Second Reading

Part of Crime and Security Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:21 pm on 29th March 2010.

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Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour 7:21 pm, 29th March 2010

My Lords, crime and security provisions go to the fundamental duty of any state to protect its citizens and to keep them safe. In my short address this evening, I intend to concentrate on three main areas: the retention of DNA, stop and search measures and, briefly, gang injunctions.

The development of genetic fingerprints or DNA is probably the most important investigative tool in the fight against crime since fingerprints were developed, as the Minister mentioned. In my view, the DNA database exists as a tool for justice. It has resulted in many violent crimes, rapes and burglaries, going back many years, being detected and their perpetrators prevented from preying on innocent victims in the future. It provides the police with an average of about 3,300 DNA matches per month. Between April 1998 and March 2009 there have been 304,000 detections in which DNA was an important factor. In burglaries, where DNA was available it more than doubled the detection rate from 17 per cent to 38 per cent in 2006-07. These numbers are important and no right-thinking citizen can deny their importance in any debate that we have on crime.

That alone would justify such a database in a modern, progressive society. However, it does more-it actually serves justice by eliminating the innocent as suspects, which is why I describe it as a tool for justice, and not just for the prosecution. Of course, the contentious issue is whether, if ever, DNA samples should be kept on people who have not been convicted. Let me make it clear that when we are talking about DNA samples-I think the Minister made this point-we are not talking about keeping spots of blood, hair or tissue, but about information on a barcode, rather like a supermarket price label. The information is of no use to anyone, other than to match it against another sample found at the scene of a crime or at a fatal air or train crash and the like.

I know that I am certainly a minority, if not a total exception, in this House and I will nail my colours to the mast. I would retain the DNA of every child born in this country. It sounds fanciful, and probably is in the light of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, but it is not as difficult as it sounds. I am told that DNA samples are now routinely taken from all babies to check for genetic diseases and medical conditions, and I imagine that it would be relatively easy to process and transfer the data, but perhaps I am being too adventurous. As members of the public continue to tell me when I raise this at meetings and in discussions, "What has an innocent person got to fear?" Perhaps those opposing the extension or even proposing a reduction in the DNA register could explain that to the House.

For example, if we had not retained any data from unconvicted people in 2008-09, the police would have lost some 10 per cent of matches for rape and homicide cases, a total of 79 of these serious cases. This is extremely important, not just for the victims and their friends and families, but for society as a whole because they continue to reoffend. I speak as a student of victims, if you like, with 35 years of policing-dealing with the victims of crime-and I know how important it is for them to get closure by having their day in court. It is no good noble Lords criticising police performance if we do not give them the tools to do the job on our behalf.

It was mentioned earlier that Scotland has a more restricted retention policy than England, but in my experience chief officers there are certainly in favour of moving to the English model. As the ACPO lead on DNA and chief constable of the West Midlands said in September last year:

"There are 40,000 crimes matched every year; it is helping us to keep safe. Reducing the numbers on the database will tip the balance towards making people less safe".

Is that what your Lordships really want?

I fully support retaining DNA lawfully in the possession of the police for a proportionate amount of time permissible under the law, and I think that is what the Minister is proposing. It also makes a lot of sense to allow the police retrospectively to collect DNA samples from serious, violent and sexual offenders returning to the UK following convictions overseas. It is a simple proposition-the greater the database, the greater chance to do justice for victims of serious crime. We should support the police in their relentless battle to reduce the number of these serious offences.

I will turn briefly to the bureaucracy involved in stop and search. In my view, as a working policeman with more than 30 years' experience, one of the best deterrents to carrying illicit articles, such as weapons, drugs or explosives, is the fear of being stopped and searched by the police. It is fairly obvious; it works at airports and at football matches, and we do not use it sufficiently. On the streets, we tend to burden police officers with mountains of paperwork. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, who is not in her place, referred to that. Therefore, I welcome the provisions in the Bill to reduce the time spent on this task. A record of the stop and search will still have to be kept, quite rightly, and this will still include details such as ethnicity. It is anticipated that the reduction in time per encounter would be about 12 minutes per stop and search, or about 200,000 hours per year, which is quite a saving. This has to be good for the police and for the public of this country.

In concluding, I make a plea for the application of common sense in supporting citizens who intervene to prevent anti-social behaviour and crime. We hear too often of decent, law-abiding people confronting yobbish behaviour in the streets and on public transport, who find themselves hauled into police stations to be questioned or even charged with over-stepping the mark. We need the police, together with the crown prosecutors, to exercise common sense and discretion more. However, if the police do not pass the case on to the crown prosecutors in the first place, then that would be the end of the matter.

I will give a brief example because it touches on what I have talked about on stop and search. Two weeks ago I was travelling on a bus with my wife and I had occasion to challenge a youth in a hood, who had his feet on the seat in front of him, which was where I was sitting. I remonstrated with him and an altercation took place, which resulted in him saying at the end of it, "I have a good mind to cut you up". That caused me to suspect that he might be carrying a knife. The youth continued to mutter and I was very cautious, obviously, of taking any further action. Two things prevented me from taking the matter further: one was the presence of my wife, who, I am sure, would have severely reprimanded me; and the second, which is just as important, was that if the situation became physical and they youth was not armed but got injured, I would be the one in the dock. My point is that I should have had full confidence in the judicial system to support me doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. It is a sad reflection that I did not. Making it easier for the police to stop and search in a fair and proportionate manner, which is important, will reduce the chances of people carrying offensive weapons on public transport and on the streets.

We have recently seen in London one or two gang-related stabbings. I therefore fully support the provisions in the Bill to allow injunctions to be taken out against 14 to 17 year-olds. I spent some time training with the FBI and I have seen the use of injunctions in the USA reduce gang culture and gang-related violence. I look forward to seeing how the decision to pilot the introduction of this measure works. Anything which can be done to make the streets of Britain safer has to be a vote winner. I support these provisions in the Bill.