‘First step towards a totalitarian state’: The damning verdict of one Citizens’ Inquiry panel member
A million records should be destroyed, warns watchdog
By James Slack
The national DNA database is being used by ministers to ‘criminalise the innocent’, it was claimed yesterday.
A Citizens’ Inquiry set up by a Government watchdog has demanded that the samples of a million innocent people stored on the files for life be removed.
Meanwhile, the Home Office should be stripped of responsibility for managing the library – because it has a ‘hidden agenda’ and ‘cannot be trusted’, the panel argued.
The database was originally a register of those convicted of a crime. But under laws quietly passed by Labour, anybody arrested for a serious offence and later cleared can have their genetic data stored for life.
Panel member Javed Aslam said: ‘For me, that is the first step towards a totalitarian state.’
The inquiry, overseen by the Human Genetics Commission, made a series of criticisms about the operation of the database. Most striking is the recommendation for the DNA of all innocents,
including children, to be deleted. The panel, which took evidence from leading DNA experts and police, said: ‘Retaining the sample criminalises the innocent.’
A majority of the panel, which received a £50,000 Government grant, also ruled that there should be no universal DNA database, and that the ethnicity of a suspect should not be recorded. When children are found guilty of a crime, they should remain in the database for only a limited period, the panel said.
A sliding scale was suggested for adults who commit minor offences, with samples removed after a minimum of five years.
Many of the suggestions are likely to be backed by the HGC when it compiles a report for ministers early next year. It will put pressure on the Home Office to delete the samples of a million innocents on the database.
Last night, experts backed the panel’s report. Professor Albert Weale, chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which is the ethics watchdog for the science industry, said: ‘We agree that the DNA of innocent people should not be kept by police. There is little evidence that removing people who have not been convicted from the DNA database will lead to serious crimes going undetected.
‘Figures on the number of “cold cases” that have been solved are often used to support the retention of unconvicted people’s DNA.
‘However, the Home Office admits that almost all of the offenders convicted under the cold-case programme have proved to be persistent and prolific violent criminals whose DNA would be on the database anyway.’ Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: ‘It is long past time the Government realised that, if crime-fighting tools like the DNA database are to be effective, they must command public confidence.’
Lib Dem home affairs spokesman David Howarth said: ‘There must be better ways of catching criminals than spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money adding innocent people to the DNA database.’
The panel of 30 members of the public, also recommended that juries be given better information about DNA in trials. One or even two independent scientists should explain the evidence to jurors, in addition to those hired by the prosecution and defence.
There should also be a wider information campaign to improve public knowledge of DNA in relation to criminal investigations, using TV and internet sites such as Facebook and MySpace, they said.
A minority of panel members called for a universal DNA database, with everyone required to give a sample, possibly from birth. But the majority rejected this on the grounds of cost and the assumption that all are innocent until proven guilty. Those picked up for minor offences such as breach of the peace and some non-violent offenders, should not have samples taken by force, the report added.
The Home Office said it welcomed discussion about the use of the database and would consider the report. Benefits ‘lie not only in detecting the guilty but also in eliminating the innocent’, it said.
‘The database also focuses inquiries and saves valuable police time. The database will also build public confidence as elusive offenders will be more easily detected.’