Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Crime Committee)

  1.  The National DNA Database was created on 10th April 1995. The Database is located within the Forensic Science Service Headquarters at Birmingham and is managed on behalf of the Police Service by the Forensic Science Service (FSS). The FSS, as custodian of the Database, is responsible for the maintenance, management and security of it. However, the data held on the Database remains the property of the individual Police Forces within the United Kingdom, which submit samples to it.

  2.  During the early years of the Database, the FSS not only acted as custodian but they were also the single and sole supplier of DNA profiling for the Police Forces in England and Wales. The Scottish Police Forces, utilising their own police forensic laboratories and, subsequently, private sector providers of forensic science (principally the Laboratory of the Government Chemist and Forensic Alliance), have entered the forensic marketplace and now provide DNA profiling for various Police Forces. However, although there are various suppliers of DNA profiling for police, there is only one National DNA Database. After analysis and profiling of the suspect and crime scene samples by the service provider, the DNA profiles are forwarded to the FSS for entry on and search of the National DNA Database.

  3.  The FSS, as Custodian of the National DNA Database, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), covering, inter alia, the management, administration and security of the Database. The Memorandum of Understanding also includes the provisions for removal of profiles from the Database.

  4.  The National DNA Database comprises two discrete segments:

    (i)  a Suspect Database;
    (ii)  a Crime Scene Database.

  5.  The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), as amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, provides a power to take non-intimate DNA samples from all persons suspected of, reported for, charged with, convicted of, or cautioned for, a recordable offence. A "non-intimate DNA sample" essentially comprises a mouth swab or rooted hair (other than pubic hair). A "recordable offence" is any offence for which a person is liable, on conviction, to a term of imprisonment. The legal statutes mentioned above also provide that police may take DNA samples from suspects without their consent, using force where necessary, providing a Superintendent of Police has given authority, in accordance with the provisions of PACE.

  6.  The two segments of the National DNA Database contain the following information:

    (i)  the Suspect Database contains:
      (a)  the DNA profile itself;
      (b)  a unique reference number;
      (c)  an arrest/summons number which provides a link to the Police National Computerised Index of Criminal Records (PHOENIX);
      (d)  the subject's full name, sex, date of birth, ethnic origin;
      (e)  the Police Force and station reference code taking the sample;
      (f)  the name of the specific police officer taking the sample.

    (ii)  the Crime Scene Database contains DNA profiles from samples obtained from crime scenes, including samples taken from the victims of crime (eg rape cases).

  7.  In practice, whenever a new suspect DNA profile or a new crime scene DNA profile is loaded onto the Database, that profile is automatically cross-checked to establish whether or not a match ("hit") results.

  8.  Matches or "hits" fall into three categories:

    (i)  a suspect to scene match;
    (ii)  a scene to scene match;
    (iii)  a suspect to suspect match where a person has given different identification details on different occasions.

  9.  As at 31 August 2000, the National DNA Database contained the following total number of profiles:

    —  suspect profiles: 930,187;
    —  crime scene profiles 88,451.

  10.  The total number of matches or "hits" achieved by the Database since 10 April 1995 is 97,852 comprising:

    —  suspect to scene: 86, 865;
    —  scene to scene: 10,987.

  The matches/"hits" that have been achieved range from hundreds of the most serious offences—murder, manslaughter, rape, etc, to many thousands of volume crimes, eg burglary, car crime, etc.

  11.  The National DNA Database and the use of DNA has been the most significant advance in the use of forensic science by police against crime since the introduction of fingerprints over 100 years ago. It is important to understand that the National DNA Database is an intelligence database. Wherever a match or "hit" is obtained, police must obtain a separate casework sample from a suspect, which is analysed and profiled separately for evidential purposes. It is that sample alone which is used as evidence in any subsequent prosecution.

  12.  It is also important to note that ACPO advice to Forces is that DNA evidence should not be used as the single and sole piece of evidence in any case but rather as an important part of the evidential jigsaw. Wherever possible, Forces are advised to seek corroborative evidence, including witness evidence, circumstantial evidence, other forensic evidence, etc.

  13.  In respect of both its intelligence and evidential value, a DNA profile can be powerful evidence in helping to convict the guilty. Equally, and importantly, it can also positively acquit the innocent. Indeed, there are notable examples where, without DNA evidence, an innocent person might have been convicted for a serious offence.

  14.  DNA evidence, like all other forensic evidence, is evidence of opinion. Police acknowledge that it is crucial that the continuity and integrity of any DNA exhibit from crime scene profile, through the submission process by police to the FSS (or other provider), to analysis and subsequent presentation of evidence at court, needs to be pursued in accordance with the high standards required by the Criminal Justice System. Similar safeguards are necessary for the casework suspect profile.

  15.  Implicit in those safeguards is the need for quality assurance and rigorous monitoring, together with high standards of integrity and security throughout the whole process. Those issues are covered in the Memorandum of Understanding between the FSS and ACPO and in local protocols between Forces and the alternative forensic providers.

  16.  Police fully recognise the sensitivity of maintaining DNA data on individuals on the National DNA Database and we accept the need for high standards of probity/integrity at all stages of the process. That includes the need for DNA profiles to be removed from the Database whenever a person is acquitted in a case for which a DNA suspect sample has been taken or that case is discontinued for whatever reason. Section 64 of PACE makes that a legal requirement and those matters are also specifically covered in the Memorandum of Understanding referred to above. Where a person has been convicted of an offence, his/her DNA profile remains on the National DNA Database until that person dies; the same provision applies as for fingerprints. The principal reasons for that are twofold:

    (i)  the deterrent effect that retaining a person's DNA profile on a Database following conviction may have on the individual;

    (ii)  people commit crimes across a range of different offences in different parts of the country and sometimes many years apart; the retention of a DNA profile is a vital tool to identification if a person re-offends.

  17.  There are many examples of DNA evidence being instrumental in the identification and conviction of persons who have committed serious offences (eg murder and rape) many years ago. Also, our experience has been that people who commit serious crime often start off their criminal careers committing relatively minor offences, including traffic offences. Police research (the CATCHEM Database) illustrates quite clearly, for instance, that those who go on to commit serious sexual offences against children or adults often have previous convictions for very minor offences with a sexual connotation, eg stealing women's panties from washing lines or indecent exposure. The ability to obtain a DNA sample for relatively minor offences, providing they are recordable offences, is a crucial element in helping to prevent and detect more serious crime at a later stage.

  18.  Police also acknowledge the concern that people have about genetic information held on the National DNA Database being misused for purposes other than those for which it is originally gathered and stored. The provisions of the Data Protection Act fully apply to the National DNA Database and it fully conforms to the national strategy for Police Information Systems.

  19.  Police believe that there is wide support for the use of forensic science in the fight against crime. Although not directly connected to the National Database, an important use of DNA in serious crime cases is in intelligence-led/mass screens where, following a serious crime (murder, manslaughter, rape etc) a profile of a potential offender is prepared by police and those who fit the profile, either by reason of age, geographic location, description or criminal propensity, are invited to volunteer DNA samples to assist the police investigation. After profiling, the volunteer's DNA is compared with the specific DNA profile obtained from the crime scene. Such volunteer samples cannot be speculatively searched against the National DNA Database; they can only be used for comparison against the specific crime scene profile and if no match is obtained, they are destroyed.

  20.  In recent years, over 40 serious crimes have been solved as a result of intelligence-led screens using DNA profiling from volunteers. Interestingly, suspects who have been approached on more than one occasion to volunteer samples (eg suspected or convicted paedophiles) following a child murder or other serious sexual offence, have variously queried why their voluntary DNA sample cannot be retained on a Database for future reference even though they have been eliminated from the specific enquiry for which the DNA sample was taken. The law currently does not allow that but it is an illustration that suspects themselves acknowledge the value of DNA profiling in combating crime and rather than be troubled on several occasions to provide volunteer samples, they would prefer police retain their original voluntary sample.

  21.  The Forensic Science Service/ACPO partnership has enabled the UK to lead the world with the National DNA Database. No other country or jurisdiction has had anywhere near the success of this country with such a Database. The principal reasons for that are:

    (i)  the scientific and technical advances, including technology, developed by the FSS and its continuing research and development in this field;

    (ii)  the legal powers available to police which allow non-intimate samples to be taken quickly, easily and at relatively low cost;

    (iii)  the wide range of offences for which the law here allows police to take DNA samples;

    (iv)  the ability to store DNA data and rapidly cross-check it on a national database;

    (v)  the monitoring and quality assurance measures in place to ensure that the integrity of the Database remains sacrosanct.

  22.  The rapid advances in the science of DNA and the technology associated with it indicate that the use of DNA profiling by police in pursuit of criminal justice will increase. Already it is possible to ascertain from a DNA profile the gender and, in many cases, ethnicity of a suspect. Scientific advances will eventually enable DNA analysis to indicate hair colour, eye colour, facial characteristics etc.

  23.  These advances will provide significant additional help to policing, provided the safeguards and quality assurance issues are maintained in the creation, storage, security and presentation of DNA intelligence/evidence.

  24.  Because of the enormous advances in the science of DNA within recent years, the risk of cross contamination at a crime scene has increased significantly. A stray hair, sneeze, other body fluid or fingerprint, all potentially prejudice a crime scene by the cross-contamination of a DNA exhibit. Single cell analysis and vastly improved methods of collecting DNA from a crime scene exacerbate the risk.

  25.  For that reason, earlier this year a third but entirely separate and discrete segment of the National DNA Database was introduced—the Police Elimination Database. That Database currently contains nearly 40,000 DNA profiles from front line police staff who are likely to attend crime scenes and enables rapid elimination of such persons, should innocent contamination occur.

  26.  The value of DNA evidence to police has been recognised by government, which has invested a further £208 million over the next four years, to help police in doubling their current level of DNA sampling, both for suspects and from crime scenes.

  27.  In summary, the use of DNA by police has increased enormously in recent years and will continue to grow. DNA evidence adds a vital additional weapon to the police armoury in the fight against crime. Police fully recognise the need to maintain the integrity of such evidence and the need for high levels of security and probity in dealing with such data.

  28.  Police recognise the Civil Liberty issues involved in the storage of DNA profiles on a database but the crucial fact remains that DNA can positively acquit the innocent, whilst helping to convict the guilty and that fact provides an important balance on such issues.

  29.  Crucially, police use of DNA and the National DNA Database is only for the prevention and detection of crime. It cannot be used by police for any other purpose. In that sense, the social, ethical, legal and economic implications of the National DNA Database should be viewed in the light of its enormous success in helping to prevent and detect crime.

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