DNA Database (Removal of Samples)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 11th June 2008.

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Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 12:32 pm, 11th June 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given 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 that 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, fewer 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.

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Simon Waller
Posted on 12 Jun 2008 8:11 pm (Report this annotation)

Its simple really. I'm a mature student studying Forensic Science and I truely believe the current system is fair and proper.

At the end of the day if a person has nothing to hide then they should have no problem with their DNA being held on a database. There is nothing personal about DNA that people have to worry about being held, yes its highly unique to an individual, personal and private no.

Only those who commit or intend to commit a crime need be worried about this, exactly the way it should be.

Between Myths
Posted on 17 Jun 2008 1:10 pm

This annotation has been removed

Between Myths
Posted on 17 Jun 2008 4:14 pm

This annotation has been removed