Clause 81 - Restriction on use and destruction of fingerprints and samples

Part of Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 8th March 2001.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 4:15 pm, 8th March 2001

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on the manner in which they highlighted the important issues in the debate—and I shall not go over the same ground again. I agree with Liberty's conclusion that

``There is no logical difference between this and the compilation of a mass DNA base of all individuals.''

If a DNA database is created of people who have not been convicted of an offence but who cannot have an earlier consent, given as part of a mass screening, to inclusion withdrawn, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, there will be two classes of unconvicted people—those for whom the police have DNA bases and those for whom they do not.

I therefore wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that that must be the subject of a much wider and more serious debate about the rights of the individual as against the rights of the state. I have not come to a conclusion on the wider issue of whether it is right for there to be a DNA database of the nation—as it effectively would be if, as part of the contract between the citizen and the state, all citizens had their DNA entered on to a national register after their birth, in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Taunton. That is the logic of what the Government are doing. There is a perfectly respectable case for that, because of how important DNA will be in establishing identity in criminal cases. It will also have some part to play in civil cases, in terms of people's entitlement to treatment on the national health service or payment of social security contributions, for example. It will become a way in which the state can establish someone's identity. I do not know how exactly many national insurance numbers exist but it is perhaps around 80 million—while there are only 59 million of us. The system is clearly being used fraudulently on quite a wide scale. That form of identity check is a method by which one can establish that people are entitled to citizenship of this country and the rights that that confers.

In terms of the enforcement of the law—which is in all our interests—we must ask whether there is a case for surrendering part of our liberty to give the police a database of us all, in order to bring people more effectively to justice. That is an immensely difficult philosophical question. I instinctively come at such issues from a libertarian perspective. I understand why the Government are doing what they are doing, and am convinced by the logic of it, but I am concerned that an attempt is being made to widen the DNA database by subterfuge, so that people who willingly come forward to take part in a screening process—for example where the police are checking all males in a particular village in which a rape has been committed in order to eliminate people from their inquiries—become part of a subtle and surreptitious attempt to widen the DNA database. Samples would not be destroyed and the police would gradually move towards having as many DNA records as possible.

If that happens, it must be done in an upfront way. We must be honest with the electorate and have the debate; we must be prepared for the Government—whoever they are—to say, ``This is necessary to protect the wider interests of society to enable police to detect crime, to bring people who have committed rape to justice.'' The Government should also make it clear that such people will think twice about committing offences of that kind if they know that they are registered on the DNA database.

The Police Federation wanted those provisions included in the Bill. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, Fred Broughton said:

``We believe there to be a dilemma in relation to the retention of un-convicted persons samples, a dilemma that the Government must argue out themselves in respect of both the Human Rights and Data Protection Acts.''

We also need to argue out the relationship between the citizen and the state. There is dishonesty about the Government's attempts to use the Bill to widen the DNA database. We must have an upfront and open debate. There should not be two classes of unconvicted citizen at risk of having their DNA retained by the police.

Here we are on a wet Thursday afternoon in Committee Room 9 at the end of our consideration of the Bill. It is hardly the national forum in which to conduct a fundamental debate on this principle. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey stressed that we would return to it on Report, but we do not have much time to conduct that debate either. The issue is so fundamental that I am certain that the House of Lords will have much more to say about it when the provisions are sent to the other place. It should have been taken to its logical conclusion, perhaps without the Government adopting a particular position in the first place. They could have pointed to the advantages and disadvantages and stimulated a national debate.

I am concerned about the conduct of science in criminal trials. It is always an issue when scientific evidence is presented to non-scientists. Juries are largely composed of non-scientists, yet they are often told that the scientific evidence is unarguable. That is my worry about DNA profiling. We do not yet know how testable DNA is, or how reliable databases are. It raises all the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath about the reliability of forensic laboratories, and paper processing—ensuring that the right sample is attached to the right name—is another potential difficulty.

The danger is—we see it with Ministers—that, when a case is presented, numbers are clung on to because they appear to represent points of certainty in the arguments. It sometimes seems that all the subjective arguments fall when certainty or objectivity is injected into debates through numbers or science. It might appear only later that the evidence, although scientific, was subject to error. As I say, people might try to cling on to certainty when they are making judgments about the guilt or innocence of individuals.

It is not that we do not support the Government's intentions or fail to understand their reasons for widening the DNA database. The problem is that we have not yet reached the stage at which these provisions should be smuggled on to the statute book.