National Dna Database

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:43 pm on 29th February 2008.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity) 2:43 pm, 29th February 2008

I can refer the hon. Lady after this debate to a number of parliamentary answers from recent weeks and months that list research on the DNA database that is currently under way. I should be happy to direct her to those answers and, if necessary, to write to her further, in order to give the exact detail of what the research is being used for, which will confirm the points that I have made.

It would be useful to clarify what information is held on the database and to talk about how it works and what the DNA sample translates to on the database, before I discuss the serious issue of the over-representation of young black men. First, the information is limited. It is used simply to match DNA from a crime scene with the DNA from a person. Also, the information does not include a record of a person's entire genetic make-up, which will perhaps reassure the hon. Lady on the point about research. The information held is known as the profile and comprises only the 20 two-digit numbers and the indicator of gender. The information on the database does not include anything about criminal records, which are held on the police national computer, and the two are not, on a general basis, run together, although I can go into that further if I have time.

The DNA database is an intelligence database, not a criminal records database. It is important to remember that it does not imply that a person is an offender. In many senses, the DNA database is blind. Until someone commits an offence or is arrested for something, the fact that they are on the database does not trigger anything, unless their information is found at a crime scene.

We are sometimes told that people with no convictions but a record on the DNA database are worried that that will affect their ability to get jobs or visas, or that the database will flag them up as a concern. I recognise those concerns, but that is not the case. If people have been in contact with the police over a serious issue, that might well be on the police national computer, but that is separate. It is not the case, however, that anything on the DNA database has a flag, in terms of criminality.

To take a recent cause célèbre, although the issue at Soham was not related to DNA, information on Ian Huntley's previous behaviour was not collected on the police national computer. Had that information been collected better, the outcome of the case could have been different. The DNA database, however, is not connected with the police national computer.

It is worth highlighting the fact that, from the point of view of criminal record checks, someone who is arrested or charged but not convicted is in exactly the same position as someone who has never been arrested—that is, a criminal records check will show no conviction.

It is also worth reassuring the hon. Lady and others about who can access the database. There is no free access to the database. Only about 30 named people in the DNA custodian's office or currently working for the Forensic Science Service under a contract to supply IT for the database have access to it. The police do not have direct access to the database. If a match is found, further investigation will take place. How people are categorised by ethnic group on the database and the statistics of what percentages of different ethnic groups are on it are not readily available to people, either.

Let me deal with the hon. Lady's main concerns, about black and minority ethnic representation, and explain how people are categorised on the database, before addressing some of her other points. The database indeed holds records on the "ethnic appearance" of persons who are arrested and have a DNA sample taken, as we all understand, which is based on the judgment of the arresting police officer, using seven broad categories based on the categories used on the police national computer. The categories will inevitably be visual, because the categorisation is not the same as with the census, where people self-identify. The categories are: African-Caribbean, Arab, Asian, dark-skinned European, oriental, white-skinned European and other/unknown. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I have been asking questions about those categorisations. It is a difficult balance; she or I would be described differently by different people. I shall touch on that matter again shortly, but it is worth noting that this is different from the 16 plus one ethnicity list used in the census.

As for the most recent data, on 30 September the national DNA database had the following: 78 per cent. DNA of white-skinned Europeans; 8 per cent. Afro-Caribbean; 5 per cent. Asian; 3 per cent. other ethnic appearance groups; and 6 per cent. of unknown ethnic appearance. I will gladly give the hon. Lady those figures afterwards if it would help. If we compare that distribution with the statistics on arrests, it will bring us to the crux of the issues that the hon. Lady raised. The Government are concerned about them, and I and other hon. Members are concerned about them as constituency MPs.

In 2005-06, of an estimated 1.4 million arrests, 84 per cent. were recorded as being of white people; 9 per cent. black people; 5 per cent. Asian; and 1.3 per cent. of other ethnic groups. The national DNA database figures broadly reflect the processes by which people are brought into the criminal justice system. They are legitimately sampled under current law—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, as amended in 2001 and 2003. The samples are on the database because the people were under suspicion for committing a recordable offence, not because of any inherent bias in the database itself. There is, however, one issue raised in the Select Committee report that we are looking further into, and I shall touch on it later.

As the hon. Lady says and we all know, a large body of evidence indicates that black and minority ethnic communities continue to be over-represented in the criminal justice system. That should be a real concern to us all, as it is to the Government. Stop and search and arrest are just some of the better-known issues. I speak to mothers in my constituency who are concerned about their sons and others who have been arrested—and they do not raise just the DNA database; sometimes that is part of it, but it is more often about wider issues. I stress again that the database is not a criminal database. Having a profile on it does not disadvantage anyone in any way—unless they commit a recordable offence.