16th July 2006
Today, GeneWatch UK called for people concerned about their DNA being retained by the police to seek removal from the National DNA Database. The call was backed by the civil liberties groups Liberty and Privacy International. A new investigation by GeneWatch and the Observer newspaper has revealed that stored DNA samples are being used for controversial genetic studies of the male Y-chromosome, without the consent of the people involved (1).
"Britain's DNA Database is spiralling out of control," said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "Thousands of innocent people, including children and victims of crime, are taking part in controversial genetic research without their knowledge or consent".
The new GeneWatch briefing includes previously unpublished information about research uses of the police National DNA Database, revealed through Freedom of Information requests. Genetic research on the male Y-chromosome is part of a controversial attempt to predict ethnicity from DNA. This type of research could also inadvertently reveal other genetic characteristics such as a man's risk of infertility. Emails supplied to GeneWatch also show that the commercial company LGC, which analyses some DNA samples for the police, has retained its own "mini-database" of DNA records.
"It is deeply disturbing that companies conducting DNA analysis for the police can keep copies of this sensitive information." said Dr Wallace. "This makes a mockery of claims that access to and uses of the database are tightly restricted and controlled".
At least 19 projects have been approved since 2000. Most of the research was conducted by the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which the Government plans to partially privatise. However, despite numerous requests for information, the list of research projects is still incomplete and, in addition, the decision making process is inadequate and unclear.
In England and Wales, people's DNA is now taken routinely on arrest for any recordable offence (including begging, being drunk and disorderly or taking part in an illegal demonstration) and kept permanently (2). Despite the Database increasing rapidly in size from 2 million to 3 million people between April 2003 and April 2005, there has not been an increase in the number of crimes detected using DNA.(3).
GeneWatch supports the use of DNA in criminal investigations, but wants much stricter controls on the DNA Database, including time limits on how long people’s records are kept; destruction of DNA samples once the DNA profiles used for identification purposes have been obtained from them; and an end to the use of the database for genetic research without consent.
Ministers have stated that the decision whether or not to remove someone from the Database is now at the discretion of the Chief Constable of the police force which took the DNA sample. Therefore, GeneWatch has launched a campaign today to encourage people seek destruction of their records and their samples (4).
"Keeping DNA permanently from innocent people and people convicted of minor offences is an infringement of their rights. There is also no evidence that uncontrolled expansion of the Database is helping to catch criminals. The current system is open to misuse by forensic science companies or by future Governments", said Dr Wallace.
For further information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK: 01298-871898 (office); 07903-311584.
Notes for editors:
(1) The new GeneWatch UK briefing "Using the police National DNA Database – under adequate control?" and the responses to GeneWatch’s Freedom of Information requests are available on: www.genewatch.org .
(2) The law allowing permanent retention of all DNA taken on arrest was adopted after a the Government introduced a late amendment to the Criminal Justice Act during the first week of the Iraq war. It came into force in England and Wales in April 2004. Similar proposals to change the law in Scotland were rejected by the Scottish Parliament in May 2006, after concerns about civil liberties were raised by members of all parties.
(3) GeneWatch UK briefing "The DNA Expansion Programme: reporting real achievement?" February 2006. Available on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/DNAexpansion_brief_final.pdf .
(4) More information is available on www.genewatch.org .