Curse of the DNA register

One million innocent Britons 'criminalised', says damning report

Nigel Morris,Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 30 July 2008 00:00 BST

A generation of young Britons is being criminalised for life by the relentless expansion of the national DNA database, ministers are warned today.

Alarm and hostility over the massive scale of the collection of DNA has been uncovered by groundbreaking research funded by the Home Office among panels of members of the public.

The Human Genetics Commission found there was widespread mistrust among people presented with evidence of the size of the database, which now contains the genetic records of more than four million people. It called for the database to be taken out of the control of the Home Office and police altogether, with one panel member warning that the database was a "first step towards a totalitarian state".

Britain now has by far the largest DNA database in the world. It includes an estimated one million people who have never been found guilty of any offence, some 100,000 of whom are children.

About 40 per cent of young black men have been forced to provide samples, compared with 13 per cent of Asian men and 9 per cent of white men.

Genetic material is now taken from all people arrested by police, regardless of whether they are subsequently charged or convicted, and remains on file for life.

Offences covered include begging, being drunk and disorderly, taking part in an illegal demonstration and minor acts of criminal damage caused by children kicking footballs or, in one instance, throwing a snowball.

Detailed consultation on the database by the commission, the Government's genetic watchdog, found the public believed samples provided by the innocent should be destroyed and those of people convicted of lesser offences removed after a few years.

The damning verdict was delivered by panels in Birmingham and Glasgow. After studying evidence about the database they called for an array of reforms designed to reassure the public that it would not be abused. They concluded that the records of children convicted of minor offences should be removed after a short period. Warning that adults are "criminalised" by having their DNA permanently on record, the panels said the length of time it stays on the database should be proportionate to their offence. "Currently no distinction is made between someone who has been arrested for breach of the peace and someone who has murdered somebody," the commission's report noted.

It registered alarm over the "very lax security" protecting the database and concerns over "who had access to samples and profiles and for what purpose". The panel members unanimously supported a nationwide publicity campaign to raise awareness of the database, using the internet, posters, leaflets and school visits.

The public backed control over the database being transferred to an independent body comprising ministers, police and civilians. Juries should be given better information about DNA in trials, they said, with independent scientists explaining the evidence, in addition to those hired by the prosecution and defence.

The proposed destruction of many DNA samples would be strongly opposed by ministers, who argue that they have proved vital to solving a succession of "cold cases". A Home Office spokesman said: "The national DNA database is a key information tool which has revolutionised the way the police can protect the public through identifying offenders and securing more convictions. It provides the police on average with almost 3,500 matches each month." He said there had been 41,717 crimes in 2006-07 which yielded DNA matches, including 452 homicides, 644 rapes, 222 other sex offences and more than 8,500 domestic burglaries.

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "There must be better ways of catching criminals than spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money adding innocent people to the DNA database. Public confidence has been shattered by the Government's Orwellian attempts to create a national DNA database by stealth."

Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government should take heed of these findings. Currently the DNA database targets the innocent but not all the guilty."

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