GeneWatch PR: GeneWatch response to new proposals for police retention of DNA in Scotland.

Monday 22nd May 2006

Today, GeneWatch UK responded to a proposed amendment to the Police Bill in Scotland which would expand police powers to retain DNA in specific circumstances (1). Currently, DNA can be retained only when a person has been convicted of an offence. Both DNA profiles (the string of numbers used for identification purposes) and DNA samples, which contain more sensitive genetic information, are retained. Although the amendment expands police powers to keep DNA it attempts to balance crime detection with the need to protect privacy and rights. The amendment will be voted on by the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.

"The Scottish Parliament is taking a much more thoughtful approach than was the case at Westminster", said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "The amendment recognises that there may be some carefully justified exceptions where the police could benefit from keeping some DNA profiles longer on the Database. However, a longer term debate is also needed about additional safeguards, including destruction of DNA samples which are not needed for identification purposes".

The new amendment would allow DNA to be retained from some people charged with but not convicted of violent or sexual offences for 3 years, after which the police must apply to a Sheriff if they want to keep the DNA sample and information longer.

Two other proposed amendments which would allow DNA to be taken from children accused of sexual offences and kept permanently are opposed by GeneWatch.

"There may be grounds to take DNA from children in some circumstances but these proposals provide no time limits on how long the police can keep this highly sensitive information or how it can be used" said Dr Wallace.

"Other safeguards are still missing from Scottish legislation, including restrictions on the use of retained DNA. Tight restrictions are important because in England and Wales the DNA Database has been used for controversial genetic research without consent. Many people convicted of relatively minor offences in Scotland will still be kept on the Database for life and we would like to see time limits on retention except for the most serious offences".

GeneWatch UK recognises that DNA can play an important part in criminal investigations. However, stricter controls on DNA databases are needed to protect privacy and maintain public trust, including:

  • the destruction of individuals' DNA samples once the DNA profiles used for identification purposes have been obtained;
  • a publicly debated policy which sets time limits on retention of individuals' records on the Database, depending on the nature of their offence;
  • stricter controls on uses of the Database, including an end to genetic research without consent and more independent oversight.

The National DNA Database in England currently contains DNA profiles from people arrested in Scotland, England and Wales: however profiles from Scotland are removed if a person is acquitted. In England and Wales, more than 100,000 adults and 24,000 children who have never been convicted of any offence now have their DNA permanently retained. An amendment aiming to bring Scotland into line with the law south of the border failed to obtain support at a meeting of the Justice 2 Committee in March after concerns were expressed by members of all parties (2). This amendment, which is opposed by GeneWatch, has also been resubmitted.

In England and Wales, permanent retention of all DNA taken on arrest for virtually all offences was adopted without public consultation during a late amendment to a bill in the first week of the Iraq war. The likelihood of detecting a crime using DNA has not increased despite a massive expansion in the size of the DNA Database (3). Public trust in the Database has suffered, with more people seeking removal of their own or their children's DNA, and a substantial drop in the number of people volunteering for their DNA to go on the Database (4).

"The lesson from England and Wales is that blanket permanent retention of DNA from innocent people does little to solve crime and instead reduces public trust in police use of DNA", said Dr Wallace.

For further information contact:

Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK: 01298-871898 (office); 07903-311584.

Notes for editors:

  1. Four amendments to the Police Bill have been submitted by Labour MSP Paul Martin.
    • Amendment 207 expands police powers to retain DNA in some specific circumstances.
    • Amendment 206 attempts to bring Scottish law into line with England and Wales and to keep all DNA taken on arrest permanently: this amendment has previously been rejected by the Justice 2 Committee.
    • Amendments 204 and 205 expand police powers to take DNA from children accused or convicted of sexual offences: neither has any provision for subsequent removal of records or destruction of DNA.
    • The amendments are available on: .
  2. The Committee's discussion of Amendment 148 is available on: . (Col 2181 to 2190, towards the end of the document).
    The latest SPICe briefing summarizing the issues is available on:
  3. "The DNA Expansion Programme: Reporting Real Achievement?" by GeneWatch UK is available on: .
  4. Guidance on DNA removal issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in January 2006 states that there is an increase in the number of requests being made to Chief Constables for removal of DNA:
    According to the Home Office (9 May 2006 : Hansard Column 199W): 12,095 volunteer samples were loaded on the National DNA Database in 2004-05, 3,953 in 2005-06, and 135 have been loaded since 1 April 2006.

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