If any single innovation epitomises the inroads that the State has made on our civil liberties in recent years, the DNA database is surely it. Covering the whole of the UK, except for Scotland, it currently holds profiles of 4.5 million people, one in five of whom has been convicted of no crime. Last year, in one of its most strongly-worded rulings, the European Court of Human Rights judged that the database was illegal in retaining all profiles indefinitely and not differentiating between criminals and those who had been cleared.
After five months of deliberation, the Government has finally given its response, and a grudging and pusillanimous response it is, too. While heeding the court's instruction to make a distinction between different grades of offences and not to keep profiles in perpetuity, it has done so only in a minimalist and profoundly unconvincing way.
While the profiles of those who have been arrested but either not charged or not convicted will be deleted from the database, the timetable is tardy in the extreme. The profile of anyone arrested for a less serious offence will remain on the database for six years, while those arrested for a serious, violent or sexual crime (but not convicted) will have their records held for 12.
DNA profiles are immensely useful, especially in helping to solve past, or difficult, cases. And they do not only convict, they also absolve. But to hear ministers defending the changes yesterday, you would have thought that legions of criminals would run free. Their arguments came perilously close to pre-emption: a desire to keep tabs on people who just might be trouble – as though British justice had a presumption of guilt, rather than innocence.
The Government is making things far harder for itself than it needs to. As the European Court pointed out, it has a model of how to manage a DNA database north of the border. In Scotland, a profile is deleted as soon as the accused is cleared; in cases of serious or sexual crime, it may be kept for five years even if there has been no conviction, but only if a court agrees. This seemed fair and reasonable to the European Court, and it seems fair and reasonable to us.