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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 4:30 pm on 8th March 2010.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 4:30 pm, 8th March 2010

I would not say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in court every day, but he is there much more often than probably every other Member of the House, bar Tony Baldry, and probably even more than all of us put together. The right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore speaks as an expert, and he knows when such expertise is necessary. However, there is a higher judgment. Our deliberations need to be guided by what is in the public interest, in terms of what the public would want. He sees the matter from a different point of view. He sees it as a lawyer-a very distinguished lawyer-where the expertise offered through DNA can prove either that his client is guilty or that he is not guilty. There is a different judgment to be made by Members of this House from those judgments to be made by lawyers. I say that with the greatest of respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman, whom I have known for many years, and for what he has said about such issues before the House.

However, the Government's position-that we should retain the data indefinitely-is indefensible, yet they hung on to it for a long time. They could have created a great deal of good will among their own Back Benchers and the Opposition parties if they had retreated from that indefensible position much sooner. The Government then went for a longer period, which they subsequently reduced to six years. There were differences among those of us on the Select Committee on how long the period should be, but we came to the conclusion-this is set out in the conclusions that we have published today-that a three-year period probably strikes the right balance. We said that the period should not be less than three years-although it could be longer-but that three years was a reasonable length of time. If hon. Members know the personalities of the members of the Home Affairs Committee and their different politics, they will understand that achieving a unanimous report is quite difficult. Consensus is not easy on such issues, but there was a consensus that holding the data for six years was too long.

The Government need to look at that period for the very reasons that were put forward by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornchurch. It worries me that the DNA of so many young black men is on the database. That cannot be right. We are talking about high percentages-between 60 and 70 per cent. in some age groups-but Ministers have given no explanation of that. They cannot expect Members of Parliament to go along with more and more of our citizens being put on the database just because of the colour of their skin. I have heard no explanation from the Minister as to why that is happening, nor have I heard about any research that the Home Office intends to commission to find that out. In discussing such issues, it is important that we should know why those things are happening. I raised that point with the Minister on Second Reading, right at the start of our proceedings on this Bill-indeed, I raised it before, when the European Court made its judgment-so he really needs to tell us now. He cannot just say, "Tut-tut, it's very sad that this is the case, but we don't know why it's happening." Why is it happening? These are matters of fact; they are not even matters of debate.

However, where the Minister has me-that is, where he has made enormous progress and been prepared to listen-is on the issue of innocent people trying to remove their entries from the database once they have been arrested, by writing in and saying, "Could we please have our DNA removed?"

During our deliberations we took evidence from Mr. Hands. He told us about his experience after the death of an elderly relative whom he had not seen for many years, when, because he was related to that particular woman, the police came and took his DNA. He tried for a year and a half to get some explanation from the chief constable of the west midlands as to whether his DNA was still on the database and when it could be removed. The chief constable appeared before us when we were preparing the report, but he did not know the answer, even though the issue was in the public domain. He wrote to me recently and said, "Very good news: Mr. Hands's DNA is not on the database." Why did it take a year and a half, parliamentary questions, and the chief constable appearing before a Select Committee for the hon. Gentleman to get an answer?

That is where the Government's problems lie. If only there was a much easier, more robust and more defensible way of dealing with the issue, the Government would not be in their present difficulties, with so many on their own Benches worrying about the issue. Those who are innocent should be able to write in, such as Mr. Jonathan Leighton, who gave evidence to our Committee. Why is his DNA on the database? He is a student from Oxford university. A protester had climbed up a tree because the local authority in Oxford wished to chop it down. Mr. Leighton was not involved in the protest, and all he did was to throw a bottle of water up to the gentleman because he was thirsty. He was arrested, and his DNA was put on the database and retained from that moment. If a system were introduced that made it easy for innocent people to write in, the Government would take the House with them on that.

I am delighted that the Minister has looked carefully at this issue, and he has come up with proposals that the Select Committee welcome. I hope he does not think that all our reports always criticise the Government, because they do not. The only bits that the media pick up are our criticisms of Government policy, but the purpose of Select Committees is to be robust so that the Government can do better. Otherwise, we would be like those who sat in the Kremlin before elections were run in the Soviet Union, agreeing with everything that the then Russian Government did. We have to point out to the Government where we think they have gone wrong, and I think that our method of scrutiny is pretty good. We always take evidence from Ministers, as we did in this case from the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hanson.

My right hon. Friend's proposals are very welcome. Putting this matter on a statutory footing is the right approach. Innocent people-indeed, anyone-will be able to write in to the proposed body and say, "I'd like my DNA removed." The body will issue robust guidelines, which is welcome, and there will be others besides police officers sitting on it. The Select Committee has asked to be consulted on the guidance, and we look forward to receiving assurance from the Minister that that will happen. Given the imminence of the general election, it would be nice if that could be done as soon as possible. We would like to do it before the House rises whenever it is going to rise, at the end of March.

The measures will help us to show the public that we are serious about dealing with the DNA of innocent people, and we welcome these important changes. The Minister has certainly answered some of the criticisms that I made on Second Reading, but he still needs to do some work on the time limit. Of course the police are advising him that six years is the right time limit, and that three years is too short a period, but I urge him to look again at this. If the system works, people such as myself will be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on time limits if we can end the postcode lottery-whereby those living in north Wales, for example, get a better response than those in Leicestershire-and if we can take the power away from the 43 chief constables. If such consistency can be introduced into the system, the Government will have done an enormous amount to deal with the criticisms that have been made since the European Court judgment. I look forward to receiving such assurances from the Minister.