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 Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 4:15 pm, 8th March 2001

The discussion of the issues has been excellent, with all three speeches having been to the point. I want to deal with two subsidiary issues at the beginning. The point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about civil servants was unwarranted. The civil service monolith did not drive the Bill forward, with supine Ministers agreeing to a long-standing ambition to transform the law. As always, the civil servants provided excellent advice on the issues. The decision to proceed was taken by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and me in the usual processes of Government. The decision was political, not something on which Ministers caved in to pressure from civil servants who told us to act because not to do so would let down law enforcement for the future of civilisation.

The language about removal of liberties is unwarranted in relation to the issue. Imprisoning people and refusing to allow them to speak in public is qualitatively different from the police being able to retain people's fingerprints and samples. I know that liberty is on a spectrum, but to talk of removal of liberties is a rhetorical step too far.

It is important to stress the reasons why the Government have proposed the clause. As hon. Members have said, it will allow the retention of all fingerprints and samples taken on suspicion of involvement in a criminal offence and will enable them to be used for the prevention and detection of crime, the investigation of an offence and the conduct of a prosecution.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said in his introduction that the changes have been made as a result of the decisions of the criminal division of the Court of Appeal in R v. Weir and R v. B (Attorney-General's reference No. 3/199) May 2000. The cases raise the issue of whether the law relating to retention and use of DNA samples on acquittal should be changed. In the two cases, compelling DNA evidence that linked one suspect to a rape and the other to a murder could not be used, and neither suspect could be convicted. That was because, at the time that the matches were made, both defendants had been acquitted or a decision had been made not to proceed with the offences for which the DNA profiles were taken. Section 64 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 specifies that, when a person is not prosecuted or is acquitted of the offence, the sample must be destroyed and the information derived from it cannot be used.

The subsequent decision of the House of Lords overturned the ruling of the Court of Appeal. The House of Lords ruled that, when a DNA sample fell to be destroyed but had not been, although section 64 of PACE prohibited its use in the investigation of any other offence, it did not make evidence obtained as a failure to comply with that prohibition inadmissible, but left it to the discretion of the trial judge.

Although that ruling allows the courts discretion to use the information, it affects only cases in which samples, through chance and inefficiency, have not been destroyed. The Government's view is that such evidence should not be thrown away and that the police should be able to make proper use of valuable and objective evidence provided by fingerprints and DNA profiling.

Those court decisions led the Government to make the proposals that we are debating. I accept that that meant that there was less wide-scale public debate on the issues than there otherwise might have been. However, the court decisions left the status quo as unacceptable. People could be acquitted of serious offences as a result of almost a legal loophole, a series of legal judgments that put the police's procedures in doubt. It would have raised serious questions for the Government to have ignored it, and that would have left the Crown Prosecution Service unable to prosecute in offences of the type that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and I have cited. We could have been open to serious criticism had we not acted on the situation at the first opportunity. The point about debate has some merit, although we should remember that every piece of legislation ends up being debated in a cold, wet Committee Room on a Thursday so the rhetorical flourish was, perhaps, slightly overdone. We would have been rightly criticised for being delinquent had we not acted in those circumstances.