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9 Dec 2009 : Column 103WH—continued

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.


9 Dec 2009 : Column 104WH

National DNA Database

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am very grateful indeed to have the opportunity to debate the issue of the national DNA database in this House of Commons. One of the reasons I am so grateful is that I will be contending that although the project has extraordinary implications-both for criminal justice, privacy and science-it has never been subject to a proper parliamentary debate.

The DNA database is an extraordinary innovation, which has emerged sideways and incrementally, without the full glare of parliamentary scrutiny, yet we have the biggest DNA database per head of population in the world. It is extraordinary that a project with such ramifications has not had the parliamentary scrutiny that it deserves, although an excellent report that touched on the issue was published by the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is under the distinguished chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I hope that we will be hearing from my distinguished colleague later in the debate.

The police do an extraordinarily difficult job. Public fear of crime has never been higher and all of us, as elected representatives, must take seriously public fears of crime and the rise in some sorts of crime, such as violent or sexual crime, particularly in many of our big cities. No one feels more strongly about the matter than I do, because I represent Hackney in the east end of London, where, sadly, we do see such crimes.

Of course, if somebody is proven guilty in a court of law, no one objects to their DNA being kept in principle. The issue is the indiscriminate collection of innocent people's DNA. I spell that out right at the beginning because, sadly, when Ministers talk about the DNA database, they tend to merge and elide innocent and guilty people. It is almost as if the Government have a third category: rather than someone being wholly innocent, they might be not really innocent. As a Parliament, we must stand firm on one of the oldest British traditions: innocent until proven guilty.

Having spoken about the importance of what the police do and our support for the police, the problem with indiscriminately collecting the DNA of innocent people is the very serious possibility that that will undermine the community's confidence in the police and harm community and police relations. The Home Affairs Committee pointed to that in its report on this and related matters.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Is the situation not even worse, as some people in the community think that the police are making arrests when they would not do so otherwise, in order to collect DNA from people who will almost certainly be proven innocent?

Ms Abbott: That is a very important point. It is alarming if innocent people are being harassed and arrested when, at the end of the day, the police do not think that a successful prosecution can be brought and the purpose is merely to increase the size of the
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DNA database. I will touch on some of the cases I have dealt with in which it was very clear that there was no possibility of arrest, but the police refused to release the DNA.

Of course, when talking about the indiscriminate collection of DNA, one must make the point that 77 per cent. of young black men aged 16 to 35 are on the database. As somebody who has been in politics-political activity-for more years than I care to remember, and who has campaigned against the unfair use of stop and search, I believe that we cannot pass over that subject. Even though it might seem like a useful administrative procedure for stopping young black boys willy-nilly to get their DNA, people have a highly developed sense of fairness, and if they think they are being stopped and searched unfairly, or that their DNA is being taken unfairly and there is no possibility of a successful prosecution, it cannot help confidence in the police generally or police-community relations.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on initiating this important debate. Does she consider that profiling is acceptable under any circumstances?

Ms Abbott: If profiling means that someone will make assumptions about a person's criminality or the sort of crime they might be about to commit or that they have committed on the basis of their skin colour, no. There is such a thing as scientific profiling, but the broad-brush profiling whereby a black teenage boy will be stopped in an Oxford street store as they go through the door, which has happened to my friends' children and to my son, does not help anyone and does not help to solve crime.

Let me just give a brief overview of the introduction of the DNA database to this country, because it is so much a part of criminal justice that many people do not know how relatively recently it was introduced. During the early 1980s, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys was working on a scientific basis for DNA fingerprinting. Ten years later, the DNA database was set up based on DNA fingerprinting technology that was invented by Professor Jeffreys. Since the beginning in 1995-not even 20 years ago-more than 5 million DNA profiles have been collected and are currently being kept. Prior to 2001, DNA that was collected from individuals who were arrested was destroyed on acquittal. However, in May 2001, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was amended to permit DNA to be kept on the database-it did not mandate that DNA be kept on the database. The difference between something being permitted and being mandated is a point to which I will return, because I think that the police have got confused between the two issues.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentioned the 5 million figure. Some 800,000 of those live in the midlands. At an indie band concert at The Oak in Burntwood, Staffordshire just 2 weeks ago, the band were wrongfully arrested. Police helicopters, dogs and a whole panoply of things were used, the band were taken into custody for having a gun-so a CCTV officer said-and their DNA was taken. However, under pressure from the media and the general public, Staffordshire police promised to delete that DNA and remove it from the database. There is
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inconsistency here, because the Government say that they will remove DNA from the database after six years, but local police forces will remove it rather earlier when they are under pressure.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. My argument is not that there should not be a database, or even that, under certain specific circumstances, the DNA of innocent people should not be kept. The problem is the chaos and the lack of a system. The people to whom my hon. Friend referred got their DNA removed almost immediately. I am working with completely innocent people who have waited years and years to get their DNA removed because, as I say, the Metropolitan police seem to labour under the idea that keeping such DNA is mandatory rather than being a matter of their discretion.

Bob Spink: In fact, there is more than confusion about the matter. The Government cannot rely on the fact that chief constables may at their discretion remove innocent people's DNA, because some chief constables have a different policy from others. In Essex, I have not been able to get a single innocent person's DNA removed from the database. That is unfair, discriminatory and arbitrary. The Government cannot hide behind the discretion of chief constables; they must act to resolve the problem.

Ms Abbott: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have an arbitrary, discriminatory system. Yet, Ministers-later in my remarks I shall quote from letters I have received from Ministers-seek to hide behind the discretion of chief constables. The Government have to intervene, and there must be a proper framework.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I also congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), Members have pressed Ministers-not necessarily to interfere with the discretion, but at the very least to issue guidance. It is possible for Ministers to issue guidance and for Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary, Denis O'Connor, to say to chief constables, "When people write in, at the very least write back," because one of the problems is that they just do not reply. If we get that customer service sorted out, it could actually improve the system.

Ms Abbott: My right hon. Friend is, as ever, both a philosopher and intensely practical. If the service offered to people to try to remove their DNA from a database was more efficient and less arbitrary, and if there were guidelines, much of the unhappiness would be removed.

Some people get their DNA removed from a database in weeks or months; some people wait years and are still waiting to have their DNA removed at the whim, in a way, of different police forces. That cannot be fair, it is not regarded as fair and it feeds a distrust of the whole system. That is unfortunate, because a database of guilty people and perhaps some innocent people, whose DNA would only be collected under very specific conditions, serves an important purpose in fighting crime.

I referred earlier to legislation in 2001 to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. That amendment permitted DNA to be kept on the database. However,
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even when the issue was discussed in the House during debates on that legislation, many Members felt that not enough time had been given to scrutinise it, which, sadly, is not an uncommon occurrence.

In 2004, PACE was amended again, to enable the police to take the fingerprints and DNA of anyone aged 10 or over who is arrested for a recordable offence. Later, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 made all offences arrestable, which had the side effect of vastly increasing the number of people who could go on a DNA database automatically.

Therefore, the database has grown neither through an act of will of Parliament nor through a coherent discussion about the guidelines, the purpose and the underlying principles-how big it should be, the procedures involved and people's rights in relation to having their DNA kept by the police. Instead, it has grown incrementally as a result of permissive legislation that was slipped into big, portmanteau criminal justice Bills that were never properly debated in the House at any stage. That is not a satisfactory way to set up the largest DNA database in the world, with so many implications for our civil liberties.

David Taylor: It is possible that the Minister, who is in many ways a very able and sensitive man, will say in his response to the debate that he is concerned to hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but that last year alone almost 20,000 crimes were solved using a DNA match, including 83 killings and 184 rapes, and that the retention of the DNA of innocent people on the database is just an unfortunate and unavoidable cost that must be borne by those people. Would my hon. Friend say that that is sufficient reason?

Ms Abbott: As always, my hon. Friend displays both his perception and his mastery of the figures. Yes, of course, the Minister will throw at us figures for crimes that have been solved by the use of the DNA database. I conceded that point-that DNA is used to solve crimes-at the beginning of my remarks. However, the question is how many of those crimes were solved by the DNA of innocent people having been kept? Furthermore, if we restricted the collection of DNA from innocent people to certain specific categories of violent and sexual crime, could we not achieve the same results without taking DNA willy-nilly from children under 16 or from people for whom there is no chance of prosecution? Also, I was going to return to Sir Alec Jeffreys, the father of DNA-

Keith Vaz: He is from Leicester.

Ms Abbott: Indeed, he is from Leicester.

Dr. Murrison: The hon. Lady is being extremely generous in giving way and taking interventions. I think that she has probably hit the nail on the head, because surely the problem is that we do not have an adequate scientific basis on which to make such judgments. The fact that in November the Home Secretary had to effect something of a U-turn on DNA suggests that he does not have that evidence either. We have no way of judging whether the Scottish system, which is a far more liberal system than the one in England, is better or worse than the English system, which we are debating today. So,
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does she not agree that we need to have the evidence base before we start making policy? Unfortunately, we seem to have got it the wrong way round.

Ms Abbott: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course that is the problem. There is very little evidential basis for what the Government are doing. Indeed, I would like to quote Sir Alec Jeffreys, the father of the DNA database, who might be supposed to know more about the science and the statistics of DNA than most people. He entirely dismisses the Home Office argument that keeping the genetic details of everyone, even those acquitted of a crime, helps to solve other crimes. On this issue, he said:

I have had meetings with the Metropolitan police and the people in charge of their database and they admit that they have not done the research to demonstrate a real benefit arising from our system, which is indiscriminate, as opposed to the system that exists in other parts of the British isles.

As has been pointed out already, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are alone in Europe in retaining DNA indefinitely from people of any age for any offence. That is why, as I said earlier, we have the biggest database compared with population size in the world.

As I have said, among the problems with the DNA database is the lack of proper debate and thought about it, the fact that it is arbitrary and the fact that it can be seen as discriminatory. The issue has been raised with me in the past, so this year I have been working with Liberty on a project that tries to help innocent young people who have had their DNA taken and kept by the police to get it taken off the database. That speaks to the arbitrary nature of the decisions that are being made in the police force.

For instance, we are trying to help a young man of 21 with serious learning disability and autism. Prior to his arrest, he had no previous arrests, convictions or cautions. However, he is autistic and has a fascination with trains and women's shoes. Occasionally, he asks women if he can clean their shoes. On one occasion, the woman he asked consented, but then she thought that he touched the lower part of her leg. He was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault, and was photographed and had his DNA and prints taken. Finally, he was interviewed in the company of his father and it was established that he was non-threatening and autistic. No charges were pressed and yet his DNA has been retained indefinitely.

A teenage boy was in Finsbury park with his friends on bicycles. A robbery took place elsewhere in the park, which is huge. The police obviously swept the park and arrested every young black man in it. The teenage boy was arrested and held in a police station for eight hours. Eventually, he was released without charge and the police confirmed that no further action would be taken against him. Again, he had no previous arrests, convictions or cautions, but the police are holding his DNA indefinitely and resisting any attempts to remove it from the database.

A young girl of 17 was shopping with her mum, who was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting. The girl was told that nothing would happen to her, but she was taken to the police station along with her mum and had her DNA taken, which the Met is sitting on indefinitely.


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A teenage boy in Greenwich park was having a water-fight. In another part of Greenwich park-it, too, is a big park-an assault took place. The police swept the park for all young black men. They came to the boy's house, arrested him, took him to a police station and took his DNA. No further action was taken by the police, but they are still sitting on his DNA indefinitely.

A young girl of 16 was a victim of bullying at school. She and the child bullying her got into a fight and the police were called to the school. The police arrested them both and took DNA from them both. No charges were pressed-it was a schoolgirl fight-but the DNA is being held indefinitely.

A young woman of 25, who had no previous arrests, convictions or cautions, went to Primark to return some goods that she had got the day before. She was wearing-well, there are Members here who obviously shop at Gucci, rather than Primark, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East who would not be seen in Primark.

Keith Vaz: Harrods.

Ms Abbott: Harrods-exactly. [Laughter.] The girl went to Primark to return some goods that she had bought the day before. She was also wearing a Primark sweater that she had bought the day before, but she took the precaution of taking the receipt with her to the shop. None the less, she was arrested on suspicion of stealing the sweater that she was wearing. Nobody was interested in the receipt that she had for it, so she was arrested. She was questioned for nine hours and released. The police are holding her DNA indefinitely.

The final case that I will refer to involves two young girls aged 17 and 14. They were at a party in south London and then, at 9 o'clock, they were in the back of a car on their way home. It was a party at Easter, as they were on their Easter holidays from school. The car was stopped by the police and there was a scuffle between the police and the driver. The driver, another boy who was in the front of the car and the two girls were taken to Lewisham police station. Both the young girls, who, as I say, were 17 and 14, were arrested, handcuffed and kept in a cell for hours while they had their DNA taken. No charges were ever brought against the young men. So, in April 2006 I wrote to Chief Superintendent Archie Torrance, the borough commander of Lewisham police, about this incident. It took him a month to write back to me and say that the arresting officers were actually part of the territorial support group and I would have to write to that group.

A few weeks later, I heard from a representative of the territorial support group, who said that he was looking into the matter, and in a few more weeks I got a response. Although the response did not say so explicitly, it gave the clear impression that the keeping of DNA after an arrest for a recordable offence was mandatory and that territorial support had no discretion in the matter, so I wrote to my right hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), the then Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety. He wrote back to me saying that it was a matter for the discretion of the police.


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The territorial support group representative then wrote to me again. He claimed that he had never told anyone that it was mandatory, but made no offer to remove the 14-year-old's DNA from the database. I am not talking about the two boys in the front of the car, although they were innocent; I am talking about a 14-year-old girl who was getting a lift home. She had no previous convictions. Her mum is a sculptor and her dad is an architect. The police refused to remove the DNA from their database.

Finally, in June, I got a reply from the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan):


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