Previous Section Index Home Page

4.45 pm

The Government have made no fundamental changes to their original proposals. They have made no compromises, although there have been token additions to deal with people convicted of offences overseas and to end the postcode lottery for removal from the database. Some of these are welcome. There should, of course, be a standardised approach to removal from the database and there can be no argument against having proper parliamentary oversight. The ends may not be to our liking, but the means must be as fair and as transparent as possible.

The Government amendments do not change the foundations of their approach to the DNA database, which is little more than a random hoarding of any data that they can get their hands on. The proposals, of course, still fail to address any of the concerns outlined in the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the case of S and Marper v. the United Kingdom about the
8 Mar 2010 : Column 51
"blanket and indiscriminate nature" of the database. How on earth can the Government suggest that these measures are "proportionate", as they are required to be by the judgment?

The UK already has the largest DNA database in the world in proportion to our population, with the records of more than 5.5 million people on it, almost 1 million of whom have never been convicted of any crime; while almost one in two of all black men are on the database. There are real issues about the potentially counterproductive nature of a detection tool that is seen to be quite so discriminatory by ethnic group. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) cited the extraordinary difference in the figures for people on the DNA database between the separate nations of this country alone. It becomes even more severe, of course, when ethnic minority figures are taken into account.

The number on the database would surely increase under the proposed system of keeping for six years the DNA of people who have not been convicted of any crime, yet more than 2 million people who were convicted before the database began are still not on it. All we get from the policing Minister is the charge that the Government's proposals might lead to some convictions, but what about all the convictions that are not taking place because the Government have not introduced an effective system for catching up with people who are convicted, who should be on the database and whose presence on it has the support of every political party?

The effectiveness of the DNA database as a tool for fighting crime is without any doubt whatever. It is important; the police want it; we support it. It is telling that the database is, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch pointed out, clearly set at a point of diminishing returns.

Mr. Hogg rose-

Chris Huhne: I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in a few moments.

The increase in the database is not leading to a corresponding increase in the number of crimes solved. In fact, there has been an enormous increase in the number of profiles held on the database from 2.1 million in 2002 to 5.6 million last year, but the number of detected crimes for which a DNA match was available-never mind whether or not it was pivotal in securing a conviction, which I suspect the right hon. and learned Gentleman is about to raise in his intervention-has fallen from 21,098 to 17,614 last year. Where is the proportionality called for by the European Court in this random accretion and increase in the DNA database coupled with a falling effectiveness and diminishing returns?

Mr. Hogg: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the proposition that because DNA provides such an important and effective detective tool, it is also in itself a deterrent in that almost any crime involving the physical presence of a person at a scene or someone coming into contact with another person will leave DNA? Is that not a deterrent to the commission of crime as well as a detective tool in the event that crime is committed?

Chris Huhne: Of course it is a deterrent, and of course any crime scene will be searched for DNA, which will automatically go on to the database and be used as
8 Mar 2010 : Column 52
part of the investigation. We entirely support that. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point is similar to a point made by the Minister earlier. The Minister said that as long as one single case was brought to justice, such action would surely be regarded as sensible. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, that is not a requirement in law. The law requires, and the European Court has spelt out, that measures taken by the state should be proportionate to the objectives of the state and the protection of the public.

Many years ago, before 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, I visited the Soviet union. An elderly lady would note all the times at which I went into or left my hotel room. If any member of the Soviet Government at the time had been asked whether that was a proportionate use of scrutiny, the response would have been that those with nothing to hide had nothing to fear, but I do not think-and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees-that we want such an intrusive state. It is simply not appropriate for the state randomly to acquire samples, and then profiles, of something as sensitive and as potentially intrusive into privacy as DNA on the basis of an arrest which may not lead to a conviction, as the person concerned may be entirely innocent.

The evidence provided by the Government to support the retention of the DNA of all innocent people for six years is an embarrassment to statistical science. The so-called evidence in the consultation paper was based on an extremely small sample of research carried out by the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, which its own director later noted was incomplete and based on data to which the institute was not given direct access. Further criticism came from none other than Professor Sheila Bird, a vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, who said that the consultation had damaged public trust in statistics and misled the House. The Home Office really has a lot to answer for.

More recently, confusion seems to have reigned across all fronts. Numbers have been flying around in connection with examples which the Government say prove beyond doubt that the DNA of innocent people should be kept for six years. The Home Secretary tells us that in 36 cases the DNA of innocent people not convicted of any crime was pivotal to the solving of cases involving serious violence and sexual offences. On 19 February I tabled a parliamentary question asking for the details of these cases, but, nearly a month later, I have still not received a response. If the evidence was so fantastically compelling, why on earth is the Home Office unable to provide a written parliamentary answer giving the details?

Some consultation seems to be taking place among the officials. I certainly hope that it is, because in my view it is rather important for parliamentary questions to be answered in advance of debates on legislation. It is a dereliction of duty for the Home Office not to come up with an answer. One would have thought that the Home Secretary would be more than willing to share the information, given that he quotes that figure at every available opportunity. What is the reason for his sudden reluctance?

We have received letters from the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism claiming to list five cases, but the number turned out to be only four owing to double counting. Another case, that of rapist Jeremiah Sheridan, has been cited by none other than the Prime
8 Mar 2010 : Column 53
Minister. In that case, DNA taken following Mr. Sheridan's arrest for a minor offence in 2005 was later matched to crime-scene DNA from an offence committed in 1991. Nothing in my party's proposals would prevent that from happening. Under our scheme, Mr. Sheridan's DNA would have been taken at arrest in 2005 and held on the database until the decision was made not to proceed any further. During that time, officers would have been free to check his DNA for matches against cold-case samples held on the database. A match would have been made, and the original 1991 case would have been solved.

The really shocking aspect of the case of Mr. Sheridan is that the original cold-case DNA sample from 1991 was not uploaded to the database until a staggering 16 years later, in 2007, at which point it was matched to Mr. Sheridan's. The failing here would not have been to have removed Mr. Sheridan's DNA from the database when he was not convicted of a crime; rather, it was to wait 16 years to run the cold case data against the information on the database. I do not want to go over any more individual cases-as I have said, the enumeration of them has been singularly lacking from Justice Ministers and from the Home Department-save to say that of the millions of crimes committed each year, the Government struggled to come up with even five concrete examples to support their case.

Of more concern in terms of the evidence the Home Secretary recently told us was being peer reviewed is the Government's constant conflation of re-arrest rates and conviction rates. I am not going to labour this point, because the hon. Member for Hornchurch made it very tellingly; I simply say that I entirely agree with his comments. The Government have come up with no evidence to convince me, and no evidence that should convince this House, that six years is a proportionate or necessary length of time to retain the DNA data of an innocent person, nor do I believe for an instant that the European Court of Human Rights will be persuaded. Were this sorry piece of legislation finally to reach the statute book, I believe it would be overturned again. Despite the positive aspects of the Bill-the latterly introduced measure to provide compensation to the victims of overseas terrorist offences, for example-Liberal Democrat Members cannot support these proposals, which loom so large over the remainder of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I rise to speak to my Committee's report on this part of the Bill and the amendments in my name that have been tabled on behalf of that Committee.

We have had extensive correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Minister and his predecessors on the retention of DNA, most recently, of course, in light of the Marper case. It might be useful to remind Members of what the Grand Chamber said in that case, because that is the test the Government have to meet in how they approach this issue. The court said that

That is the test laid down by the Grand Chamber, and the real question for us today is whether the Government's proposals meet it.

I am concerned that in the Public Bill Committee the Minister said that the Government would consider the judgment and that the question is now

That implies a desire to push against the Grand Chamber judgment, and to see just how far the Government can go. That inevitably risks both future litigation if we are right up against the borderline-or, potentially, on the wrong side of it-and impacting unfairly, unjustly and unlawfully on the rights of many of our fellow citizens if their DNA is retained in circumstances that the Grand Chamber would not find acceptable.

We certainly welcome the Government's decision to respond swiftly to the judgment in the Marper case, and the proposed scheme reduces the likelihood of DNA samples and profiles being retained in a manner that is incompatible, but we are concerned that proposals for retention, in respect of people who are arrested but not charged or convicted, on the basis of a blanket retention period remain disproportionate and potentially arbitrary.

I am particularly concerned about the question of stigma, which the Government seem to discount, but the Grand Chamber thought was rather important:

was an important factor. The Grand Chamber said that

5 pm

I think that is important, because about 18 months ago one of my constituents, the mother of Robert Chong, came to see me after her son had committed suicide in July 2008 because of the shame of being put on the database after he was falsely accused of exposing himself to a woman. A cursory check of the CCTV tapes would have demonstrated his innocence; his only interaction with the woman had been when she swore at him on a station concourse. The impact on Mr. Chong was severe-his mother described it to me in some detail. He became withdrawn and he told his mother:

Eventually, he committed suicide. Whatever we do today will not resolve that particular case, because he is dead as a result of what happened in relation to DNA retention.

However, the case demonstrates how important the issue of stigma can be if we underestimate what we should do to try to put these things right. That is particularly the case in relation to children. We have
8 Mar 2010 : Column 55
separate provisions for them, but the provisions create significant risks of disproportionality. For example, a child convicted of two offences of shoplifting or minor criminal damage at the age of 11 or 12 could have his or her DNA profile retained indefinitely, and that cannot be right. The Government have a particular responsibility to justify the taking and retention of DNA samples and profiles from children. My Committee's view was that, in the absence of further evidence to support the Government's position, the proposed retention periods for the DNA profiles of children may be disproportionate and inconsistent with the requirements of the UN convention on the rights of the child.

My Committee is also concerned about the position on the DNA samples of innocent people arrested in connection with minor offences, because the Government make no distinction between arrests for minor and more serious offences. Our view is that the evidence is insufficiently robust to support the Government's contention. We noted the Council of Europe's recommendation, which indicates that the retention of DNA samples and profiles will be proportionate-even after conviction-only in the cases of more serious offences. We also noted that the research cited by the Government relates to conviction data and not to the likelihood that a person arrested in connection with a serious crime might subsequently be convicted of another offence of that type. Thus, there is no correlation in the evidence so far between the two-I think that that was the point being made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). Although the Government's research supports the public protection argument for keeping more people's details on the database, it does not illustrate that the interference posed to individual rights is proportionate and necessary.

My Committee found it disappointing that the Government have chosen not to draw any distinction between arrests in connection with serious violent and sexual offences, and those in connection with less serious offences. Under the Bill, an individual arrested in connection with the investigation of a minor criminal damage or public order offence will be treated in the same manner as an individual who is charged but not convicted in relation to a serious violent or sexual offence. We consider that that failure is likely to increase the likelihood that the proposals will be considered disproportionate and incompatible when the inevitable challenge later appears.

My Committee was particularly concerned about the provisions in relation to national security, which go way beyond what we think to be appropriate-they go beyond the six-year period. Where a chief constable thinks that something has a national security implication, even when the six-year period has expired the DNA can still be retained, and that can be done without notifying the individual concerned that it is being retained. Our first concern is that there is no definition of what national security is in these circumstances, so my amendment 33 tries to set out what a definition of national security considerations should be. In addition, no provision is made for any oversight of a decision by the chief constable on this matter. My Committee recommends that oversight should be carried out by the Information Commissioner and a DNA reviewer, in the same way that there is a reviewer on counter-terrorism matters, in the form of Lord Carlile, to examine retention that is carried out for the purposes of national security.

8 Mar 2010 : Column 56

We also need to address the oversight of retention decisions. The exceptional cases procedure is in place, under which, if it appears to a chief officer that certain criteria are fulfilled, for example that the arrest was unlawful, that it had been carried out on the basis of mistaken identity, that samples had been taken unlawfully or that any other relevant circumstances applied, the DNA record should be removed. However, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recommended that

The Government take the view that judicial review would be a sufficient remedy for that, as they always seem to in this sort of case. Generally speaking, these cases will be very fact-specific.

We note from the case of Tsfayo against the UK that in those circumstances judicial review could not resolve a lack of independence. Our view, therefore, is that there has to be a statutory form of appeal should a chief constable not accept that a case falls within those exceptional criteria. I propose an amendment on behalf of my Committee to provide for an appeal to the Information Commissioner and, ultimately, to the Information Tribunal.

Overall, in light of our conclusions, we remain concerned that the Government's proposals risk being indiscriminate and disproportionate. Without further concrete evidence to support the Government's argument for a blanket six-year single retention period, there is a real risk that these provisions will lead to further judgments finding the UK in violation of the right to respect for private life. In our view, there are various approaches that could comply with the Marper judgment-for example, the Scottish model, which was described earlier-but we are very concerned that the proposals before us simply do not meet the requirements of the European Court.

Mr. Hogg: This whole question raises some very troubling issues. It is one about which reasonable-minded people can differ quite dramatically. There is a division of opinion. On the one hand-this is the minority view to which I subscribe-DNA is an enormously important deterrent and detective tool, and that being so there is a strong case for a national database including all citizens. On the other hand, there is the view that it is a monstrous and serious intrusion into privacy, and therefore unacceptable. That is an argument that has to be taken into account even if one personally disagrees with it.

I think that we can all agree with the general proposition that DNA taken from crime samples should be retained indefinitely. That goes without saying and is very important. The question that should concern the House is the extent to which the DNA should be retained of persons who have come into the criminal network but who have not been convicted of serious crimes. That seems to me the central issue that the House should be considering.

At this point one is rather driven to first principles. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is not in his place because he raised rhetorically the perfectly proper question whether it would be right to have a national database embracing the DNA of everybody. That question needs to be considered; it has been articulated by very senior Law Lords in the past. I can speak only for myself. I hope that the House will accept that I am, generally speaking, on the liberal wing in these arguments. Speaking absolutely personally, I would have no objection to my DNA being on a database, albeit I have not been convicted of a criminal offence.

Next Section Index Home Page