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I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I substantively disagree. Obviously, I believe that we need to take the terrorist threat seriously. I imagine that the amendment would mean, if we were talking about a sensible Secretary of State, that there could be
exemptions in certain circumstances regarding specific agenciesobviously meaning the security servicesthat deal daily with potential terrorist threats. I am happy to say that the amendment is designed to ensure that there would be absolutely no weakening of our defence, or the effectiveness of our defences, against terrorism. I cannot believe that that disturbs the hon. Gentleman, but if that is what he is worried about, so be it. We will have to part company.
Mr. Hogg: I am sorry to be sniping from the back, but as I understand it the amendment would not give the House an opportunity to express a view on which Government agencies should be required to provide the information. Disclosure from some agencies may well be undesirable, but we should be in a position to identify whether an agency comes into that category.
Damian Green: My right hon. and learned Friend is, as ever, courteous, but I do not agree with him because I believe that, as a point of principle, putting details such as the names of agencies in Bills is often a bad idea. Names can be changed, and we would have to return to the House to make further legislation, including, perhaps, in certain circumstances, emergency legislation. One thing that I have learned in the House is that, on the whole, emergency legislation is bad legislation. I am seeking via the amendment to make the legislation as flexible as possible. I share absolutely with my right hon. and learned Friend the desire to bolster the powers of the House against the Executive, but in such circumstances I think that one could rely on the Home Secretary of the day to take a reasonable view on the appropriate use of the powers that the amendment would give to him or her.
The changes are necessary because of the worrying nature of the guidelines under which we operate. They are produced for the police, and go under the spectacularly opaque title Retention guidelines for nominal records of the police national computer, which could almost have been designed to stop anyone finding out what the guidelines are for the use of DNAa rather important term that the document carefully refuses to mention in its title. Frankly, the guidelines are draconian. They state:
Chief Officers have the discretion to authorise the deletion of any specific data entry on the PNC owned by them.
They are also responsible for the authorisation of the destruction of DNA and fingerprints associated with that specific entry. It is suggested that this discretion should only be exercised in exceptional cases.
In the first instance applicants should be sent a letter informing them that the samples and associated PNC record are lawfully held and that their request for deletion/destruction is refused.
It is not recommended that any proactive exercise is undertaken to determine potentially exceptional cases.
The police are therefore being told in their guidelines first that everything must be exceptional, and secondly that their first and standard response should be to say no. Indeed, elsewhere in the guidelinesI shall not detain the House by reading this outis the standard template letter of refusal, in case the police cannot work out how to write a refusal letter. On top of that, they are instructed not to make any effort to tell people what they can do or what criteria they might have to fulfil to get their records out of the system. That approach is not satisfactory.
Compounding that, an example is given for those who want to know what an exceptional case is. It is the only such example in a 236-page document of what might be an exception. I shall quote it in full:
For example, where a dead body is found in a multi-occupancy dwelling and the cause of death is not immediately obvious. All the occupants are arrested on suspicion of murder pending the outcome of a post mortem. All arrested persons are detained at the local police station and samples taken. It later transpires that the deceased person died of natural causes. No offence therefore exists, and all persons are released from custody.
That is the only example given in the guidelines of an allowable exception. The House will recognise that that is an absurdity and that the guidelines are clearly not an acceptable way in which to proceed.
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Is not the reason the guidelines are so presumptive in favour of keeping such data that the Government mistakenly believe that they get a large advantage when it comes to solving crimes? In June, the Prime Minister made a speech in which he said that 114 murders had been made solvable and that murderers had been taken off the streets because of the breadth of the database. It would be better if we could have more information on that so that we could see the exact truth of the matter, because I believe that that was an over-estimation.
Damian Green: My right hon. Friend makes an important point that the Minister may wish to address. The Prime Minister appeared to be equating DNA matches with successful prosecutions, but the figures that he quoted were for DNA matches. The House will know that that does not equate to successful prosecutions or, therefore, to successful crime-fighting.
The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It might help the hon. Gentleman if I tell him that the question posed by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) came up this morning when I was giving evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee. I undertook to look into the matter and to write to the Committee with the relevant information. I cannot give the House that information now, but it might be helpful for hon. Members to know that, given that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has given his apologies for having to leave early.
Damian Green: I am grateful to the Minister for giving us that assurance and I am sure that we would all be grateful if he included others when sending out that letter. I am glad that he has been made aware of this issue.
There are ways of improving the situation. Our amendment represents one, but I hope that the Minister will also take seriously the first annual report of the ethics group on the national DNA databasethe NDNADwhich was set up by the Government. It makes a large number of recommendations on how to improve the situation, but I will concentrate on just three of them. One states:
For those members of the public who are believed to be innocent at the time of sampling and voluntarily donate their DNA to help the police with their enquiries, the presumption should shift to an expectation that these samples will be used only for the case under investigation, that the profile will not be loaded onto the NDNAD, and that the samples and all data derived from them will be destroyed when the case has ended.
A clearer, simpler and less cumbersome process needs to be put in place to enable those who wish to appeal against the decision of a Chief Constable to retain their DNA profile on the NDNAD.
Consideration should be given to further public clarification of the role of the NDNAD and reinforcement of the message that it is intended only to be used for criminal intelligence.
In addition to commending our amendment to the Government, I should also like to commend some of the principles suggested by the pressure group Liberty on how we should balance human rights principles with the necessity for an effective fight against crime and terrorism. As well as advocating the overarching principle of the proportionate retention of DNA, which I strongly support, Liberty suggests that three further principles be taken into account:
The relevance or probative value of DNA to the type of crime in question.
The potential propensity of the trigger offender to future crime of a relevant nature.
The gravity of both trigger offence and the type of crime feared in the future.
I hope that the Minister will be able to look at those principles, as well as seriously to consider our amendment, which would help the process of putting DNA evidence on a proper footing, and therefore help in the fight against terrorism in the long term.
Keith Vaz: I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). The Opposition have tabled a very sensible amendment, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with it sensibly. This is a very important issue, and those in another place were right to understand the importance of retaining information and of removing it when its retention is unnecessary.
At the end of last year, the Home Affairs Select Committee published an important report entitled A Surveillance Society?. I see that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) are in their places today. They were co-authors of that report. In it, we spoke firmly in favour of data minimisation. Of course Governments have to have such information, and our security services have to retain it. The police need it, too, in order to catch criminals. The problem is that such data are retained on innocent people. At the moment, the profiles of 4.4 million people are on the DNA database, according to information that I have been given. About 1 million of those profiles relate to children, some of them very young children. Of course, the consent of a parent is required to take and retain such data, but the fact is that that number of profiles is being retained at the moment. There must therefore be an efficient, transparent and easy-to-follow way for innocent people to apply to have their DNA record removed from the database. If they are not part of any criminal proceedings and have done nothing wrong, it is wrong in principle that that information should be retained.
Mr. Hogg: Will the right hon. Gentleman address a further point? I accept, of course, that a person who is innocent at the moment will feel affronted by the fact that their DNA is on the national database. However, that person might subsequently go on to commit a serious offence. I have come across such cases through my own professional experience. Why should we wish to deny the prosecuting authorities such an important detective tool?
Keith Vaz: I am reluctant to enter into a discussion of this nature with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because he knows so much more about the criminal justice system than I do. I am sure that he has come across many examples involving this requirement. However, this is the same argument that Home Office Ministers have put forward whenever this point has been raised at Question Time. Either we retain these data for the whole country or we cover only those who are charged with offences. I am against covering the whole countryI hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be against it, toobecause it would be an unnecessary burden on the citizen and because of the many cases of the loss of data that have occurred in the past 10 years. If we have a database that contains information on 60 million people, at some stage, bits of it, or perhaps the whole lot, could get lostthrough no fault of Ministers, of course. Such a system would encourage loss simply because of the amount of data being held.
That is why I am against such a proposal. It represents a dangerous argument. There is, however, a high number of profiles of ethnic minority peopleAfro-Caribbean people in particularon the database. Some judges have suggested that, because it is unfair that so many young black people are on it, it might as well cover everyone, as a way of being more fair. I do not think that that is the right approach. We should not retain more information because we need to justify an argument.
One of my constituents came to see me recently. He had been out with his friends one evening, and they had gone to a pub. There was a fight outside the pub, and a
young girl was being harassed by a man. My constituent intervened to prevent the fight from developing further. The police were called, and everyone was arrested. Everyones DNA sample was taken. The police subsequently released my constituent, saying, Thank goodness he intervened. He prevented the violence against the woman from being exacerbated. He wrote to the police asking for his DNA sample to be removed from the database, but the reply that he received was, frankly, pathetic. The sample remains on the database.
The shadow Home Secretary, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), is known as a have-a-go hero. I can well imagine him removing his shirt and jacket to reveal a big S or a big D on his vest, and intervening to stop a crime being committed. The police would arrive at the crime scene and take everyones DNA. It would be put on the database. How would the hon. and learned Gentleman, clearly an active citizen and an innocent person, apply to have his data removed?
This is a crucial issue, and it is not enough for the Government to advance the arguments that they have advanced in the pastnamely, that we have to retain this information because people will, at some stage in their life, commit an offence.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): One of the things that has struck me forcefully, as a constituency Member of Parliament, is the apparently arbitrary nature of the decision on whether or not to accede to a request to remove DNA from the database. On the occasions on which I have made representations on behalf of innocent constituents who have had their DNA taken, it appeared that the only possible rationale behind the decision making was whether the matter was likely to cause embarrassment to the police because of the surrounding circumstances. I do not think that that is an adequate basis for making such a decision, and this reinforces the right hon. Gentlemans point that we need a proper system.
Keith Vaz: I do not disagree with anything that the hon. and learned Gentleman says. We do need a proper system, and the present system is totally inadequate. At the very least, if we had letters in reply to reasonable requests, providing information to the person who has asked for his or her profile to be removed, I could understand it. As it is, this is the first time that I have heard the guidelines as they were read out by the hon. Member for Ashford. I did not realise that although everyone is told that they have the right to have their DNA removed, it is only in very, very exceptional circumstances that it will be so removed. I am minded to vote for the Oppositions amendment, unless the Minister gives a clear sign to the House that the Government will radically alter the current guidelines on removal.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab):
While I will not follow my right hon. Friend into the Lobby on this issue, does he agree that it is important that we have consistency as well as transparency? There is a porous border between Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and crimes are sometimes committed in the former by my constituents, and their DNA is taken there. I have
received conflicting advice from those two police authorities about removal, and it is not acceptable that my constituents should be subject to variable responses on removal depending on the interpretation of the guidelines by chief constables.
Keith Vaz: I note the encouragement from the Opposition Whip. However, the Minister may say something wonderful that reassures me. He may say that he will write tomorrow to every chief constable to say that people should always get a response to their requests for removal and that the guidelines will be changed.
This is an important issue. Hon. Members may have seen the film Minority Report, in which so much information is gathered by computerincluding DNA profilesthat police officers and SWAT teams arrive just before a crime is committed. They lock the person up even before the crime is committed. Goodness knows how that would affect the shadow Home Secretary if he went around the country trying to protect us from crime.
This is a very serious subject, but as soon as I say that the Minister starts talking to a colleague on the Front Bench. It is an important issueit will not be good enough for the Minister simply to say that we need this information because people might commit crimes in the future. Nor will it be good enough to say that people can apply to the authorities, because such requests are not answered. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) is not in his place and I had not intended to raise his case today, but he has been trying to get this information removed for months. Even I have written to the Home Secretary and asked what is happening in that case, but she has not replied. That silence is unacceptable, and we need some clear guidance or assurances. If the Minister cannot supply that, I will vote against the Government on this amendment.
Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The Liberal Democrats welcome many of the concessions that the Government have made since we last debated this Bill. It is a shame that they could not have made those concessions earlier and prevented the ugly scenes and arm-twisting we saw when the 42-days provision was passed in this Chamber by the narrowest of margins.
On Second Reading, I said that we would fight tooth and nail against illiberal provisions on 42-days detention without charge and on abandoning juries in coroners courts. I am glad that, with the help of the official Opposition in the Lords, we have been able to see off those proposals and that the amendments passed in the other place on them will be supported on both sides of this House.
On the specific amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the Lords amendment calls for national guidelines, and that would allow the Secretary of State to vary the guidelines for different agencies, should he or she see fit.
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