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DNA Evidence

3.6 p.m.

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Department (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the judgment of the Court of Appeal raises important issues in relation to the use of DNA profiles in evidence. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is considering whether there is a case for amending the existing statutory provisions in Section 64 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. I shall let your Lordships know what conclusion he reaches. We do not feel the need at present to seek advice from the Law Commission on the issue. I am advised that the Attorney-General has been granted leave to appeal the decision of the Court of Appeal and that the appeal is due to be heard on 23rd October 2000.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I have two questions--or perhaps two and a half--for the Minister. However, first I should like to set out the foundation of the questions, namely the nature of the statutory restriction. In a few words, it provides that if a person is acquitted or the case against him is dropped, any fingerprints or DNA samples must be destroyed and that if they are not destroyed, they cannot thereafter be used. My first question is whether the Minister agrees with the Court of Appeal that in the two cases referred to in my question, the result of the statutory restriction was that a person "very probably guilty"--I use the Court of Appeal's words--of a brutal murder and a

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person "very probably guilty" of a rape of the utmost gravity were acquitted. My half question is whether the Minister also agrees that the reverse can happen to an innocent person, who could be found guilty because he was deprived of the ability to use the DNA samples.

My last question is simply whether, in the light of the words of the Court of Appeal and in the light of those two cases and the repercussions in relation to the other cases, the authorities or Parliament wish to revisit Section 64 of the Act. That is not a matter for the court. There can be no doubt as to the serious consequences which justify the course which I have suggested.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have a great deal of respect for the noble and learned Lord but, as this case is still subject to the judicial process, it would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on the wide-ranging issues which the noble and learned Lord has raised in your Lordships' House this afternoon.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I was the Minister who took the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill through your Lordships' House. Does not the fact that dangerous criminals may be released onto our streets and innocent people put into prison unnecessarily as a result of the provision to which the noble and learned Lord referred suggest that it would be a good thing to revisit this question? As referring a matter to the Law Commission is rather like placing a paper boat on the upper waters of the Nile and waiting for its emergence in the Delta, would it not be sensible to reconvene the Criminal Law Revision Committee and refer the matter to that committee?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the case is going to the House of Lords. The concluding sentence of the judgment indicated that Section 64 of PACE could be revisited. As I indicated earlier, that is exactly what Ministers are minded to do. We are looking into the issue as a matter of great urgency. We recognise the fullness of the issues which have been raised this afternoon.

Lord Richard: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he is absolutely right in not commenting on the detail of the case prior to its consideration by the judicial authorities? Does he agree also that this is, perhaps, one of those Questions which is best taken away from Question Time and considered in other ways?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his support.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, in fact the noble and learned Lord and my noble friend are suggesting that this matter should be considered in other fora. But is it not the case that the question to be considered is what the law should be whereas the courts are currently considering what the law is now?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is the point. But it is right as a matter of public policy that we

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should consider those matters for the future. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made that plain.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ME

3.13 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When the Chief Medical Officer's task force on chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis is expected to report.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Chief Medical Officer's working group on CFS/ME is expected to report in the summer of 2001.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. However, is he aware that in the intervening period, there is no consensus on the treatment for ME? More and more cases are coming to my attention every day in which local authorities are invoking Section 47 of the Children Act, which indirectly accuses parents of abusing their children. In fact, it seems that the abuses are on the part of the local authorities. Parents are accused of having Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy. They are hounded into forcing their children to have treatments which make them more sick. Families are cracking up under the strain.

The noble Lord knows that I have already raised this matter in relation to South Wales. I still have not received an answer from the Welsh Office. Will he look into the possibility of holding an inquiry into the way in which local social services departments are handling those children?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am well aware that there is no agreed method of treatment for that condition. That is why the work of the working group is so important and it is right that it is taking time to reach conclusions.

As regards the child protection issues which the noble Countess has raised, it is not appropriate for me to comment on specific cases, but I assure her that the working group is considering the principles involved. It is my hope that good practice guidance will result in improved management and understanding of the circumstances in relation to children.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, in view of the Minister's statement that the working group is to take a year longer than originally expected to reach a conclusion, it seems that further research on this matter will be held up. There is only one piece of research of which I am aware, carried out by the University of Manchester, into the causes of ME and it appears that that will be held up by the delay in the publication of the report. Will the Minister assure the House that research will be commissioned in the

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meantime both by the MRC and the Department of Health, if necessary, so that we can tackle the ME issue rather more urgently than we appear to be doing at present?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it would be wrong to suggest that the working group is taking too long and is being too slow. There are extremely complicated issues. It is well known that there are many differing views about the causes and treatments of that very distressing condition. It is right that the working group should take its time to reach its conclusions.

As regards research, I can tell the noble Lord--and I am happy to write to him with the details--that the NHS Research and Development Programme has supported research projects on CFS/ME to a total cost of £221,000.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in the absence of a known cause for this distressing condition and a diagnostic test for it, clearly more research is needed? Meanwhile, the NHS must focus on making resources available to ensure that that evidence-based treatment which is available, which seems to improve the majority or 75 per cent of patients--namely, cognitive behaviour therapy visited in a cautious way--should be made more freely available.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend has raised a very important point. I acknowledge that that has shown to be an effective treatment in certain cases. But before further guidance is issued to the NHS, it is better to wait for the outcome of the working group's deliberations. Certainly, we should then hope to take forward from the working group any subsequent advice which needed to be made to the NHS about treatment. And if the working group puts forward suggestions for further research, we shall consider those very carefully.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that almost two years ago I raised the question of a particular case in the House with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, when she was the Minister? I was assured at that time that the results of a judgment in the Birmingham courts, which said that the parents were the prime people to give consent to treatment, would be handed down to social services departments.

In view of the length of time that the task force is going to take to respond, will the Minister instruct social services departments to lay off those families and to allow them to treat their children as they wish, instead of forcing them into treatments which do not suit them?

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