Wednesday, September 5, 2007

All UK 'must be on DNA database'

Wednesday September 5, 2007

The whole population and every UK visitor should be added to the national DNA database, a senior judge has said.

Lord Justice Sedley told BBC News the current England and Wales database, which holds DNA from crime suspects and scenes, was "indefensible".

He added it would be fairer to include "everybody, guilty or innocent" on it.

The Home Office said the database of four million profiles had helped solve criminal cases, but to expand it would raise logistical and ethical issues.

The DNA database - which is 12 years old - grows by 30,000 samples a month taken from suspects or recovered from crime scenes.

There has already been criticism of the database - the largest in the world - because people who are found innocent usually cannot get their details removed.

In one case, Dyfed-Powys Police stored the DNA of pensioner Jeffrey Orchard, from Pembrokeshire, after he was wrongly arrested for criminal damage.

But Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said the database had helped police solve as many as 20,000 crimes a year.

Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales - all but the most minor offences - has remained on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted.

It includes some 24,000 samples from young people between 10 and 17 years old, who were arrested but never convicted.

In Scotland, DNA samples taken when people are arrested must be destroyed if the individual is not charged or convicted.

Sir Stephen Sedley, who is one of England's most experienced appeal court judges, said: "Where we are at the moment is indefensible.

"We have a situation where if you happen to have been in the hands of the police then your DNA is on permanent record. If you haven't, it isn't.

"It means where there is ethnic profiling going on disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities get onto the database.

"It also means that a great many people who are walking the streets and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free."

He said he knew of cases where a serious offender, who had escaped conviction, had ultimately been brought to justice by DNA evidence that may have been otherwise destroyed.

He said he accepted it was an authoritarian measure but the only option was to expand the database to cover the whole population and all those who visited the UK even for a weekend.

"Going forwards has very serious but manageable implications. It means that everybody, guilty or innocent, should expect their DNA to be on file for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention."

Figures compiled from Home Office statistics and census data show almost two in every five black men have their DNA profile on the database. That compares with 13% of Asian men and 9% of white men.

Keith Jarrett, president of the Black Police Association, said the current system was "untenable" and backed the call for a universal database.

"You can't have a system where so many black youths who have done nothing wrong are perhaps going to the police station for elimination from a crime and find that their DNA is on the database," he said.

But Professor Stephen Bain, a member of the national DNA database strategy board, warned expansion would be expensive and make mistakes more likely.

"The DNA genie can't be put back in the bottle," he said.

"If the information about you is exposed due to illegal or perhaps even legalised use of the database, in a way that is not currently anticipated, then it's a very difficult situation."

'Ripe for abuse'

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said there were no plans to introduce DNA profiling for everyone in the UK, but "no-one ever says never".

"We're broadly sympathetic to the thrust of what he is saying. [The idea] has logic to it, but I think he's underestimating the practical issues, logistics, civil and ethical issues that surround it," he said.

Mr McNulty denied the current database was unfair but accepted there was room for debate on the workings of the present system, including time limits on the storing of information.

He said any imbalance in the number of black and white youths whose DNA was stored reflected disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System rather than an inherent problem with the database.

But Mr McNulty added he was glad a debate had begun and a review of how DNA samples were kept and used would be published next February.

Tony Lake, chief constable of Lincolnshire Police and chairman of the DNA board, said the DNA of people convicted or arrested for violent or sex offences should remain on the database for life, but that need not be the case for minor offences.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said a database for every man, woman and child in the country was "a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse".