents which should be on on the reading list of everyone with an interest in the government's plans for the National DNA Database. Below are the recommendations concluding the 5-page GeneWatch UK Parliamentary Briefing on the Crime and Security Bill (doc). This document is timely as the second reading of the bill has been tabled for this coming Monday.

The Human Genetics Commission (HGC) has recommended that the Government establishes a Royal Commission to “give focus to, and to learn from, the public debate, and to ensure that its outcomes will be taken forward and reflected in future framework legislation”. The HGC, Nuffield Council on Bioethics and others have recommended that the DNA Database be put on a statutory basis. However, the need to ensure that innocent people’s DNA profiles in order to ensure that the Database is compliant with the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights is also urgent. GeneWatch UK therefore recommends that:

  1. In the Crime and Security Bill 2009/10:
    • The destruction of all DNA samples within 6 months is adopted;
    • The provisions for retention of innocent people’s DNA are amended to implement automatic immediate deletion of most DNA profiles unconvicted persons, with an exception allowing temporary retention of DNA profiles and fingerprints for some persons arrested for serious or violent sexual offences, based on Scotland’s approach;
    • The Bill is amended to ensure that Police National Computer (PNC) records are deleted at the same time as DNA profiles and fingerprints;
    • Deletion of all records is applied retrospectively to all innocent persons on the relevant databases;
    • The provisions relating to the expansion of DNA collection are deleted, pending review (see below).
  2. A Royal Commission is established with a view to putting the National DNA Database on a statutory basis. It considers:
    • DNA collection, including whether this should take place on arrest or charge, or for a narrower range of offences; whether collection should apply retrospectively and/or to some persons convicted overseas; and whether there should be special provisions for children.
    • Uses and restrictions on uses.
    • Retention guidelines for convicted persons (including persons given cautions, reprimands and final warnings).
    • Governance, including a process for appeal against retention of data.

The Commission’s proposals should be followed by a public consultation before further legislation is drafted.

The parliamentary briefing refers to the 26-page GeneWatch UK submission to Home Affairs Committee: the National DNA Database (doc). If you read Sorry Affairs Committee, my notes of the committee's last evidence session, you are aware that some elements of the evidence given were erroneous and that the committee members showed a poor understanding of the workings of the NDNAD and knowledge of the Crime and Security Bill. GeneWatch's submission is a clear and comprehensive document that addresses all these issues. Another evidence session is scheduled for this Tuesday. Below are excerpts to give you a taster:

[...] GeneWatch has consistently argued that new legislation governing the DNA Database could be adopted which significantly improves protection for human rights, is compliant with the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment on this issue, regains much of the loss of public trust in policing, and does not have an adverse impact on crime detection or prevention. [...]

Number of solved crimes

Chief Constable Sims, of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), stated in evidence to you that 33,000 crimes (0.67% of recorded crimes) had been solved last year “solely or largely by the DNA database”. This claim was reiterated by the minister. This claim is incorrect: it is a significant overestimate of the number of solved crimes. [...]

Thus we can estimate that, in 2008/09, 2006 direct DNA detections and 1660 indirect detections might have been lost or delayed if a DNA database of individuals’ profiles did not exist at all. Using the Home Office figure cited above, about half of these detections (1883) could be expected to lead to convictions. This is 0.033% of recorded crimes (Table 1), more than an order of magnitude lower than the figure provided to you by ACPO. Moreover, a high proportion of these crimes would be solved later rather than not solved at all because, provided the crime scene DNA profile is still stored, the same individual’s profile could be matched later if they are arrested or charged on suspicion of committing another future crime. It should be noted that the vast majority of these will be volume crimes such as burglary and theft (discussed further below).

Solved crimes due to retaining innocent people’s DNA profiles

[...] We can therefore estimate that somewhere between 40 and 200 convictions may have resulted from the retention of DNA profiles from innocent people in 2008/09. It should be stressed that this is very much an estimate, due to uncertainty in the figures provided by the Home Office and gaps in information. Most of these convictions would relate to volume crimes (only 1% of DNA detections relate to rapes and 0.4% to murder/manslaughter, see below) and most detections would be delayed rather than lost because, provided the crime scene DNA profile is stored, the DNA match will occur if the individual is arrested or charged with another offence in the future. This figure includes both direct and indirect detections. [...]

Impact of changes in legislation on DNA detections

[...] Thus, the available data allows us to conclude that neither the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, nor the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have led to a noticeable increase in the number of crimes detected using DNA, despite a massive increase in the number of individuals’ DNA profiles that have been collected and retained. In contrast, the policy decision to collect DNA from scenes of volume crimes, such as burglaries and thefts, has been successful. This is because the number of crimes detected is driven primarily by the number of crime scene DNA profiles loaded, not the number of individuals’ profiles loaded or retained. [...]

Role in volume crimes and breakdown by crime type

Chief Constable Sims stated that 40% of burglaries were solved using DNA. This is incorrect. [...]

Role in murder and rape

In his evidence, Chief Constable Sims claimed that 83 murders and 163 rapes had been solved in 2008/09 by the DNA database. He also stated that the DNA database plays a much more significant part in solving serious crimes than it does in volume crimes. Both claims are incorrect. [...]

GeneWatch UK has been unable to identify any murders that have been solved as a result of the retention of innocent people’s DNA profiles since 2001. We have examined every Parliamentary Question on DNA since 2005, all published reports, and the Government’s evidence to the European Court of Human Rights. A figure of zero solved murders to date as a result of retaining innocent people’s DNA profiles is consistent with our statistical analysis.

In total, five rape cases have been cited by the police as having been solved due to the retention of an innocent person’s DNA profile (these are described further below in the section on Scotland’s legislation). One of these was a cold case which could have been solved more rapidly if old crime scene DNA evidence from serious cases was analysed more promptly (this is also explained below, in the section on cold cases). The other cases may be addressed by a targeted approach, similar to Scotland’s legislation. Our statistical analysis suggests that these are probably the total number of solved rapes that involved the retention of an innocent person’s DNA profile, not a subset of a much larger number of crimes. It seems likely that considerably more crimes involving violence against women could be prevented or solved if the money spent on expanding the DNA database was spent differently (see the section on costs, below).

Misleading claims about the figures for murders and rapes

A long series of misleading claims have been made by ministers, including the Prime Minister, about the number of murders and rapes solved due to retaining innocent people’s DNA profiles on the Database. [...]

Misleading claims about individual cases

The minister cited the Wright case in the Westminster Hall debate held on 9th December 2009, and it was used in cross-examination by Committee members as an example of a case that was solved as a result of the retention of an innocent person’s DNA profile on the DNA Database. This case (and many other high profile cases cited by ministers) did not rely on the retention of an unconvicted person’s DNA. [...]

Home Office Research

The minister stated in evidence that research commissioned by the Home Office had shown that innocent persons whose profiles will be retained on the DNA database for six years had been shown to have a greater risk of offending than the general population. This is not the case. [...]

Link to Police National Computer Records

[...] For innocent persons on the DNA Database, the provisions in the Crime and Security Bill 2009/10 are worse than the current ‘exceptional cases’ removal procedure followed by Chief Constables, because records of arrest on the Police National Computer (PNC) will be retained indefinitely. Retention of these records gives rise to stigma and discrimination and can lead to refusal of a visa or a job. [...]

Racial bias

The minister claimed that the proposals in the Bill would have neither and an adverse nor a positive effect on disproportionality and that the answer to this problem lies elsewhere. This is incorrect. [...]

The decision not to include deletion of Police National Computer (PNC) records at the same time as DNA and fingerprint records in the Crime and Security Bill 2008/09 will have a particularly negative impact on members of black and ethnic minority communities who are disproportionately represented on these databases. It is the PNC record that the police use when they ‘name check’ someone, and which can lead to stigma and discrimination, including refusal of visas or a job. [...]

Priorities and costs

The minister stated that no assessment of cost-effectiveness of expanding the DNA database compared to other approaches had been carried out. This is one of the few claims that is correct. [...]

We noted above that the cold case review of serious crimes has solved many important cases, but that this may be axed due to lack of money.40 In GeneWatch’s review, cold case reviews should be prioritised, since obtaining crime scene DNA profiles from these cases could continue to produce important benefits for victims and their families. This may include the exoneration of innocent persons (who, as explained above do not need to have their DNA profile on a DNA database, but do need the crime scene DNA profile to be available). The more quickly this is done, the better. [...]

False matches and data sharing across the EU

[...] Neither the minister nor the police discussed concerns about the increasing likelihood of false matches between crime scene DNA profiles and stored individuals’ profiles. There is significant concern within the Home Office and amongst forensic scientists about the potential for false matches to occur once sharing of DNA profiles across the EU beings in 2011, as a result of an extension of the Prüm Treaty Europe-wide. [...]

Threshold for arrest

The minister stated that the threshold for arrest is high and that “we are talking about serious offences”. This is not the case. [...]


The minister urged Committee members to consider amending the Bill to allow the inclusion of volunteers on the DNA Database. PACE was in fact amended to allow the inclusion of volunteers on the Database by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 and 36,093 profiles on the database are estimated to have come from volunteers. [...]

Get GeneWatch's submission to the Home Affair Committee and its parliamentary briefing, from its web page on the Crime and Security Bill 2009.

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