Surveillance society: The DNA files

Police files hold the DNA of more than 50,000 children who have committed no offence. And that's only the tip of the iceberg - Britain now has the largest DNA database in the world. By Marie Woolf and Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online

More than 51,000 innocent children have had DNA samples lodged on a national police database - more than twice the figure previously admitted by ministers. The children, including 30 under the age of 10, have had DNA swabs taken even though they have never been charged with or cautioned for an offence.

MPs last night called for the genetic samples of innocent people, including those of children, to be immediately removed from what is now the world's largest DNA database.

The revelations come five years after the database was set up. It is a year since police were given new powers to hold DNA samples from anyone suspected of an offence, not just those who have been convicted.

Civil liberties campaigners are warning that the scheme, which currently holds the genetic data of more than three million people, is an attempt to create a database "by stealth". This has been denied by senior police officers who argue that it is a vital crime-fighting tool.

The DNA of around 700,000 children has already been recorded by police, a figure that includes 24,000 people still under the age of 18 who have been arrested by police but never convicted of a crime.

However, the Home Office has now admitted that their original estimate of "innocent" children on the database did not include an extra 27,000 people who are now adults but whose details were entered on to the database when they were children.

Tory MP Grant Shapps, who obtained the new figures, accused the Government of deliberately underplaying the number of innocent youngsters whose DNA is on file.

"I suspected they were being economical with the truth, but even I am shocked to discover that there are more than twice as many innocent youngsters on the DNA database than the Government was willing to reveal," he said.

There are around 30 children aged under 10, and these include those whose parents have consented to their details being on the database.

But dozens more 10- to 12-year-olds have had their DNA taken, usually from a mouth swab, without the consent of parents because they are over the age of criminal responsibility.

A report out tomorrow raises huge concerns about the impact of the database on these "bar-coded children".

The University of Lancaster study, based on interviews with 10- to 12-year- olds and their families, highlights fears that children will be stigmatised for life. It concludes that samples from under 18s should either be kept for a limited time or in a different part of the database.

Dr Mairi Levitt, an expert on the impact of genetics on society, was involved in the research and said: "I'm very concerned that the details of very young children who have not committed a crime at all are held for ever. Our research found that children, unlike adults, are not aware of the consequences of their actions."

Ministers are keen to increase the size of the database. This latest controversy over children will put pressure on them to increase safeguards over the holding of private genetic material.

It was revealed earlier this year that 24 per cent of the 118,743 people on the DNA database not charged with committing a crime are from ethnic minorities. Those minorities make up only 8.5 per cent of the population.

Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone said police powers were being used disproportionately and she called on the Government to investigate the fact that so many non-white people were being arrested.

"The ever-expanding disproportionate number of black and ethnic minorities who are completely innocent but whose details are stored in the national DNA database will exacerbate and perpetuate discrimination," she said.

DNA details remain on file for life even if the person has been cleared in court or arrested and then released after questioning. Some on the DNA database are witnesses to a crime or the victims of an assault or robbery.

Those who have not been convicted of a recordable offence can apply to the chief constable of the police force which took the sample to have it destroyed in "exceptional circumstances".

Tony Lake, chairman of the national DNA database strategy board, denied that genetic details were being gathered "by stealth". He said an ethics committee was being set up to oversee the DNA "bank".

Mr Lake, chief constable of Lincolnshire police, said: "This is an intelligence database, not one of convicted people, and there has been a lot of misunderstanding over this.

"There's nothing shady about this and there are safety checks factored in so that DNA is not relied on solely in criminal investigations," he said.

The Home Office said: "Innocent people have nothing to fear from DNA." It added that thousands of crimes had been solved using DNA data. This included a 1998 rape and indecent assault on girls aged 11 and nine. The Home Office said the rapist was identified by his DNA when he was picked up for shoplifting three years later.

However, Genewatch UK, the independent genetic research group, warned the database was "getting out of control" and that DNA was not "foolproof", with victims of mistaken identity being wrongly targeted.

"We are in favour of there being a DNA database, but our concerns are that it is getting out of control in terms of safeguards and the number of people on it," said a spokesman.

The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker said: "What the Government wants to do is to get everyone on the database. They are starting with ethnic minorities and sweeping up children as they go along."

The schoolgirl: 'I was attacked - and the police criminalised me'

A keen photographer and musician, 16 year-old Caitlin Bristow is described as a "joy to teach" by staff at the private school she attends in Wilmslow, Cheshire. The popular schoolgirl, who represents her county at athletics, was attacked by a gang of girls while walking in her local park last May.

After she reported the assault, the accused girls tried to blame her for provoking them. Despite parental protests, police acted on the counter-allegations and took fingerprint and DNA samples.

"I was in shock because I didn't know what to do and couldn't believe what was happening. It affected me a lot at first: now I'm starting to get over it. The whole thing makes me angry because the kind of people that attacked me aren't the nicest people.

"I don't trust the police now. I have lost faith in them and would not go to them for help if it happened again. I want to clear my name and don't want a black mark against me. It worries me that they've got hold of my personal details and that this may affect my future. Your DNA makes up who you are and the police have stolen it from me.

"This could happen to anyone who reports something to the police. I did nothing wrong but they have tried to criminalise me by putting me into the system."

Jonathan Owen

ON THE DATABASE

5 per cent of Britons have their DNA profiles held by the police. The EU average is 1.13 per cent and the rate in the US is 0.5 per cent

24 per cent of those on the DNA database who have never been charged with committing a crime are from ethnic minorities. This is three times their representative proportion in the UK population

£300m has been spent on the project

3m samples are on the database

40,000 samples are added each month

139,463 people on the database have not been charged or cautioned

4.25m samples will be on the database by 2008, according to predictions by the Home Office

0.35% of all the crimes detected by police in 2004/05 came about as a result of using DNA samples

51,000+ samples on the database were been taken from children never cautioned or charged