Shami Chakrabarti: Taking DNA from innocent people is yet more fuel for the bonfire of the liberties

The police have taken the DNA of more than 50,000 children
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The Independent Online

Like Charles Clarke, I have known happier weeks than the past one. As the frenzy over the non-deportation of "forin criminals" (that's not a typo, read it aloud) heightened, it revealed a troubling pattern in our politics and culture.

It is perfectly rational to fear crime as dangerous and damaging. It is rather less rational to see "criminals" as a "race apart" from decent folk, and yet we instinctively do. Add the "foreign" quality to these aliens whom we fear and loathe and a bonfire sits ready for any political pyromaniac's match. Did a family blighted by rape or murder ever give thanks that the source of its misery was British or white or both? Of course not, but you might think otherwise by aspects of recent public debate.

I don't say that a foreign national convicted of a criminal offence should never be deported. The possibility of deporting non-citizens who pose a danger is intrinsic to a world made up of national governments, whose primary responsibilities rest within their own borders. But how many of us would really deport an asylum-seeker who stole a loaf of bread?

A small number of foreign nationals have been convicted of graver crimes than this but cannot be removed to another country because they will face death or torture there. But why is it any worse for us as a nation to be stuck with them to sentence and supervise than to have to do the same for homegrown criminals?

The debate moved quickly last week from the "systemic" failure to consider individual cases to legislation that apparently required no consideration at all. Then came the pyromaniac's favourite target, the poor old Human Rights Act.

As director of Liberty, I am delighted to observe that the notion of "civil liberties" is strengthening. Yet, while in legal and philosophical terms there is no longer any sensible distinction between "civil liberties" and "fundamental rights and freedoms", why are so many people so much less comfortable with the phrase "human rights"?

Could it be that somehow we associate "civil liberties" with the "rights of free-born Britons" and "human rights" as belonging to foreigners? If so, it's high time that we got over it before our refusal to share protection with others results in losing protection ourselves.

The danger now is in seeing rights and freedoms as simply the preserve of lawyers defending a handful of people from internment, torture and death. In Britain today, the rights of the "decent" many are being eroded alongside those of the demonised few. Because this process happens piecemeal, by stealth and initially by a series of seemingly trivial interferences, the courts are actually far less equipped to address this phenomenon than politics or the media.

There is no better example than our national DNA database, the largest in the world. Its proponents rightly argue the great benefits that DNA evidence has brought to criminal investigation, though as always they over-egg the infallibility of both science and those applying it. Right-thinking, liberal-minded people disagree about whether it should be a restricted database of those already convicted of serious crimes or a gargantuan log containing the DNA profiles of every person in the country. Not surprisingly, I take the former position, but the logical absurdity and moral bankruptcy of the present system is that it is neither.

Proponents of the present DNA database see the crime detection benefits of holding intimate DNA profiles on all of us (regardless of any past criminality) as outweighing our personal privacy or broader dignity.

They are entitled to that rational view, though I don't find it supported by the evidence. But they should surely come right out with it so that we can have the kind of honest national debate that we are just beginning to have on identity cards.

Instead, we have the present system, three million entries, not including the whole population, nor limited to those who have been convicted of sexual or violent crime, but an intimate profiling system that grows at the whim of the police. Anyone arrested for a recordable offence whether or not any further action is taken, whether or not the police apologise for arresting the wrong person and whether or not they are cautioned or convicted, is likely to have their DNA profile linked to the Police National Computer indefinitely. "Recordable offences" include the growing list of those that attract possible imprisonment, but include other less serious crimes such as invading a football pitch and public drunkenness.

Some would argue that in our brave new world of "summary justice", those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. That is a dangerously complacent argument but it is, in any event, an argument for a universal database, not an arbitrary and discriminatory one. The sordid reality of police "summary justice" is being revealed by persistent parliamentary questioning. The police have the DNA of more than 50,000 children, some under 10 years old (the age of criminal responsibility). We think that as many as 118,000 people with no criminal convictions may be entered and a quarter of these are from black and ethnic minority communities. As many as 40 per cent of black men in this country may already be on the database.

First they came for the human rights of foreign criminals. I didn't speak up because I wasn't foreign or a criminal...

Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties)