Top judge: 'Put everyone on DNA database'

Click to follow

The entire UK population and every visitor to the country should be on the national DNA database, a top judge has said.

Lord Justice Sedley told BBC News: "Where we are at the moment is indefensible.

"We have a situation where if you happen to have been in the hands of the police, then your DNA is on permanent record. If you haven't, it isn't... that's broadly the picture."

Sir Stephen Sedley said disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities get on to the database where there is ethnic profiling going on.

He added: "It also means that a great many people who are walking the streets, and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free".

There are currently four million profiles held on the national DNA database.

Sir Stephen, one of England's most experienced Appeal Court judges, said expanding the database to cover the whole population had "very serious but manageable implications".

He said everybody's DNA should be on file "for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention".

The UK's 12-year-old DNA database is the largest of any country, growing by 30,000 samples a month, which are taken from suspects or crime scenes.

According to the Home Office website, 5.2% of the UK population is on the database, compared with 0.5% in the US.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said: "The DNA debate reveals just how casual some people have become about the value of personal privacy.

"A database of those convicted of sexual and violent crime is a perfectly sensible crimefighting measure.

"A database of every man, woman and child in the country is a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The DNA database has revolutionised the way the police can protect the public through identifying offenders and securing more convictions. It provides the police on average with around 3,500 matches each month."

She said there are no Government plans to introduce a universal compulsory, or voluntary, national DNA database, but that the Home Office is currently undertaking a review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) 1984, which sets out the powers to take and retain biometric data.

She said: "Final proposals are due to be published in spring 2008 and will take account of the views received during the consultation as well as those of Lord Chief Justice Sedley.

"The aim of the review is to ensure proportionality and fairness by maintaining the important balance between the investigative needs of the police and the protection of the individual."

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "I think we are broadly sympathetic to the thrust of what he has said. There is no Government plans to go to a compulsory database now or in the foreseeable future.

"There is a logic to what Sir Stephen is saying. I have said that myself in the past, that there is a real logic and cohesion to the point that says 'Well, put everybody on'.

"But I think he probably does under-estimate the practicalities, logistics and huge civil liberties and ethics issue around that."

Mr McNulty stressed there was a review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act legislation being carried out and this would report back in February next year.

It would consider issues including whether those presently on the database should be on it and if there was any "value" for people who had been arrested but were not found guilty of any crime to be retained on the database.

He agreed that people involved in very serious crime "can and should be" on the database indefinitely.

Mr McNulty added: "There is a huge debate needed about where we go from where we are now all the way up to universality, and again I welcome the debate."

He added: "It is not about a DNA database of everyone who has ever committed a crime and been guilty - it is a DNA database of anyone who has encountered the criminal justice system and other samples that are lifted from crime scenes."

He stressed that there had been cases of people who had been put on the database for "something fairly innocuous" but had then later been convicted of very serious crimes on a cold-case basis.

Earlier, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas told Today: "I think we have to think very long and very hard before going down the road of a universal DNA database.

"Lord Justice Sedley is right to start a debate on this matter, he is right to highlight some of the unfairnesses, the illogicalities of the present arrangements.

"The Criminal Justice Act of 2003, which sets in place the present arrangements, got almost no parliamentary or public debate at all.

"There are some risks involved. This approach can be really intrusive, it raises really fundamental questions about how much the State or the police knows about each of us.

"There are risks of errors and mistakes. This would be a massive database. The risks of mix-ups, of human error coming in, the seriousness of the consequences."

Mr Thomas said that if a police officer "knocked on your door", saying your DNA had been found, then, "in effect, you have to start proving your innocence".

He added: "This raises fundamental questions about the criminal justice system."

Last month it emerged that a new profile is added to the national DNA database every 45 seconds.

Current thresholds allow only for samples to be taken from individuals arrested for a "recordable" offence, usually a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Anyone picked up for a non-recordable offence cannot have a sample taken without their consent to confirm or disprove their involvement in that offence, or to create a record in a national searchable database.

But a summary of responses to the Home Office review of Pace said that a number of respondents "welcomed the ability to reduce the threshold, including to the extent of allowing for the taking of fingerprints, DNA and footwear impressions for non-recordable offences for the purpose of offender identification and searching databases".

Also last month, the Human Genetics Commission (HGC), the Government's advisory body on new developments in human genetics, launched a Citizens' Inquiry into the use of DNA and genetic information to fight crime.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the HGC's chair, said: "The police in England and Wales have powers, unrivalled internationally, to take a DNA sample from any arrested individual, without their consent.

"We want to ensure that the public voice is heard on issues that people think are relevant.

"The Citizens' Inquiry is likely to grapple with issues such as whether storing the DNA profiles of victims and suspects who are not charged, or who are subsequently acquitted of any wrongdoing, is justified by the need to fight crime."

She said that the current database stored a preponderance of samples from young men, including the samples of one third of British black males, and that under current law it is very difficult to have your sample removed.

But she added that the database was helping to bring people to justice over a "steadily increasing" number of serious crimes, including murders and rapes.

According to statistics released in June, the DNA fingerprints of 108 children aged under 10 have been stored and there were a further 883,888 records of people aged between 10 and 17.

Nick Clegg MP, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, accused the Government of a "cloak and dagger strategy" regarding the database.

He said: "Whilst Lord Justice Sedley's total disregard for concerns about privacy and civil liberties is misplaced, at least he has the honesty to put forward a suggestion for a universal DNA database.

"This contrasts with the Government's cloak and dagger strategy of creating a universal database behind the backs of the British people."

He added: "There is no earthly reason why someone who has committed no crime should be on the database in the first place, yet the Government is shoving thousands of innocent people's DNA details on to the database every month.

"This mealy-mouthed approach to an issue of fundamental principle will only exacerbate public concerns about the onward march to a surveillance state."

Phil Booth, national co-ordinator of the NO2ID campaign against identity cards, said: "You can't make an 'indefensible' system better by expanding it.

"The only way to tackle the unfairness of the DNA database and restore trust in the system is to remove the records of every innocent person currently held. Anything else is a perversion of justice."