Wed, 11 Jun 2008

Calls for a new regulatory framework to challenge DNA samples and profile retention

The Select Committee on Home Affairs calls for a regulatory framework to make it easier for innocents to challenge the decision by the Police to retain their DNA samples and profile; Jenny Willott, MP, calls for a law to require destruction/removal of DNA samples and profile of innocents; the ECHR is to rule later this year about whether the UK is breaching human rights by retaining DNA samples and profile of unconvicted innocents. These unrelated news items show a growing concern from many different quarters about the retention of DNA samples and profile of innocents. Hopefully a sign that laws will change to restore some of our eroded civil and human rights.

In its Fifth Report, The Select Committee on Home Affairs ‘examined aspects of the Home Office's responsibilities in relation to the collection and sharing of personal information—including CCTV or video surveillance, identity cards and the National DNA Database—and considered how information collected in other public and private sector databases might be shared for use in the fight against crime. [They] recommend that the Home Office exercise restraint in collecting personal information, and address the question of whether or not surveillance activities represent proportionate responses to threats of varying degrees of severity.’ Some of the recommendations in the section on the National DNA Database are specifically about retention of the DNA profiles of innocents:

285. There have been calls for an expansion of the National DNA Database to include profiles connected with non-recordable offences and for a 'universal database' and for the Government to reconsider its policy on retaining the profiles of those who have been arrested but not charged. In order to facilitate a full debate and an appropriate level of Parliamentary scrutiny we recommend that alongside any conclusions of the PACE review the Government introduce primary legislation to replace the current regulatory framework for the National DNA Database. We recommend that this legislation provide for a more accessible mechanism by which individuals can challenge the decision to retain their records on the Database.

286. The Government should reconsider the ways in which National DNA database information is collected, handled, stored and transferred. In particular we recommend that in order to minimise the data held, the Home Office and the police should review the identifiers used for samples and the policy of retaining samples.

Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, was arguing today in Parliament to be given the leave to ‘bring in a Bill to require the removal from the DNA Database of DNA samples taken from individuals who are not charged or are acquitted; and for connected purposes’:

Everyone accepts that DNA has been a massive breakthrough in crime detection, helping to solve the crimes of today and also some of the cold cases from 20 to 30 years ago. However, the Government have pursued this breakthrough in a disproportionate way.

The UK has by far the largest DNA database in the world, with 4.5 million people registered. Proportionally, five times more people are on our database than is the case with the next closest country. We think of the US as having a punitive criminal justice system, but less than 1 per cent. of its population is on the US database, whereas we have around 6 per cent. Moreover, it has been estimated that under current laws, the database will expand to include one in four of our adult male population.

The number of children on the database is particularly worrying. At the moment, it is estimated that it contains entries for more than 700,000 people who were under 18 when they were arrested and their DNA was taken. In case hon. Members think that some of them might have deserved what they got, I should add that there are estimated to be more than 100,000 children under 18 on the database who have never been convicted, cautioned or charged with any offence.

I am sure all hon. Members will have seen various crazy cases across the country. There are examples from every constituency. A quick trawl of press clippings threw up the case of three children who were hauled into a police station because they climbed a cherry tree to build a tree house. They were arrested for criminal damage and had their DNA taken, but the case was never taken any further. Another example is the 14-year-old boy who was a victim of mistaken identity when teachers at his school gave police the wrong name after a brawl between pupils.

Even after admitting they had arrested the wrong boy, the police refused to remove his DNA. Whereas in the past schoolboy fights, high jinks and lads climbing trees would have resulted in a stern word and them being taken home, children are now getting criminal records and their DNA is being held on the database for ever.

We should also be worried about the sheer number of ethnic minorities on the database and the racial imbalance. Almost 40 per cent. of black men have their DNA profile held, compared with 13 per cent. of Asian men and 9 per cent. of white men, despite the fact that there is no evidence that black men disproportionately commit crime. In fact, evidence suggests that white men are more likely to offend than black men. This over-representation of black men creates mistrust and continues to fuel problems that are much larger, such as the disproportionate representation of black men in our criminal justice system. Also, problems of race relations, community cohesion and discrimination, either perceived or real, are made worse. Moreover, the situation is getting worse. At the current rate, more than half of all black men will be on the database within two years.

This highlights one of the main objections to holding the DNA of those who are not charged or who are acquitted. One of the fundamental tenets of British justice is “innocent until proven guilty”. Refusing to destroy samples taken from those who are never charged or who are later acquitted completely blurs that principle. The DNA database assumes that people will be guilty of something in the future; that is why the samples are kept. This is very Big Brother; George Orwell must be spinning in his grave.

When the national DNA database was created in 1995, only the DNA of convicted offenders could be held, and samples had to be destroyed if the suspect was acquitted or charges were dropped. Because by 2001 the Government were breaking their own law—presumably as a result of incompetence rather than design—the law was changed to allow the profiles of those acquitted of certain crimes to be kept. That was expanded even more in 2004, when samples could be taken from anyone arrested for a recordable offence. By the end of 2005, 200,000 samples which would have been destroyed before 2001 had been retained, and that number has since soared. There are now estimated to be more than 1 million people who have not been charged or convicted on the database—three times the population of a city the size of Cardiff, where I live. Those are 1 million people considered innocent under British law, but considered potentially guilty by the Home Office. By retaining that DNA, the state is saying, “Well, you might not have been convicted, but we think you may commit an offence in future and we want to make sure we can catch you when you do.” That is not acceptable.

It is almost impossible, however, for someone to remove their sample from the database. Since the changes in 2004, fewer than 700 people have managed to remove their profiles—700 out of the 1 million innocent people on the database. The police control which samples are removed. People have to apply to the chief constable of the force that took the sample in the first place, who is hardly an independent arbiter. The Government may be forced to change this shortly, as there is a case before the European Court of Human Rights, brought by two men from Sheffield—one of whom was under 18 at the time—who have applied to have their DNA removed on the grounds that they were both cleared and neither has a criminal record. The ECHR is expected to rule this summer, and a finding against the Government could open the floodgates on this issue.

Even if some people might not agree with the civil liberties case for removing the DNA of innocent people, there is a very strong practical case. The Government have already said that they believe that the DNA of the majority of the active criminal population is now recorded, so why the mad rush to take samples from so many other people? The DNA database is not without cost. The costs of sampling increasing numbers, maintaining an expanding database and storing millions of samples will continue to grow.

However, there is very little evidence that these increasing costs will have much of an impact on crime detection. Despite the massive expansion in the number of individuals on the database, the percentage of recorded crimes solved as a result of a DNA match has remained fairly constant; the figures I have seen show it to be below 0.4 per cent. A bigger difference has been made at the other end of DNA matching: at the crime scene. At present, less than 20 per cent. of crime scenes are forensically examined, and only a small proportion of them yield any biological material that is then tested. Clear-up rates are much higher when DNA is found at a crime scene, so should we not be putting resources into that end of things, rather than into collecting individuals’ samples?

One argument often used to justify the keeping of DNA is that it will help to solve cold cases, but that is fallacious. When someone is arrested and their DNA is taken, that should be tested against unidentified crime scene DNA, as is done. That will identify whether they have committed any unsolved crimes, and that is fine, but if they have not, holding their DNA after that point is irrelevant. In addition, the massive cost of holding the samples is borne by police forces. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that the money might be better spent on front-line policing, to ensure that fewer crimes are committed and our communities are kept safe.

Following the European case, the Government may have to change their policy anyway, but I would like to propose a solution. Some countries, such as Scotland, France and Canada, have legislated against retaining DNA samples from those who are acquitted. I believe we should follow their lead, and remove innocent people’s DNA from the database. Samples and profiles should be destroyed if the individual is not convicted or cautioned, although there should be an exception for those accused of a violent or sexual offence. Their samples should be kept—not indefinitely, but for a specified time. In addition, all children under 16, unless guilty of a violent or sexual offence, should have their DNA removed from the database. If we treat them like criminals at such an early age, they may well go on to fulfil our expectations.

We are talking about a huge number of people—1 million of them—whose deeply private information is being held by the Government when they have not been found to have done any wrong. That goes against fundamental British principles, as well as being a massive drain on public resources for little gain, and this Bill would rectify that injustice.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Jenny Willott, Sarah Teather, Tom Brake, Mr. Paul Burstow, Chris Huhne, David Howarth, Kelvin Hopkins, Keith Vaz, Mr. Gordon Prentice and Mr. Stephen Crabb.

Jenny Willott accordingly presented a Bill to require the removal from the DNA Database of DNA samples taken from individuals who are not charged or are acquitted; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 118].

You may remember that last year, the Metropolitan Police Service Specialist Crime Directorate 12 (MPS SCD 12)] promised to publish early 2008 a process map detailing how they go about removing the information from the NDNAD and associated databases and destroying the samples. This is still to happen. I expect to hear more soon when the Senior Information Manager looking after this process comes back from his annual leave.

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