Judge opens hornet's nest with call for everyone's DNA to go on record

PUTTING the entire UK population on a DNA database - as called for by a senior judge - would carry a massive risk of error and intrude on privacy, Scotland's assistant information commissioner has warned.

Ken Macdonald said the potential for error in extending the database must not be underestimated.

Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley, one of Britain's most experienced Appeal Court judges, said the current system, where DNA profiles are only taken from criminal suspects and crime scenes, was "indefensible".

Disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities were on the database as a result of "ethnic profiling", he said.

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

But Mr Macdonald yesterday warned that society would have to think "long and hard" before agreeing to a massive expansion of the database. Such a universal move would have an additional impact in Scotland, where anyone who volunteers to hand over DNA samples can ask for them to be later removed.

Calling for a public debate, Mr Macdonald said: "Extending the database further has serious implications for people's privacy.

"There are significant risks associated with creating a universal database: it would be highly intrusive, and the more information collected about us, the greater the risk of false matches and other mistakes."

Gordon Brown's spokesman was forced to deny there were any plans to bring in a universal database.

"The Prime Minister is very supportive of the DNA database, which has been very successful in tackling crime, but there are no plans to introduce a universal compulsory or voluntary national database," he said.

"There would be huge logistical and bureaucratic issues to deal with along with civil liberty concerns."

Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, said the government was "broadly sympathetic" with what the judge had said.

Mr McNulty said: "There is a logic to what Sir Stephen is saying.

" But I think he probably does underestimate the practicalities, logistics and huge civil liberties and ethics issue around that."

He added: "There is no government plan to go to a compulsory database now or in the foreseeable future."

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said it welcomed the debate over the development of this "invaluable tool" for police.

The UK's 12-year-old DNA database currently has four million profiles and is the largest of any country. The Home Office is currently undertaking a review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which sets out the powers to take and retain biometric data.

It will consider issues including whether to keep details of those presently on the database even if they are later found not guilty of a crime.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said a database with DNA from convicted sexual and violent offenders was a "perfectly sensible crime-fighting measure".

But she added: "A database of every man, woman and child in the country is a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse."

So is Lord Justice Sedley correct…?


Norman Brennan

Victims of Crime Trust

AS the director of the Victims of Crime Trust, I have come into contact with hundreds of families bereaved through murder over 14 years. Throughout my 28-year career as a police officer, I have had to deal with thousands of victims directly.

Based on these experiences, I can categorically say that the pros would outweigh the cons in having every man, woman and child from birth in Britain on the DNA database.

We have lost control of our streets. There are cities, towns and villages where gun, knife and violent crime have made them no-go zones for law-abiding citizens.

Every visitor to these shores should also be made to submit their DNA at a point of entry, along with their photograph. We are talking about a very simple procedure which can reap big results in tackling crime.

Take the tragic case of young Rhys Jones. Someone must have seen the killing, but there is a wall of silence because ordinary people are scared of retribution. A comprehensive DNA database would eradicate the need to rely entirely on eyewitness accounts.

There would be scientific evidence to draw on. Of course, it would not be a total solution - in most cases we would still need other types of supporting evidence to convict - but I can think of no better tool for us to tackle crime in today's walk-on-by society.

Discussion of miscarriages of justice are largely hypothetical. Out of tens of thousands of samples of DNA that have been taken, I cannot recall one single miscarriage of justice to date. That is how safe it is so far. And as time goes on, so will the improvements in technology.

We have gone too far down this road now to stop. So the question is, do we relinquish what we have or make it fair and put everyone on?

Our light-touch approach has taken the great out of Great Britain and made us the laughing stock of other countries which have much more stringent rules.

Thanks to DNA, many rapists and murderers who think they have got away with it are later tracked down and convicted.

I cannot think of a single relative who would not agree that DNA is certainly worth favourable consideration after they see justice served.


Helen Wallace

director of GeneWatch UK

A UNIVERSAL DNA database would be an extraordinarily expensive and ineffective way to try to tackle crime.

Currently, DNA is collected on arrest at police stations by taking a swab of cells from inside a person's mouth, or pulling out some hairs.

How the entire population and everyone crossing UK borders will be persuaded to be treated in this way has not been explained, nor have the likely implications for the tourist industry, or public trust in policing, been discussed.

Even if the samples could be collected, analysing all of them would cost hundreds of millions of pounds, and the computer database would need to be maintained and continually updated at enormous additional expense.

In England and Wales, DNA has been taken on arrest since April, 2004, and all records retained permanently, even if an individual is not charged or is acquitted. The lesson from this expansion of the database is it is not an effective way to tackle crime.

Expanding collection of DNA from crime scenes has been effective, as has keeping the DNA profiles of serious offenders, but keeping records from large numbers of innocent people has not increased the crime-detection rate.

Useful samples of DNA are found at less than 1 per cent of crime scenes, so even a universal database would leave the majority of violent crimes unsolved.

DNA taken on arrest in Scotland must be destroyed if a person is acquitted - or kept for a maximum of five years if a person is charged but not convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence. However, existing law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - where DNA is taken without consent from the age of ten, on arrest for even minor offences, and kept permanently - has already gone too far. Permanent retention of records of arrest, linked with DNA, is unprecedented in British history. It gives enormous power to future governments, or anyone who infiltrates the system, to track innocent individuals throughout their lives and to restrict their rights to access visas or employment.

If the bad guys are on the database and the good guys watching over it, it can indeed be a powerful tool to tackle crime. But filling databases with the DNA profiles of innocent children is more likely to expose them to abuse than to protect society.

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