GeneWatch PR: Response to Government DNA proposals

Responding to reports that DNA profiles of innocent people arrested in England, Wales or Northern Ireland would be retained on Britain's National DNA Database for six years after arrest, GeneWatch UK's Director, Dr Helen Wallace said: "The massive expansion of Britain's DNA database has failed to deliver genuine benefits in terms of solving crime, instead eroding public trust in policing. The announcement expected later today is a sign that the Government has lost the capacity to listen to the voices of the people it is supposed to represent".

The reported proposals differ significantly from the law in Scotland because they affect all 986,185 people with records on the DNA Database who have no police record of conviction or caution (1). This is a small retreat from the Home Office's original consultation proposals, which included a longer retention period for DNA profiles of twelve years for some people accused but acquitted of more serious offences. The original proposals were widely criticised as unlawful and based on flawed scientific evidence (2,3).

Home Office figures suggest that testing more DNA from crime scenes has helped to solve more crimes, but massively expanding the number of individuals with records on the database has not. Matches between individuals' stored DNA profiles and DNA profiles from crime scenes include matches with victims and passers-by and false matches which occur by chance, usually when the crime scene DNA has become degraded. The number of false matches is expected to dramatically increase when DNA profiles are compared across the EU, beginning in 2011.

Ministers have continued to cite misleading figures and irrelevant cases to support the retention of innocent people's DNA (4). The DNA database plays no role in miscarriages of justice - such as the Sean Hodgson case - because these depend on the retention of crime scene DNA evidence, not individuals' DNA, which can be collected from them at any time.

"Ministers' claims that their policy has delivered benefits are based on streams of dodgy figures and endless misinformation", said Dr Wallace. "Resources that should have been spent on better policing, including collecting crime scene DNA, have been thrown away. Young black men are the people most likely to be victims of the Government's attack on everybody's rights, and hundreds of thousands of children have been criminalized".

DNA profiles can be used to track individuals and their relatives, and following the adoption of the Crime and Terrorism Act 2008, can be used by the police, security services or secret intelligence service to identify a person, even if they are not under investigation for a crime. Records on the DNA database are linked to police records of arrest, which are now kept until age 100 and can be revealed to employers as a result of an enhanced criminal record check.

The DNA database was first established by the Conservatives in 1995, but was massively expanded by two changes in the law made in 2001 and 2003, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. The changes allowed DNA to be taken on arrest from the age of ten for any 'recordable' offence and kept until age 100, even if the person arrested is not charged or convicted. The Scottish Parliament rejected similar proposals in 2006, and in December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights judged that the approach taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

For further information contact:

Dr Helen Wallace. Office: 01298-24300; Mobile: 07903-311584.

Notes for Editors:

(1) Scottish legislation allows the retention of DNA profiles from a small number of innocent people in cases where a person is arrested for a relevant sexual or violent crime, proceedings are commenced and either dropped or result in a verdict of not guilty. In such cases the profile can be retained for a period of three years. This can be extended for two years on application by the police to a sheriff, with a right of appeal by the individual. At 1 December 2007 there were a total of 440 individuals' DNA profiles held under this legislation.

(2) Critics included scientists, lawyers, children's organizations, black community groups and organisations in Northern Ireland, where the Assembly was not allowed a say in the original decision to expand the database. See: .

(3) The Committee of Ministers, which oversees the implementation of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, also warned in September 2009 that the Home Office's proposals would not meet the requirements of its 2008 judgment:

(4) For example, the convictions of Steve Wright, who murdered five women in Suffolk, and Mark Dixie, who killed Sally Anne Bowman, both highlighted the importance of DNA evidence. However, neither case would have been affected by a decision to remove innocent people's records from the Database.

Wright had a previous conviction for theft and, even if his record had not been on the database, had already been stopped twice by the police before the crime scene DNA profile was obtained. This means he was already a suspect, so his DNA could have been taken by the police even if his record wasn't on the Database. Many crimes involving DNA evidence are of suspects who have already been identified by other means.

Sally Ann Bowman's killer Mark Dixie was not on the DNA Database, however he did have previous convictions which took place before the Database was established. The case was solved when his DNA was taken following a fight in a bar, nearly nine months after the murder. This illustrates the importance of keeping crime scene DNA and of collecting suspects' DNA, but not of keeping innocent people's DNA profiles on the database.

The rape case in which Wendell Baker has been named as an alleged suspect involved a match between his DNA and the DNA from the rape. The match occurred after he had been acquitted for the burglary for which his DNA was taken, when, under the law at that time, his profile should already have been removed from the Database. However, the burglary was committed after the rape and the match could have been obtained lawfully if the DNA in the semen from the rape and his own DNA had both been analysed loaded to the database in the months before his acquittal for the burglary. New procedures requiring prompt analysis mean that mistakes like these are unlikely to occur in future.

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