David Davis: A condemnation of a policy that does not add up

Friday 05 December 2008 01:00

In January 2001, an 11-year-old boy was arrested in Sheffield and charged with attempted robbery. He had no previous convictions, cautions or warnings. In June of the same year he was acquitted. In March 2001, a 38-year-old man, also from Sheffield, was arrested and charged with harassing his partner. After being reconciled with his partner, all charges were against him were dropped.

On being charged, both had their fingerprint and DNA samples taken. Once they were no longer under suspicion of an offence, both applied to have their samples and fingerprints destroyed. Both were refused.

Both are innocent people in the eyes of the law, and yet both still have a profile on the national DNA database. Both are still effectively suspects in the eyes of the police.

Since its establishment in 1995, the legislation governing the DNA database for England and Wales has been gradually expanded until we find ourselves today in a situation where anyone arrested for a recordable offence has a sample taken. We are the only country in which this is the case.

Current guidelines allow for the destruction of samples "only in exceptional circumstances", with the emphasis very much on exceptional. An innocent 11-year-old boy is not "exceptional" enough it would seem.

The result is the database's growth into the largest in the world with more than 4.4 million profiles – about 7 per cent of the population. Recent figures have also revealed that more than one million profiles of children have been added since its inception.

And yet still, the Government wants more. A senior scientist at the Forensic Science Service has said the Home Office would like it to be asbig as the National Fingerprint Database. This currently has more than 7.3 million prints, almost double the size the of the DNA database, yet, at the current rate, the DNA database will catch up 2012.

While all of these figures seem astonishingly high, the natural response of many is to say, "well, surely the database is worthwhile if it's keeping criminals off the streets". Unfortunately though, the figures don't bear this out. Since 2002-03 the number of profiles on the database has more than doubled, but there has been no corresponding increase in the number of crimes detected using DNA. Furthermore, the Government has been unable to provide a single example of a murderer who has been convicted as a result of a cold hit on the DNA database.

It is believed that, today, between 700,000 and 1 million of the profiles are those of innocent people. Genewatch has calculated that 100,000 of these are innocent children. This is a staggering number of people having the privacy infringed despite being guilty of no offence.

In Scotland, they have the policy of removing the profiles of innocent people on acquittal. And in Scotland the chances of a crime scene profile matching an individual profile on the database is greater. Keeping profiles of unconvicted people does not make us safer, and it does not make the database more effective. An immediate way of improving the effectiveness of the database would be to remove all the innocent people and add all convicted criminals, said to be two million, who were missed out before the 2001 changes in the law.

The two cases I referred to at the start have been put before the European Court of Human Rights, which yesterday delivered a verdict that is little short of a crushing condemnation of the Government's policy. They concluded that retention of this nature "could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society".

You could not ask for a clearer and stronger criticism of the Government's intrusive retention policy. A debate must now begin immediately, and the Government must remove the profiles of innocent people as soon as possible.

No one is arguing that DNA is not a useful crime-fighting tool. No one is arguing that it is not right for the police to have a DNA record of convicted criminals. But to keep DNA of innocent people is an infringement on liberty and privacy.

This Government has, again and again, infringed on our civil liberties. In this instance, they now have no choice but to bite the bullet and do what is right for the country, not what they feel is right for the surveillance state they are trying to create.

David Davis is the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, and was the shadow home secretary from 2003-08

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