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10 Mar 1999 : Column 332

DNA Sampling

12.59 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about the use by the police of DNA samples collected during their investigations for the purposes of subsequent investigations, and others taking place at the same time.

My concern about the issue arises from a tragic situation in my constituency--the story of Louise Smith. On Christmas eve 1995, Louise left home with her friends to go to a local nightclub, and did not return home. On Christmas day, Louise's family reported to the police that she had not returned home, and thus began a difficult and protracted investigation.

About three weeks later, a search was conducted for Louise's body, and more than 10,000 local people took part. The fact that so many people turned out showed the strength of feeling in the community, the solidarity with Robert and Gill Smith--Louise's parents--the sense that any parent would dread to be in the same situation and the desire simply to do something to help. I understand that my predecessor as the Member of Parliament for Northavon took part in the search--not with high profile or fanfare, but as a member of the public. That is a tribute to his decency.

Sadly, no body was found, and the agony and uncertainty went on until the middle of February 1996, when two boys playing in a local quarry discovered Louise's body, which had been carefully hidden. The police inferred from that, and from other circumstances, that the murderer was a local man, or certainly a man with strong local connections. Thus began a murder hunt which was to last for many months.

As the body had been found--and despite the circumstances--it was possible to obtain a DNA sample, although it was some eight weeks after Louise had died. I gather that such a gap was almost unprecedented. As a result, Avon and Somerset police felt that they were able to use DNA methods to try to track down the killer.

One of the first things to happen was that a number of people recognised a photofit of the suspect that was issued, and a DNA test was undertaken on that person. The DNA test proved innocence. In other words, someone who, under other circumstances, might have been pursued by the police, was eliminated from their inquiries early on. By April 1996, 400 DNA tests had been carried out on local men. By November 1996, that figure had reached 2,000, and, by Easter 1997, more than 4,500 DNA samples had been taken from local men who had volunteered, if only to be eliminated from inquiries.

In March 1997, a man named David Frost was swabbed for a DNA sample--not locally, but in South Africa. He was a local man, but was in South Africa. The DNA samples matched. He came back to the United Kingdom, was arrested at Heathrow airport in April 1997 and was charged with murder. In the way of these things, it was not until February 1998 that the case came to court. At the last minute, he changed his plea to guilty, and he was sentenced to 14 years on a tariff.

The process, sentencing and so on raised wide issues that are beyond the scope of this debate, but the point made to me by the family--which I fully accept--was that the majority of those tested were not suspects in the

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inquiry. Even David Frost, the killer, was not a suspect when originally asked to give a DNA sample. On the other hand, serious suspects were arrested and swabbed during the inquiry, but were quickly eliminated because of DNA testing.

The key issue is the use of those DNA samples, and what happens to them after the inquiry. My understanding of the law and the practice is that the only DNA sample that may be retained is that of the killer. By law, all the other samples that were offered must be destroyed. I understand that another inquiry was going on at the same time elsewhere in the south-west, and that the police were prohibited from using the samples collected in one inquiry for use in the other.

Superintendent John Newman, in addressing the Police Superintendents Association conference in September of last year, said that the inquiry was one of the largest that Avon and Somerset had undertaken. With regard to the DNA samples, he said:

and said that the inquiry as a whole cost well over £1 million. He added:

    "It also involved the largest ever intelligence led mass screen".

I understood that to mean that not all the men in the local area were swabbed, but that the police used their intelligence and what they could work out about the killer to screen and select a smaller number of men. None the less, more than 4,500 swabs were taken.

Each individual swab costs £37.50 to analyse. Added to that are the costs of cool boxes, polaroid film, fingerprint examinations and cameras, and the cost comes to about £41 per item. When that is multiplied by more than4,500 swabs, the cost comes to between £200,000 and £250,000.

The Minister will understand why the family were dismayed to learn that all that police time, money and effort--although it helped to identify the killer--resulted in the swabs and the information being destroyed. They could not be used by the police in other inquiries at the same time, or in subsequent inquiries.

Clearly, the police's view was that they had spent a large amount of money on the inquiry, and they did not regret a penny of it because of the outcome. On the other hand, money must be best used and should not be wasted. One might ask whether this situation will arise again, and God forbid that it should. However, another young girl was murdered recently in a neighbouring area, and another police inquiry was launched. It is not stretching credibility too far to imagine that we might have to go through the whole process again. This would put a burden not only on the police and their resources, but on the good will of the local population. As I have said, there is tremendous good will towards the family.

Many people would sensibly say that, if they willingly came forward and offered a sample, and if they were offered the positive choice--with no pressure--of giving their consent to the sample being retained for future use by the police, their wish in that respect should be honoured. When they realised that the samples had to be destroyed, the family wanted to do something about it.

With the backing of a local newspaper, they launched a petition, which I presented to the House last night. The petition points out the waste of police and public time and

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money if samples are destroyed. The petition calls upon the House of Commons to seek amendment of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984--our initial guess at how we might achieve success. I hope that the Minister will advise me whether that is the case, or whether a change in police practice or paperwork--or some other means--could achieve the outcome.

Indicative of local support for the family and the campaign is the fact that more than 9,000 local residents--principally from the Yate-Chipping Sodbury area, but also from around the country--signed the petition. It is easy to get signatures for a petition about the closure of a local hospital because the issue is simple and easily expressed. This, as will be apparent, is a complex and sensitive issue, and the family have spent days in shopping centres, gathering petitions. They have gone over the matter again and again because they feel passionately that something is wrong.

I pay tribute to Robert and Gill Smith--Louise's parents--and to the family for the way in which, through dreadful circumstances, they have tried to seek the good and the positive. They have behaved with dignity throughout. Since Louise's death, the family have tried to support and help the police in dealing with the victims of crime. Their experience was that the police were supportive and helpful but that they were inexperienced and did not necessarily know how to handle people who had suffered the death of someone close to them. I pay tribute to what the family have done in trying to turn things to the good and to their efforts in getting up the petition.

I am grateful to the Minister both for responding to this debate and for his generosity in being willing to see the family briefly later today. I ask him to respond to a heartfelt plea from the family and from me. One small change, whether in practice or in legislation, could mean that police time is not wasted and that maximum use is made of the efforts of volunteers and the general public. It is a matter of common sense that action should be taken.

1.11 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): I want to take this opportunity to extend my sympathy to the parents of Louise Smith, the victim in this tragic case. The facts of the case make a powerful argument for the use of DNA testing, which led to the conviction of the perpetrator of that dreadful crime. The officers responsible for the arrest and the investigation are to be congratulated.

The way in which the whole community--about10,000 people, as the hon. Member for Northavon(Mr. Webb) said--came together to assist in the initial search is a prime example of the commendable solidarity and community spirit that one would like to be spread more widely, as a sign that each and every one of us takes responsibility for the welfare of others.

DNA technology is a vital intelligence tool that we want the police to have at their disposal. It is changing the face of criminal investigation in much the same way as fingerprinting did at the turn of the century. The opportunities that it creates for advancing the battle against crime are to be embraced.

The Forensic Science Service has been operating a national DNA database on behalf of the police since 1995. It currently holds about 490,000 profiles of suspects and

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offenders and 49,000 profiles from crime scene stains. Advances in technology have increased the number of investigations in which DNA plays a part. It can help to reduce the time taken to identify suspects and plays an increasingly important role in subsequent trials.

The Forensic Science Service has performed a real public service in advancing DNA techniques, making the tests increasingly sensitive to smaller amounts of material. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that, despite the seven or eight weeks that had passed since the body was hidden, it was still possible to take samples that were to prove so helpful in bringing to book the perpetrator of this awful crime. We can now identify an individual's DNA profile from a fleck of dandruff or part of a hair root. We are keen for this investigative tool to be developed and used further.

The circumstances under which DNA can be taken and the arrangements for the destruction of samples are broadly the same as for fingerprints and are dealt with in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which was amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The database is also registered with the Data Protection Commissioner.

DNA profiles are retained in a searchable form on the national database only if the suspect is convicted or cautioned for a recordable offence or if action against an individual is on-going. If an individual has been eliminated from an inquiry, the law as it stands requires that a DNA sample must be destroyed; and if the same individual is subsequently involved in another inquiry, samples have to be retaken and another entry made on the national DNA database.

Mass screening is used only in the most serious unsolved cases. It involves the taking of voluntary samples--skin cells from inside the mouth, or head hair--from a targeted section of the population. The profiles are then compared against a sample from the crime scene to see whether there is any match. If a match occurs, the police are advised, and the donor is asked to provide a blood sample, which is then tested against the crime scene sample, and if that confirms the result of the mass screening sample, the police can pursue their inquiries with a probable suspect.

There have been 110 mass screenings to date. The mass screening following the murder of Louise Smith was the largest ever undertaken, involving the analysis of more than 4,500 samples, and it resulted in a successful conviction. Mass screenings can result in the identification of a suspect when all other investigative techniques have failed. The advantage is that only a targeted section of the population need be screened--for example, local men in a specific age range--and the innocent can be quickly eliminated, as was the case in the murder of Louise Smith. The samples are put not on the national DNA database but on a dedicated mini-database, established solely for the given inquiry. If the profiles show no match, the samples are destroyed.

In some circumstances, either because of geographic location or because certain individuals fit the profile of possible suspects in more than one investigation, individuals may be approached a number of times to act as donor volunteers in mass screenings. That is one effect of the safeguards afforded by the current legislation.

One can well understand why the family of Louise Smith should feel as they do, as the hon. Gentleman said, about the time and expense that could be saved by

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retaining DNA profiles. It is an important issue that is certainly worth exploring, and I welcome the opportunity to do so, but the advantages of retention have to be balanced against proper legal safeguards and wide-ranging concerns, and fundamental civil liberties issues are involved.

It is important to ensure that any changes do not discourage volunteers from participating in mass screenings. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the importance of that because, if Louise Smith's killer had refused to participate in the screening, the matching of the sample could not have led to his conviction. A dangerous and wicked man was taken out of circulation for a very long time. The Home Office must have the balance very much in mind when considering those issues.

The voluntary retention of DNA profiles on a separate database is already under consideration in a wider review of the legislation in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 relating to fingerprints and samples to ensure that it reflects recent technological advances. That is something on which I can give the hon. Gentleman some assurance--I think that he was about to raise that matter. We are considering the voluntary retention of DNA profiles, on a separate database, in the context of a wider review of the legislation as it relates to fingerprints and samples.

The current database is expanding rapidly and was designed to hold up to 5 million profiles. Although PACE enables samples to be taken from anyone suspected, charged or convicted of a recordable offence, the police currently restrict themselves to taking samples only in cases of burglary, sexual or violent offences. That represents the best use of resources by focusing on cases where DNA evidence is most likely to be of value.

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