Stop growing the DNA database for the sake of it
The government’s current DNA policy treats the guilty and the innocent alike - all are now potential suspects for crimes not yet committed.
Last November, the Human Genetics Commission published a report suggesting that police are arresting people just to get their DNA and increase the size of the National DNA Database. The idea of ‘pre-crime’ popularised by the brilliant film Minority Report is already with us in modern Britain - the current approach effectively makes all of us pre-suspects.
The figures bear this out, as the number of profiles on the National DNA database in England and Wales now totals more than 10 per cent of the population. There are more than 5.6 million people on the database, making it the largest of its kind in the world. And it is still growing. In the first half of last year, more than 40,000 people were added to the DNA database each month.
Of these, at least 850,000 have never been convicted of a crime, but have been either arrested or present at a crime scene. And, as is often the case across law enforcement policies, certain groups are especially vulnerable to big-net tactics.
More than 400,000 profiles belong to children aged under 15. As of November 2008 about 30 per cent of the black population over the age of 10 had their DNA retained, and the Home Affairs Select Committee’s latest report into this issue concluded: ‘it appears that we are moving unwittingly towards a situation where the majority of the black population will have their data stored on the DNA database.’
In its influential judgement on S. Marper v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights expressed concerned that ‘the policies applied have led to the over-representation in the database of young persons and ethnic minorities, who have not been convicted of any crime’. It ruled that indefinite detention of those who have not been convicted of any crime is illegal.
This is the result of an administration which has been obsessed with growing the DNA database for the sake of it, regardless of guilt or innocence. Yet this approach does not necessarily help the police. In order for their reputation to improve, they need to earn the confidence of upstanding citizens, not victimise them.
The system is expensive, costing £4.6 million a year to run, even though figures show the number of ‘DNA related detections’ is falling. And those who you would expect to find on the DNA Database – such as convicted criminals - are not necessarily there. I asked the Home Office what proportion of the prison population had profiles held, and was astonished to be told that there is no definitive statistic, merely that ‘there are good reasons for believing that a significant majority of the prison population has a profile on the National DNA Database.’ The database should help the police. So let’s concentrate it on where it can help the police most. We should make sure that anyone convicted of a serious crime has their DNA records kept, but not the innocent majority.
And the current system is arbitrary. Current guidance leaves the decision on whether to remove a person’s profile from the database to chief constables, who are required to rule whether the case is ‘exceptional’. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I recently established that where you live has a huge effect on whether or not you can have your records removed. The results show that the chief constables who decide whether you are able to reclaim your DNA take widely different views. Some police forces refuse to remove any records once the case is closed, while others remove more than four out of five. The force most likely to remove your DNA profile is South Yorkshire, with 83 per cent of requests granted. However, of the total requests to 26 different forces, fewer than half were granted. Some forces, including Cambridge, Gloucestershire and Nottingham, refused to remove any profiles.
After my own arrest, and the subsequent decision of the Metropolitan Police to declare me (wrongly) an ‘exceptional case’, I have received many cases of other innocent people who are trying to recover their DNA. They include magistrates, grandmothers, a number of former servicemen and women: precisely those who, like me, are instinctively inclined to help the police. The thread running through their complaints is how alienated they have been from the police by their own experience.
We all want an effective police force, and the support of the public is one of the most vital tools for the police. To be effective, the police need the co-operation of respectable citizens. The wholesale collection and retention of the DNA of the innocent is quietly causing severe and widespread damage to relations between the police and the respectable majority.
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I calculated this figure by subtracting the 850,000 who have never been convicted or were witnesses to a crime from the 5.6 million people on the database.
More generally, i was wondering if there is any data breaking down how people got put on the database, e.g.
4. Other reason?
Finally, are these data broken down by ethnicity?
Damian Green MP
Damian Green is the shadow minister for immigration, a position he has held since December 2005. Damian was educated at Balliol College, Oxford University, and was president of the Oxford Union in 1977. He is a former financial journalist and worked in the prime minister John Major’s policy unit from 1992 to 1994. In his current role he has responsibility for Conservative Party policy on borders and immigration, encompassing the National Identity Scheme and the e-borders programme. Damian campaigns for a smaller, targeted DNA database.