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Counter-Terrorism Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:13 pm on 9th October 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government 2:13 pm, 9th October 2008

We now come a very important part of the Bill, the power to take fingerprints and samples. By definition, the samples are DNA. It is therefore extremely important that we are really clear what we are talking about in the Bill regarding the taking of those samples and their maintenance.

Powers are being given in the Bill that are immediately transferable across to any other criminal situation. This is the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Is it anticipated that the powers to be taken here should relate only to counter-terrorism or can they be seen across a wider spectrum? We are assuming that they will be across the wider spectrum. In any event, if they are not, the legislation regarding samples needs to be tied up.

The current database for DNA, in particular, is incoherent, incomplete and completely illogical. Not everyone who has been found guilty of an offence is on it; while some who are completely innocent are. There is widespread ignorance and confusion about the use of the information and the rights that individuals have to get themselves removed from a database once they are on it. Under Clause 10, that information will have to be maintained on the database.

That is compounded by inconsistent and disproportionate application of the requirements to destroy information that has been obtained. My two amendments seek the clarification of where we are now; the consistent and transparent application of current legislation, to which I just referred; and the proper parliamentary scrutiny of any future changes.

Periodic recommendations from senior sources, including judges and police officers, that the database should be extended to every person in the United Kingdom, show just how far the current method of legislation by salami-slicing could go. Government policies, such as the identity card database, show that the appetite for control could be increased. At the same time, the losses of financial and personal information that we have come to expect with depressing regularity from government departments show how little we can trust public bodies to hold such important information safely.

A loss of information from the DNA database on the scale of the loss of child benefit information last year would be catastrophic. Unlike bank accounts, you cannot change your DNA. Once the information is lost or is in the wrong hands, it cannot be regained. The Minister might like to take this opportunity to lay out how widely the Government would like the DNA database to extend. Can he give us a categorical assurance that there is no intention to expand it deliberately to retain innocent people's DNA?

Our amendments would require a clear assessment of where we are now. Having failed to provide for a proper debate on the matter, the legislation surrounding the DNA database is scattered over several Acts, orders and codes. The Bill will be a further Act. For example, Section 64 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, concerning the destruction of fingerprints and samples, has been amended five times since then by legislation. It has been amended by, first, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, secondly, by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, thirdly, by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, fourthly, by the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and, fifthly, by the Police Act 1996.

Somewhere in the Home Office, I am sure that there are officials who know all the information that Amendment No. 13 would require to be published. However, that grasp of a complex and ever-changing area is not widely shared. This country already has the largest DNA database in the world. How many people are currently on it; how many of those who have never been convicted of a crime are on it; and how many people will be added every year? The Government's own Ethics Group appreciates this problem; its Recommendations I and J state that there should be further public clarification of the role of the database and that the possibility of a universal repository should be categorically denied.

There is inconsistency with Europe. The inclusion of innocent people on our database not only intrudes on their privacy at home. Police forces in Europe and around the world share information on suspects. This flow of information is likely to expand even further under EU law. On other EU databases, innocent people are not included. If you were to ask the Spanish force for information on a certain person and it responded positively, you can be sure that such a person had a criminal record. The same is not true in the other direction. Our police forces can pass over information on innocent people, the very existence of which indicates a criminal record in the minds of the foreign forces. The fact that these people are on the database automatically gives rise to the assumption of criminality. Have the Government taken steps to ensure that, when such information is handed over, the recipients are fully aware of the arbitrary nature of our database? Do they realise that the unfortunate subject may be guilty of nothing more than a desire to be helpful during the investigation of a crime?

On the right to destroy, the general confusion over the database extends to ignorance over the rights that an individual has in regard to it. How many people know that they can request to have their information destroyed if it has been voluntarily given during the investigation of a case? How many people even think to check what information is held on them? The Government have in past years thrown their support behind increasing awareness of just how important it is to check one's credit history to ensure that mistakes are corrected and identity theft prevented. Yet they are strangely silent on whether people should exercise the same caution over their DNA. Even when a person makes the request, a chief constable can refuse to destroy the information, with no justification and no consistency.

The Ethics Group has made recommendations in this area. It has not only restated the principle set out in primary legislation that information will be destroyed by default when the investigation has ended but emphasised the need to clarify the exceptional circumstances in which this principle can be broken. Our amendment seeks clear national guidelines on this matter. This debate should be only the start of this. We need a well informed and widespread debate, which includes the public as well as Parliament, on resolving these matters. The proposed new clauses are just one more gesture in trying to resolve the problem of adding to the data that are already being taken. Fingerprints fall into the same category. People's fingerprints are now being taken all over the place, and they do not know what they are being used for and whether that information is being passed on.

One understands that DNA may be helpful in counterterrorism, but it is seriously not helpful that this information should be kept indefinitely and can be used widely, passed on without consent and without the knowledge that it is being passed on. We already know that the EU has enhanced ideas about DNA transfer and that there are suggestions that children should have their DNA taken at birth. We are building up a database of the whole community that could be used against any members of that community if held in the wrong hands.

This legislation gives us a good opportunity to raise this matter. We want to know whether the powers taken here relate to information already on the general DNA database or to information that will be added to it, and what limitations there will be in maintaining and preserving it. I am sure the Minister will agree that liberty, apart from anything else, is an extremely important aspect and that we in Parliament need to be ever mindful of the fact that the legislation that we pass can be as embarrassing to innocent people as it is to the guilty. We must ensure that the innocent are not jeopardised. I beg to move.