Deborah Orr: A lazy and prejudiced approach to crime

Should we be proud that in the field of DNA profiling, Britain leads the world, with 5 per cent of its population already DNA profiled on police records? Or should we be wondering why it is that once again Britain is the state on the planet that is most concerned with watching and recording and filing and cross-checking its citizens, whether or not they are guilty of any crime?

In DNA profiling, as in so much else that worries civil libertarians, the practical view is that the innocent have nothing to fear from technology that can tie a miscreant so firmly to a crime scene. What does it matter that the police have your DNA on file, if you're not intending to get up to anything nefarious? The important thing is that the guilty are held to account. What's privacy when compared to safety?

Arguments that say that the latter is by no means the most important thing, or even the thing that is most at risk, often seem fanciful or even paranoid. There is dark talk of governments or other unspecified organisations using the information for dodgy but unspecified ends. There is eerie discussion of evidence being manipulated, so that circumstances that never happened are made believable beyond doubt to juries. There is intellectual talk, of the implications for free societies of modes of governance that limit moral choicein favour of the straightforward threat of Being Found Out.

There is lawyer talk, of the importance of being innocent until proven guilty. And there is sociologist talk, of people being given a label saying "bad" that becomes self-fulfilling. None of it quite challenges the satisfying smoking gun that a nice fat chunk of DNA evidence can offer, and the fact hat justice has been done, and has been seen to be done.

The single example on the Home Office website is, unsurprisingly, an unanswerable paean to the benefits of maintaining and growing a national DNA database. It refers to a burglary in 1988 in Canterbury, during which an 11-year-old was raped and a nine-year-old indecently assaulted, and from the scene of which samples of the unknown assailant's semen were taken. In Derby, 13 years later, the DNA of John Wood, a 59-year-old man arrested for shoplifting, was found to match the samples that had been stored. He pleaded guilty to the 1988 crime and was convicted to 15 years in prison.

Yet, soundly robust as this single case study may appear, it addresses none of the issues that make the UK's national DNA database – by far the biggest such operation in the world – so controversial. No one disputes, after all, that it is an entirely good thing for unidentified DNA from the scenes of unsolved crimes to be stored indefinitely. Nor, until now, has anyone really disputed the practice of running against the records the DNA samples of as many people who come into the ambit of the police as possible.

So far, in fact, there has been an enthusiastic parliamentary response to the understandable desire of the police to increase the pool of people whose DNA can be checked against their large collection of recovered samples from unsolved crimes. When the database was first set up, in 1995, only convicted criminals or people awaiting trial could be checked against the records. In 2001, with the Criminal Justice and Police Act, these strictures were loosened and samples could be taken and checked even if charges went no further.

Under the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, this was watered down further, and an arrest was all that was needed for samples to be taken and checked. New government proposals, suggesting that even those committing "non-recordable" offences, such as littering or speeding, should be routinely expected to give a sample, have just been criticised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. It's the first really serious challenge to the way the database has been developing.

Yet even now, as civil liberties campaigners become more concerned about what they see as the "creeping authoritarianism" of DNA profiling, few seem that unhappy with the idea that the taking and checking of DNA samples against past crimes should be part and parcel of a recordable arrest.

What does concern people is that all these samples are being stored indefinitely, whether a person is found guilty or not. Simply being mixed up with the police, however innocently, makes a person into a lifelong suspect, and the statistics suggest that this is happening most regularly to the people most likely to be treated by the police as lifelong suspects anyway. The huge anxiety about children and crime is reflected in the fact that 750,000 of the four million people on the database are children. Accusations of institutional racism in the police seem strengthened by figures that say half of black British males will be on the database by 2010, if present trends persist, while the same will be true of only 14 per cent of whites.

In order to understand why the police are so enamoured of DNA profiling (and why Blair also was) you have to invert that Home Office case study, and ask how you would feel about Wood's DNA having been on the database for 13 years, because he had been arrested for shoplifting, and his apprehension for sex crimes against children resting entirely on this previous crime.

You'd probably not have much of a problem with that either, and that reaction would be widespread. Because another reason why this case study isn't as solid as it appears is that most people agree that the worries they have about placing innocent people on the national DNA database are dispelled in the cases of sexual or violent crimes. The Nuffield Council recommends that the DNA of even those found innocent should be maintained for five years. I'd say much longer myself, but it's still important to understand that this is not the issue, no matter how keen the police and the Government are on making it seem so.

The really important aspect of the development of the DNA database that was nailed in the Nuffield report is that the emphasis is on the gathering of as much information about as many people as possible, rather than on the gathering of as much information on as much crime as possible. The report discloses, shockingly, that only 20 per cent of crime scenes are at present being forensically examined, which makes a mockery of all that obsession with getting as many people on file as possible, in order to solve as many crimes as possible.

Then suddenly it becomes clear. A society in which the police sit around, waiting for crimes to be committed that would fit the profile of their ever-growing pool of suspects if only they weren't too busy taking DNA from as many people as they could to do a scene of crime check, is just a lazy, dumb and prejudiced one. Which seems simple enough to comprehend.