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19 Nov 2008 : Column 249

Mr. Hogg: Does not the Lords amendment have the great advantage—in so far as I have correctly understood it—that the Secretary of State must subject all Government agencies to the requirements, rather than picking and choosing between them?

Chris Huhne: I agree, and the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford would introduce an element of subjectivity into what the Secretary of State could do, which we do not want to see introduced. We would prefer the unalloyed Lords amendment.

Mr. Heath: I am glad and, given what I said earlier, relieved that my hon. Friend is taking that position. The only argument for supporting amendment (a) would be if the Government were to make it clear that they would drop their motion to disagree if that amendment were to be passed. If not, all that amendment (a) would do is water down the amendments made in the other place, which I wholeheartedly support.

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend is, as always, a master tactician, and I entirely agree that were the Minister to make it clear that the Government would be prepared to accept the Lords amendment with amendment (a), we would be happy to support that.

Damian Green: One of the effects of the unalloyed Lords amendment would be that terrorist suspects would be entitled to the available information about themselves. There may be circumstances in which that would be extremely regrettable.

Chris Huhne: In fact, the guidelines make it clear that if the case is still under investigation, that objection will apply, but if the case is no longer under investigation—if the DNA has been found at the scene of the crime but the crime has been cleared up—the DNA will be taken off the database. The hon. Gentleman’s objection is not a real one.

Prompted by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), I reiterate to the Minister that if he were minded to accept the Lords amendment and the Conservative amendment, we would be happy to support that.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): It is completely misconceived to argue that we need the qualification proposed by the Conservatives to deal with a category of people. Categories of people can be dealt with in the regulations as they cover the range of agencies, so the proper concern of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) can be better addressed by retaining the Lords amendment as it is, rather than by modifying it in the way he suggests.

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is similar to the point that I started by making—that the Secretary of State is not required to lay down the same guidelines for all Government agencies, but can vary them. At the least, amendment (a) is otiose, but if Ministers were minded to accept it, I would be happy to support it.

The Lords amendment is sensible and moderate, and it helps to clarify the real problem, which is that the Government do not have a policy on acquiring DNA
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samples for the database. In reality, a sort of clattering train picks up bits and bobs here and there in a completely random manner.

If I were one of the nearly 1 million innocent people on the DNA database, I would rightly want to get my sample off it. I do not think that the Government should be going on fishing expeditions to bang on bits of extraneous information about citizens merely for the sake of it. Frankly, I would be more inclined to support the Government if they were to target the 2 million convicted criminals who were convicted before the database began and who do not have their DNA samples on the database. If the database was genuinely a database of people who had been convicted of a crime, that would seem to me to be a perfectly fair principle on which to proceed. However, we have 1 million innocent people on the database and 2 million who ought to be on the database but who are not because their convictions happened before 2001.

We have not heard any evidence from the Government that the increase in the numbers of people acquired randomly whose samples are on the national database has led to an increase in the number of successful convictions. We have heard a number of wild assertions and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he would try to come up with information to test them, but despite the huge increase in the size of the database, the number of successful convictions using DNA has hardly altered. We are putting all the extra samples in, which happens at some cost to the ease with which the database can be manipulated and increases the chances of making an error, which could be extremely serious for any individual concerned, yet we are getting no serious increase in the number of successful convictions using DNA.

I believe that the Lords amendment is a first step towards putting our use of the DNA database on to a sensible footing. I hope that the House will support it and I will listen to the Minister’s response to see whether we should support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford. If the Minister is minded to accept the Lords amendment with those amendments, we will do so, too.

Mr. Hogg: I am rather torn both on the amendment and on the Lords amendment. I hope the House will accept that I approach most criminal justice matters from within the libertarian wing, so I am conscious that some of the views that I will express are not those that I would normally express in this context. I suspect that they are not shared by those on my party’s Front Bench or by most of my hon. Friends. So far as the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is concerned, I am bound to say that my preference is for the Lords amendment.

It seems to me that the disadvantage of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend is that it would enable the Government to choose which agencies will be the subject of the procedures envisaged in the Lords amendment. My hon. Friend has a perfectly decent reason to be worried, as his coda to agencies is based on the question of whether possible terrorist suspects will get information that they should not have.

Such a fear is perfectly realistic, but it seems to me that at least two responses can properly be made. First, we could so construct the secondary legislation as to enable the Government to defuse that risk by the contents
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of the regulations, on which we could take a view. It seems that that would protect the interests about which my hon. Friend is concerned. Secondly, I am very cautious about giving discretionary power to a Secretary of State because, at the end of the day, we need to cling to the principle that once power is given to any official or to the Executive, it is certain to be abused on occasion. Therefore I do not feel comfortable with my hon. Friend’s amendment and am not minded to vote for it if he presses it to a Division.

That takes us to the Lords amendment. Again, I confess to being torn. There are advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps I could identify them and then suggest the proper view. The advantage of the Lords amendment is that it brings consistency—or is capable of bringing consistency—by the publication of the procedures. I think that it is undesirable that varying police forces should have different approaches to the issue of removal and disclosure. I see great merit in it being said that police forces across the country should operate according to a common code. That is the advantage. It is a considerable advantage and I do not want to pretend otherwise.

The disadvantage is that the amendment is a marked move away from the proposition that we should have an ever-expanding database, perhaps moving to a national database. I want to say a word about that, if I might, before I come to a conclusion. I recognise that there are serious disadvantages and arguments to be deployed against a national database, particularly a DNA one.

The advantage of a national database, leaving aside all other issues, is huge. It is not only the most effective single detective weapon currently available to the enforcement agencies but is a huge deterrent in itself. I did a case two or three years ago involving a very bad rape, and the rapist was discovered only because 10 years after the event the police were going through old samples that they then could not profile and now could and they happened to discover the rapist on the database.

If one projects such an idea forward, one appreciates that many potential criminals, such as rapists, will be conscious that they leave DNA samples on the site. That is a huge deterrent. It is not only a detective instrument but a deterrent, especially as the forensic scientists become more skilled in gathering DNA. Low-copy profile DNA, for example, can operate on very small samples, so such profiling is a huge deterrent as well as a detective instrument. I suspect that it is the single most effective measure that we can adopt to decrease crime.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that there are serious civil liberty issues to debate, although I am not persuaded by them. There is no question but that we need to debate them. There are huge costs involved and I have no doubt that there are huge practical difficulties to resolve. I have not come to an absolute conclusion, but we should not shut the door on the debate. The question of whether we should move gradually towards a national database is very important.

Mr. Grieve: The last thing that we are seeking to do is to shut off the debate. Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate, the purpose of these amendments is to enable a further debate to take place, which is the very thing that we have not been getting. I
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take his point; there are arguments. Indeed, Lord Justice Scott put forward some persuasive arguments about why there should be a national database that included even people who came into this country as visitors and who should be obliged to provide their DNA at the airport at the point of entry. Such arguments can be made, but there is something extremely unhappy about a situation in which innocent people go on to the database at random and feel a justifiable sense of grievance as a result.

Mr. Hogg: I am not disagreeing with my hon. and learned Friend. The conclusion to which I am going to come is that we can support the Lords amendment. My point at this stage is that the House and the country as a whole should have a serious debate about the desirability and practicality of a national database. I do not pretend that I have come to a wholly concluded view, because I think that the civil rights arguments might be more powerful than I currently deem them to be. I also question whether we can wholly exclude the risk of wrongful convictions based on DNA and I ask what safeguards should be incorporated. There are very important issues to be reflected on, but we should debate seriously the use of the database and I am very uncomfortable with anything that impliedly stands against it.

1.30 pm

Chris Huhne: Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the very substantial increase in the number of samples on the DNA database has not led to an increase in the number of successful convictions? That tends to weigh quite heavily against some of the points that he was making in favour of a potentially nationwide database.

Mr. Hogg: I think that one needs to look at the statistical arguments a little more closely, as that is surprising and one would expect the number of convictions to rise. The figures do not address the issue of deterrence, although they do question the database’s effectiveness as a detective tool. However, we need to know more about the statistical base before we draw too many conclusions from the hon. Gentleman’s observation.

As for Lords amendment No. 2, I accept that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is right to say that it would enable a debate to be had, because an ability to lay regulations does trigger debates. Moreover, as I said earlier, it also has the great advantage in that it would bring consistency.

My conclusion, therefore, is that we should not accept the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), unless he persuades me that I am wrong in my interpretation. I believe that we should accept Lords amendment No. 2 because it would provide consistency and trigger a debate. At some due time, and in an appropriate way, this House really must return to the question of whether we should have a proper national database of DNA samples.

Simon Hughes: I begin by apologising to the Minister for the fact that I was at an event elsewhere in the building and so missed his introductory remarks—

Chris Huhne: He has not made any yet.

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Mr. Coaker: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I missed them as well!

Simon Hughes: That is good, as we will be at no mutual disadvantage. I therefore redirect my apology to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green).

I want to make two points in addition to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). The first has to do with the disadvantage of the present system and picks up a point made by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). At the moment, the police are often hugely discredited in the eyes of law-abiding members of the public by the arbitrary way in which samples are collected and the uncertainty of what then happens to them. I shall give an example that comes from the sort of constituency experience shared by many hon. Members.

I have in my constituency a family—professional parents, teenage daughters—who are entirely well respected. The incident that I am about to relate took place within the Metropolitan police area but outside our borough. The daughters were stopped when in a car being driven by someone else, and samples were taken. It appears that the driver had either a previous charge or conviction, but the teenage girls had no previous criminal record.

It took about a year to get a decision from Lewisham’s borough commander—I was eventually told that it would be his decision—that the girls’ samples would be removed from the DNA database, which would not show their involvement in the incident. There was huge uncertainty in that period, and no courteous, timely, prompt or helpful series of responses.

The girls involved happened to be black, and they have one black and one white parent. It is difficult enough for black teenagers in London to have confidence in the police, and this experience did not help those young women or their parents in that regard, suggesting as it did that the police were more interested in collecting data than in seeing justice done by those absolutely innocent young women.

First, the present system allows data to be collected and retained in respect of people who are never charged, let alone convicted. In my book, that is wrong in principle. Secondly, the system is arbitrary in its operation and subject to no guidelines, and that is really unhelpful on the street. The Minister knows that, as he is a man of the people: he was out with me and others on the anti-knives march; he understands how real people think and talk and his constituency is very like my own. He knows that I am talking about ordinary, law-abiding people in real circumstances, not academics with doctorates—

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): There are many people with doctorates in my constituency.

Simon Hughes: There are lovely people with doctorates and, as one would expect, many are the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), but we are not talking about them.

My second point follows on from what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said. I also understand that there is a debate to be had about the relative merit of holding samples as against not holding them. However, it seems to me that proceeding
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in a logical direction means we should heed the advice and the recommendation given by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh—that is, that we should first seek to hold samples and data on the people who have a criminal record. That must be the first step, as all the evidence in criminology and criminal justice is that people who have previously offended have a propensity to offend again. The majority of citizens are innocent and non-offenders, while the minority—sadly—are either occasional or recurrent offenders.

It is not logical to move to a presumption that a general holding of data is now the right step to take. In that respect, the Government’s view is as flawed as their approach to ID cards. There is an argument that everyone in the country should have an ID card and be required to produce it whenever they are stopped. Many other European countries have that system, but there is absolutely no argument for a system that would require people to have an ID card but not to carry it with them. That is the Government’s current position, and it is entirely illogical.

I anticipate that there will be a Division on these amendments. I hope that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham will come down on the side of Lords amendment No.2, but unamended by his Front-Bench colleagues. That is the best option available, as it proposes that, at least for the time being, we should have a system whose structure means that people in Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, Lewisham or Southwark could expect the same set of procedures. Those procedures would determine who collected the data and when, what was held, how the information could be requested, how people would be responded to and what the criteria were for any decision.

My vote will be that data should not be retained on samples taken from people who are not charged or who are innocent. That must be the right starting point, and I hope that colleagues will vote for the Lords amendment on that basis.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): When Baroness Hanham moved the Lords amendment in the other place she said that her aim was

If this debate is anything to go by, she has certainly succeeded in her aim—if only by virtue of the contribution from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

There is considerable disquiet throughout the country, and certainly throughout the House, about the extent of the database. We have heard already that the details of some 4.5 million individuals are currently kept on the database, which is growing at the rate of more than 500,000 entries a year. In a parliamentary answer only last month, we heard that some 857,000 individuals with no current convictions also have their data stored on the computer.

Clearly, no one has any quibbles about the existence of the database, which has proved itself to be an exemplary tool in fighting crime. However, there is disquiet about its extent and, especially for the purposes of this debate, about its opacity when people seek access to the information that it contains and apply to have information removed.

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