Gov advisers slate Home Office over innocents' DNA retention
Arrests made just to collar DNA
The Human Genetics Commission has slammed the government over the rampant expansion of the UK's DNA database.
One retired police officer told the Commission that the databases existence had changed policing practices, with some officers making arrests purely to get samples on the system.
The Human Genetics Commission (HGC) is the Government’s group of independent advisers on developments in human genetics: it is hoped that its "nuanced" critique of government policy will avoid a repetition of the Nutt affair and the Home Secretary will not, on this occasion, go so far as to sack his experts for providing advice that is out of step with his own views.
The HGC report, Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, concludes that although Britain has the largest police DNA database in the world – five million strong and still growing – this has been developed piecemeal without a specific Act of Parliament. The database needs to be regulated on a clear statutory basis and supervised by an independent authority.
HGC Chair Professor Jonathan Montgomery said: "DNA evidence plays a significant role in bringing criminals before the courts and securing convictions. But it is not clear how far holding DNA profiles on a central database improves police investigations.
"We have to strike a proper balance between identifying offenders and protecting privacy, including that of innocent people – we should not compromise that privacy without good reason."
On retired police officer told the researchers that in contrast to practices in his early career, it was now "the norm" to arrest people for "everything there is a power to do so" in part to expand the database.
"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 ex-copper said.
The report further concludes that:
- There is insufficient evidence at present to be able to say what use it is to hold DNA profiles from different people
- There needs to be very careful consideration of the equality impact of the database and any proposed changes to it
- There needs to be a clear and independent appeals procedure for unconvicted people who want their DNA removed
- All police officers should have their own DNA collected as a condition of employment
- The UK needs to make progress in working with the rest of Europe on exchanging DNA information and standardising procedures.
Government difficulties began last December, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled, in the case of Marper and S, that it was illegal to retain DNA profiles and fingerprints belonging to two men never convicted of any crime.
The Court allowed nine months for the UK government to get its act together and consult on the matter – and by dint of a certain amount of judicious foot-dragging, this has now been stretched to almost a year.
The latest Crime and Security Bill, published last week, includes proposals for "protecting the public by ensuring the right people are on our DNA database by indefinitely retaining the DNA records of convicted offenders and holding the DNA of those who are acquitted for a proportionate amount of time". This proposal now appears to include a commitment to hold on to the DNA of individuals not even charged with an offence for up to six years.
Two MPs – Jenny Willott for the Lib Dems and Diane Abbott for Labour - have been particularly outspoken in their criticism of the government stance on DNA retention, and both have held constituency surgeries designed to help innocent constituents have their DNA removed from the database.
Following her own surgery last Friday, Ms Willott said: "The DNA clinic has been of interest locally. There is a remarkably high level of understanding on this issue now in my constituency.
"People are angry at the way the government has dragged their heels in responding to the ECHR report. For most people, this is a simple issue of conscience and principle, that if you’re not actually found guilty, you shouldn’t be on the database full stop."
She added: "This report is right to highlight that the government has made the accumulation of innocent peoples’ DNA a national police priority. But there is no evidence to show that this has actually increased conviction rates."
Diane Abbott commented: "The Government’s decision to retain the DNA of innocent people for six years is simply not good enough. The point is you are either guilty or you are innocent. I do not agree with the Government’s attempts to create 'half innocent' people and I do not agree with the holding of innocent children’s DNA. I am concerned that the proposals are still not compliant with ECHR."
However, a Home Office spokesman rejected this, saying: "Research shows no clear link between the level of offence for which an individual is arrested and the seriousness of any subsequent offence with which they may be associated. DNA samples are taken on arrest for recordable offences carrying prison sentence. The Government is clear that this is the right threshold for taking and retaining DNA.
"We know that the DNA database is a vital crime fighting tool, identifying 410,589 crime scenes between 1998 and March 2009 with a DNA match and a possible lead on the possible identity of the offender." ®
Although proposals to update the law on DNA retention are now before Parliament, it is unlikely that these will pass before the next election. Unless an incoming government makes DNA a priority issue, the law could well stay unchanged until late 2011.