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New Clause 1 — Retention, destruction and use of fingerprints and samples

Part of Crime and Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 8th March 2010.

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Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:15 pm, 8th March 2010

Perhaps it is the mindset that this Government have always had of always erring on the side of the Big Brother database state. In many ways they are making the case for universal inclusion on the DNA database, which is utterly unacceptable and, I know, is not the approach that even the Minister takes.

As I have said, there are complications. DNA forensics are often important in securing a conviction, but other material factors and lines of inquiry make a significant contribution. It is spurious to suggest that certain cases, such as those that have been adduced, would have gone unsolved, or that justice would have been denied, as a consequence of the proposals outlined in our new clause 1.

Let us take the case of Jeremiah Sheridan, which was relied on most recently by the Prime Minister. It was a particularly shocking case, as Sheridan brutally raped a disabled woman. In a complex case, he was subsequently caught, prosecuted and convicted because of the DNA that he left behind at the scene. The Prime Minister has claimed that the case would not have been solved if a revised approach to that proposed by the Government were adopted, but he misses the point totally. We should retain DNA that is left behind at crime scenes, and greater focus should be placed on the robustness of that part of the database. When a DNA profile is added to the database following an arrest for an offence, it should be checked against the cold-case database. If someone is subsequently arrested for a different offence and there is a DNA match, they should be prosecuted and the case should be solved.

If the Government's case studies do anything, they underline the reasoned approach of our proposal, which properly reflects the need to ensure that DNA forensics are available to help the police to bring serious criminals to justice. However, there is a world of difference between maintaining the DNA from crime scenes and keeping on file the DNA of the innocent, just in case they might one day be re-arrested in connection with a crime.

That is the Government's justification for their approach, but they should concentrate on getting their house in order. There should be much greater focus not simply on growing the DNA database of innocent people for the sake of it, but on obtaining the DNA of those already convicted of offences and those currently residing in Her Majesty's prisons. I welcome the fact that the Government are finally taking that seriously in some of their proposals in the Bill. That might be a rather better starting point for tackling crime in future.

What is an acceptable period for the retention of DNA records of those arrested for, but not convicted of, any offence? We believe that a similar model to that used in Scotland has some merit. In Scotland, if someone is convicted of a recordable offence, their DNA profile is retained indefinitely, but if they are not convicted of an offence, their DNA profile should not be retained once it has fulfilled the purpose for which it was taken, save for crimes of violence or sexual offences. In the latter category, DNA profiles should be retained for a limited period of three years, with the possibility of an extension for a further two years with court oversight.

The Scottish model was reviewed by Professor James Fraser from the Strathclyde university Centre for Forensic Science in 2008. Despite what the Home Secretary has asserted, Professor Fraser's terms of reference were wide enough to consider alternatives in other systems, and he recommended no material changes to the current system in Scotland. Lord Bach, the Minister's colleague in the Ministry of Justice, acknowledged that:

"In determining the appropriateness of the current legislation, Professor Fraser considered data on reoffending rates and conducted a wide consultation. He did not uncover any evidence to suggest that this approach to retention has caused any detriment to the detection of serious crime in Scotland."

We believe that an approach similar to that in Scotland should be adopted in the other nations of the United Kingdom, but with one important distinction, namely that the trigger for retention in cases involving violence or sexual offences should be arrest rather than charge.

We believe that that approach takes proper account of the competing interests of the individual against the collective need for protection from crime. It strikes the right balance between respect for an individual's private life and the legitimate interests of the state in preventing and detecting crime. As the Home Office's hazard rate analysis suggests, that is ultimately a matter of judgment. It is a judgment between retaining trust and confidence in the use of DNA materials, and trust and confidence in the police's use of such forensics. It is also a judgment on how to treat those who have never been convicted of an offence, the rights of the state to interfere in the lives of others, and the need to protect the public from crime.

The Government have sought to make the issue a political dividing line. So be it. That will expose how they have in many ways played fast and loose with the facts of sensitive cases, and how even now they cling to the view that the state needs to be intrusive and invasive, and that it needs to know as much information about all of us as it can, regardless of proportionality. It will also expose how the fundamental principles of innocence and guilt are almost inconsequential to the Government, and how they continue to delude themselves that draconian powers will mean a safer and more just society.

That is question of judgment, and on that and so many other issues, the Government's judgment is flawed. They are on the wrong side of the line and the wrong side of the argument, and increasingly, they are failing to uphold the security that they claim to support.