National Dna Database

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 29th February 2008.

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Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Secretary of State (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) 2:30 pm, 29th February 2008

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the DNA database. I have been asking for it for some time, and I am fortunate in having this opportunity to discuss the issue when it is highly topical, given recent high-profile convictions and the forthcoming European Court of Human Rights ruling on the retention of data on the database.

However, I sought this debate in response not to those current factors, but to constituency concern about the disproportionate number of black people on the DNA database. The database has been the subject of hot debate, but its impact on different ethnic minorities has been discussed far less. The Minister will be aware that I represent the most ethnically diverse constituency in the country. The poor relationship and distrust particularly between young black men, the police and the wider criminal justice system is raised constantly at constituency events and on the doorstep. The over-representation of black people on the DNA database is both symptomatic and causative.

There is no doubt that the technique known as DNA profiling has revolutionised forensic science and had a dramatic effect on convictions for difficult crimes as well as for cold cases. As a scientist, I have great admiration for the brilliance of Alec Jeffreys. However, precisely because the technique of DNA profiling and the associated database are such powerful tools, it is important that they be used carefully.

Protection of the public from criminal activity is a primary obligation of the state. However, in a liberal democracy we expect that obligation to be exercised in a way that respects fundamental ethical rights to liberty, autonomy and privacy and is fair, transparent and proportionate.

The UK now has the largest DNA database in the world; it stores about 4.5 million profiles, which represent about 5 per cent. of the UK population. The database includes profiles of about 500,000 people who have never been convicted, charged or cautioned and have never received a formal reprimand. It also includes the profiles of children under 10 and, more worryingly, those of three quarters of young black men.

Concerns and questions about the database fall broadly into four areas: first, the circumstances around sampling—the processes that bring people into contact with the criminal justice system; secondly, what happens to the profile when it is produced—whether it is retained on the database or destroyed; thirdly, what happens to the original DNA sample, which has the capacity to reveal much more about the individual than the profile itself; and finally, access to both the database and the sample.

The first point, about the sampling of DNA and its disproportionate application to black people, relates directly to the relationship between the police and various black and minority ethnic communities. I shall deal with that later. On the whole, it is not the sampling of DNA alone that gives rise to most ethical concerns. It seems perfectly sensible for the police to check someone's DNA profile against the database during an investigation into a burglary to see whether it matches information found at other crime scenes. The issue is about what happens if the person is later released without charge, or acquitted in court.

At the moment, that person's details are entered on the database if he or she has been arrested for any recordable offence, even if the arrest was on the basis of mistaken identity. It does not matter whether charges are brought, evidence is available, the police drop the case or the person is later cleared of all charges in a court of law—the sample and the record on the database are kept in perpetuity. It is that, in my view, which fundamentally blurs the distinction between innocence and guilt and changes the relationship between the citizen and the state.

The Government are fond of repeating that the innocent should have nothing to fear from the retention of these data. I cannot accept that argument, because it places no intrinsic value on privacy or liberty. Moreover, it fundamentally fails to appreciate the distress and discomfort that can arise from a police investigation in which one may later be exonerated. If someone's details, along with those of several others, match those of a partial profile gained from a rape, and they are investigated, the stigma and damage may last long after the police have excluded them from their inquiries. Similarly, given the Government's view that this database is a database of criminal or likely future criminal activity, there is stigma attached just to being on it.

It is worth noting that the database also holds profiles of volunteers who have willingly submitted their DNA to clear themselves during an investigation. Once consent is gained from such a volunteer, they are never allowed to revoke it. On the subject of informed consent, I am also gravely concerned about the increasing applications to conduct research on the DNA database and the samples associated with it, some of which appear to identify ethnic markers and those for behavioural genetics. That would appear to breach basic rules on informed consent for medical research. Furthermore, the data are not anonymised, and the data card carrying the individual's details is readily accessible to researchers undertaking research.

I wish to turn now to the disproportionate numbers of black people on the database. The numbers are breathtaking and should give any politician pause for thought. At the moment, 27 per cent. of the entire black population, 42 per cent. of the male black population, 77 per cent. of young black men, and 9 per cent. of all Asians are on the database, compared with just 6 per cent. of the white population. If someone is black, their details are three times more likely to be stored on the database than if they are white. Some would say that that merely reflects the over-representation of black people in the criminal justice system. Much has been written about that, with most explanations centring on poverty, poor education, poor aspirations and lack of male role models. However, few explanations ever question whether black people really commit more crimes. There is a report that should be made compulsory reading for all who work in this area. It is based on the Home Office's own commissioned research and entitled "Minority ethnic groups and crime: findings from the 2003 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey". That research is based on self-report surveys about the offending of 12,000 individuals, from young people to those up to the age of 65. The results should rock the presumptions on which we usually begin such debates.

First, it finds that offending is quite common—far more so than most people would realise. However, the real shock should come from the findings on offending behaviour in different racial groups. Far from finding that more black people commit crime, the survey found that at every age group, for both genders, for serious and less serious crimes, over a lifetime and in the past year, there was either no statistical difference among white, mixed race and black groups or, more commonly, that white people were more likely to have offended than either mixed race or black people. For example, the report found that over 42 per cent. of white people had committed an offence in their lifetime, against 28 per cent. of black people, and that 21 per cent. of white people had committed a serious offence in their lifetime, against 14 per cent. of black people. When one considers that just 14 per cent. of black people have ever committed a serious offence, yet 27 per cent. of them are on the database, it is hardly surprising that 55 per cent. of those from BME communities who have their details on the database have never been charged or convicted of anything.

We also know from countless surveys that black people are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system. Someone who is black is six times more likely to be stopped and searched and three times more likely to be arrested. The Home Affairs Committee recently looked specifically at young black people in particular and found that while young black teenagers make up 2.7 per cent. of the population, they make up 8.5 per cent. of those arrested. Once charged, young black offenders are significantly less likely to be given unconditional bail, are more likely to remain in custody, and are more likely to be given a more punitive sentence. This is despite self-report surveys from the Home Office's own research saying that black people are no more likely to have committed a crime than white people.

The disparity in the way that young black men are treated by the police is how they end up on the database in the first place. I have an example for the Minister from my own constituency. My constituent, friend and colleague, Councillor James Allie, was jogging through Queen's park on Boxing day in 2005 at about 9.30 in the morning. Unbeknown to him, a burglary had been reported in the area. The assailant was reported to be a young black male, but nothing else about the description matched my friend. Nevertheless, James was stopped by the police, who asked him what he was doing and where he had been. James explained that the trouble was that, as a young black man, now in his mid-30s, he had been stopped by the police quite a lot in his lifetime, and he knew that the conversation would not go well.

James was extremely irritated to be stopped when he was jogging on Boxing day, so when asked what he was doing, he replied, "What does it look like? I'm jogging." The police officer asked, "Are you telling me that you are not going to assist the police with their inquiries?", and he said, "Yeah." They said, "Well, in that case we'll arrest you." They arrested him, and as they did so, information came over the radio that someone else had picked up the man that they believed to be responsible for the burglary. There was not, therefore, any need to take James in at all, but by this stage the process had become unstoppable. James was fingerprinted, had his DNA taken and was held at the police station for over five hours, ruining his Boxing day and his mood. He was later released without charge, but his DNA remains on the database in perpetuity.

Unfortunately, that is quite a common story. People are stopped for one thing, they respond with irritation that is perceived as aggression and they are then arrested. Having been arrested, they have their fingerprints and DNA taken and find themselves on the database. A lot of young black men who may have been stopped for no particular reason find themselves criminalised.

The trouble with disproportionate numbers of black people being on the database is that it means disproportionate numbers of black people are having their privacy infringed, and the very existence of disproportionate numbers of black men on the database reinforces the myth that black people are more likely to commit crime. A database that is consciously and unconsciously perceived as a database of criminality reinforces myths about black people and leads to stigma. In a world where much crime goes undetected, a small skewing of police behaviour leads to a large discrepancy in outcomes for different ethnic and racial groups, and the problem is that those discrepancies become reinforcing when they inform future police behaviour.

It is time that we broke the cycle. Much has been said about the need for police to examine their own stop-and-search practices, but we also need to break the cycle with regard to the database. It is one thing to sample DNA from someone suspected of being involved in a serious crime, but if they are not charged, they should not have their details entered on to the database. If they are acquitted in court or not convicted because the case does not proceed to trial, they should have their details removed from the database and the sample destroyed. If a person is a volunteer who has consented to have their details on the database for a period of time, they should be able to withdraw that consent, and the details should then be removed and the sample destroyed. We urgently and desperately need better oversight of who has access to this vast database of very sensitive information and of what research can be conducted on it.

The database and the associated police practices go to the heart of the current debate about the relationship between the criminal justice system and black people in my constituency. It is an issue that they are rightly concerned about. It is an issue that we should all be concerned about, and action must be taken. I do not want to live in a world where whole populations are treated as suspects because of the colour of their skin. Doing nothing about this is not an option.