Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: Does the Minister accept that the Police Federation and others are worried that far fewer people will be prepared to volunteer? If so, the Minister will have to face the embarrassment of knowing that the next Conservative Government may have to reverse that decision.

Mr. Clarke: I do not accept that. The screens will be conducted under clear guidance that will make it quite clear that consent is at the core.

The Police Federation stance on this issue worries me, unlike some of the other matters that we have discussed, on which the federation and I have good, cordial relations. I shall be blunt about it; the federation is not co-operating with the Government's efforts to include police DNA in the DNA data check. The police themselves may leave DNA samples when they visit scenes of crimes, and it is obviously important to eliminate those from any inquiry.

The Police Federation is saying that the inclusion of police DNA poses a threat to civil liberties, and it has been suggested that the police will not participate. That is the subject of an argument between the Government and the federation. It is not an acceptable position for the federation to adopt, unlike some of the other subjects on which the federation has written to Committee members. It is entirely unacceptable for the police trade union to take such a position on DNA sampling. I do not accept the validity of the federation's position, as its leadership knows. That point should be taken into account by the Committee when considering evidence from the federation.

In the circumstances that I have described, if an individual does not consent to the retention of the fingerprints or samples, they must be destroyed—I can describe to the processes that will properly destroy the samples—and the information derived from those samples cannot be used in the investigation of other offences. I believe that that provides sufficient protection. The scenario summoned up by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath of a mass failure to participate in those processes is unlikely to arise.

On acquittals, it is important to emphasise strongly that fingerprints and samples retained from those acquitted can be used only for the purposes of prevention of crime, and so on—not for any other purposes. Therefore, a person who has never been involved in crime has nothing to fear. I do not believe—this takes me back to where I started—that there will be a removal of liberty. People's freedom and liberty will not in any sense be disadvantaged unless they subsequently commit a crime. There will be objective, factual data that can disprove as well as prove involvement.

Mr. Hughes: I am still waiting for the Minister to explain what logically justifies the proposition that somebody who is acquitted should have information held on them while the rest of society—those who have not been arrested and charged—do not. What is the logical basis to justify that they should be ``caught'' when the rest of us should not?

Mr. Clarke: The basis is the one that we have discussed. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he does not agree with our approach. His position is that to have a fingerprint or DNA sample held is in some sense a penalty to an individual in society—somehow a disadvantage in life, a restriction of liberty or whatever. I do not accept that. Building up such databases is an important tool in fighting crime, which helps the other side of the civil liberties argument. I entirely acknowledge the legitimacy of the debate. The hon. Gentleman's position is not ridiculous, but I do not accept where he is coming from.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): As I understand it, either the Minister is saying that someone who has been charged with and acquitted of an offence has a greater propensity to offend than someone who has never been charged or the logic of his argument about the usefulness of building up a database from information that happens to be acquired is that there should be a database from birth, as I suggested earlier. Is the Minister opposed to the idea of DNA testing from birth and a national database? If not, is that part of the Government's not-so-secret agenda?

Mr. Clarke: Well, no, it is not. The Government do not have a secret or not-so-secret agenda on that matter. For what it is worth—it may be worth the hon. Lady's while to read Lord Sharman's Foresight report on the future of crime—identity, how we measure it and, by the way, how we guard against its theft will be a major issue during the next 20 or 30 years. The identity card debate, like the DNA and fingerprint debates, will move higher up the agenda for politicians and society as a whole. I do not have a preconception about where we will end up, although I have no objection to my children's DNA or mine being on a database. However, the Government do not have a secret agenda. We will have more of a national debate as issues arise, when the debate that we are having now will take place sharply. I give the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey an absolute assurance, if that is what he is looking for, that there is no logical step that we are somehow trying to take towards DNA testing at birth.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the Minister saying that he does not regard the holding of DNA as a restriction of liberty, and so on. None the less, it is a holding by the state of personal information that otherwise would not be held. Unusually, the Minister has not answered the question—he is always good at trying to answer questions. What is the logic that says that information should be held on people who have gone through the criminal justice system and come out innocent but not on anybody else? I do not see any logical differentiation.

Mr. Clarke: What I am trying to say—I may be failing—is that I am in favour of building up the DNA database. I am not in favour of considering that as a penalty for some act or omission in relation to the criminal justice system. I have tried to describe the voluntary joining of the database by consent and the acquittal process, about which the hon. Gentleman asked. It is not a penalty or a loss of liberty, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. The relationship between the individual and the state is not a zero sum game. The hon. Gentleman implies that if I give information to the state, I lose, and vice-versa. The passage of information between the two is not a zero-sum relationship. The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree. I want to build up the database, because it is an important device in dealing with crime.

4.45 pm

I am sorry that it is taking so long for me to get to the amendments, but I do not think that I will want to say anything on clause stand part.

There is tremendous logic in opposing the clause altogether. One could argue the toss either way, judgments must be made and the debate is perfectly fair. However, with respect, I do not consider that the same logic applies to the amendment. If amendment No. 276 were to become part of the Bill, fingerprints or samples taken from suspects in the course of an investigation could be retained on acquittal or when a decision is made not to prosecute only if the individual gives their consent in writing.

That would negate a large part of the Bill. If a suspect had been acquitted of one crime but knew that he or she had committed another, it is not credible that he or she would consent to their fingerprints or DNA profile being retained. However, it is precisely in such circumstances that we most need to make use of the valuable objective evidence afforded by fingerprints and DNA.

I shall return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath at the beginning of the discussion. In the case of R v. B, the suspect was arrested on a charge for which he had had a DNA profile taken. He gave the wrong name. Had he given his correct name, it would have been apparent to the police that he already had a conviction, for which a DNA sample was not taken at the time of the conviction but which the police could have taken when he was subsequently arrested.

If the police had taken a sample for that offence, it could have been retained on the database regardless of his subsequent acquittal for the later offence. The R v. B case would never have come before the Court of Appeal and the compelling DNA evidence linking B to the appalling rape of the elderly lady referred to by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath could have been used. I do not think that B would have given his consent to his DNA being kept on the database in writing or otherwise. The amendment would allow the Bs of this world—I am not sure that I should put it like that as it might appear to relate to our earlier talk of Bs, Cs and As—to continue in their criminal pursuits and deny the police the opportunity to make full use of valuable evidence.

I acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath explained, that is no part of the intention behind the amendment. The hon. Gentleman is not trying to weaken the powers in the provisions, but I would ask him to consider whether his amendment would have exactly the effect that I have described, and whether he should withdraw it. Alternatively, if the hon. Gentleman takes the view that our whole approach is wrong, he should vote against the clause rather than express his disagreement through the amendment.

Amendments Nos. 277 and 278 would restrict the definition of crime to any conduct that would constitute a criminal offence in the United Kingdom. The clause is drafted more broadly, to include crimes that constitute a criminal offence under the law of a part of the UK or of a country of territory outside the UK.

Mr. McCabe: I know that the Minister has given way several times, but I seek clarification on whether a sample could be used to support the investigation of an alleged crime in another country when that alleged offence is not a crime in this country. If that is the case, what safeguards will be built into the measure to ensure that such arrangements cannot be used to support activities in countries of which we would thoroughly disapprove?

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Prepared 8 March 2001