Tue, 19 Jan 2010

Home Affairs Committee collecting DNA... stories

The Home Affairs Committee was having another evidence session about the National DNA Database (NDNAD). This time, it was short as the committee had only two witnesses and they talked about their personal experience, so there was none of that litany of errors and misunderstandings that riddled the previous session.

Jonathan Leighton & Greg Hands giving evidence at
 the Home Affairs CommitteeGreg Hands, a Tory MP, had his DNA taken when his 80-year-old uncle died two months after he had been found at his home with a 14 inches barbecue skewer in his neck. Mr Hands was not close to his uncle and had never visited his home. He also had a very strong alibi as he was in Parliament when it happened. He was not arrested and doesn't recollect whether he volunteered his DNA sample or just didn't refuse a request. It's not clear why it was necessary for the police to take his DNA sample. More surprising is that according to Greg Hands, as far as he's aware, the police did not have a DNA sample from the crime scene. Even though the police didn't have a crime scene DNA profile to compare the DNA profiles of the individuals sampled in connection with this death, they travelled all over England to get DNA samples from all the relatives of Mr Hands' uncle, including that of old relatives who'd been incapable of using a skewer in such a way. At the inquest, which returned an open verdict, the police admitted it could have been a freak accident. Mr Hands asked the chief constable of the West Midlands Police for his DNA profile to be deleted and his DNA sample to be destroyed on several occasions, but in two years didn't get satisfaction. He had more success putting down a Parliamentary Question, a process only accessible to MPs. He was told by the Home Office that his DNA profile had been removed, but he still has not had any confirmation from the police and won't be convinced until he gets confirmation of when it happened.

Jonathan Leighton, a computer science student in Oxford, had his DNA taken when he was arrested on suspicion of littering. At a protest against the expansion of a shopping centre he tried help an activist who had been in a tree for ten days by throwing him a bottle of water, but missed. When the bottle fell to the ground, a police officer rushed to arrest him. With the help of a solicitor, it took him close to a year to reach a settlement with Thames Valley Police (TVP) and get his DNA profile removed and DNA sample destroyed.

These cases are further evidence of the effort and expense the police go through to collect DNA of individuals, at a time when funding for what makes a provable difference in crime detection, getting more DNA profiles of crime scenes, may be cut. The police appears, at least in some cases, to be driven more by its willingness to add DNA profiles of individuals than by any other operational matter. This has been denied by the police, however a retired police officer wrote in a response to a Human Genetics Commission consultation that 'It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so ... It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained: samples can be obtained after arrest but not if there is a report for summons. It matters not, of course, whether the arrest leads to no action, a caution or a charge, because the DNA is kept on the database anyway.'

The experience of these two witnesses was interesting, but hopefully the committee members realise that these two cases are exceptional as both witness did manage to reclaim their DNA. There was little more than an average of one DNA profile deleted a day in 2009; it was much less in the five preceding years.

From a brief chat after the evidence session, Mr Leighton is unsure whether his Police National Computer (PNC) record has been deleted as well. PNC records should be deleted at the same time as DNA profiles, fingerprints and palm prints happen are deleted, and DNA samples destroyed, under the current 'exceptional case procedure'. The government and the police are apparently keen to retain PNC records even when DNA profiles are deleted, hence the Crime and Security bill being silent about PNC records. Andy Handley, a photographer who also reached a settlement with TVP, after being unlawfully arrested for taking a picture from behind a police cordon, did 'receive notification from TVP that all records have been deleted including on the PNC'. The deletion of his DNA profile and fingerprints has been widely reported.

In related news, the Crime and Security bill had its second reading on Monday. Home Secretary Alan Johnson introduced the bill to a mostly empty chamber (as is common, MPs came in just at the end when it was time to vote). Most of the interventions were in opposition to the bill solely because of its clauses about the NDNAD. Ex-Home Office minister Tony McNulty MP and Tory David TC Davies MP were lone voices in support the Home Office current proposals; Labour Keith Vaz MP, Diane Abbott MP and Neil Gerrard MP all spoke out against the DNA clauses. The Conservatives were supportive of adopting a legislation similar to that of Scotland, and the Lib Dems favoured getting all innocents off the NDNAD. David Davis MP, in his interventions, mentioned several times the excellent submission to the Home Affairs Committee by GeneWatch UK and Unreliable evidence? Time to open up DNA databases, an article in the New Scientist questioning how many random probability matches really happen. The bill was 'read a second time' with 272 Ayes and 197 Noes.


If you're innocent and your DNA profile is on the NDNAD, find help to get off the NDNAD at Reclaim Your DNA. If you succeed, request a detailed list of what has been deleted and destroyed. You can check if your DNA sample, profile, fingerprints, palm prints, photographs, PNC record, etc. has been retained by sending a data subject access (Data Protection Act) to the police force that arrested you asking for any personal information you believe they may still have retained.

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