The Big Question: Why is Britain’s DNA database the biggest in the world, and is it effective?

Author: Bigel Morris, Deputy Political Editor

Why are we asking this now?

The Home Office has announced a sweeping overhaul of the world’s largest DNA
database, which now contains the genetic profiles of more than five million
Britons. Civil liberties anger has focussed on the inclusion of samples
taken from everyone arrested by police, regardless of whether they have ever
been found guilty of an offence.

Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, said yesterday that the DNA records of
unconvicted adults would in future be removed after six years. An exception
will be made for terror suspects, whose details will remain on record
indefinitely. Data from juveniles cleared of a serious crime will be kept
for three years, or six if they are 16 or 17 years old.

Why has the Home Office changed the rules?

The previous practice had been to retain for life DNA samples from anyone
arrested by police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The European
Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last year condemned the policy as “blanket
and indiscriminate” and demanded a rethink. In Scotland, which escaped
rebuke, samples of people arrested for serious crimes are retained from
three to five years, but DNA profiles taken in more minor investigations are
destroyed.

Ministers initially responded to the Strasbourg judgment by suggesting that
genetic profiles of the innocent would be retained for 12 years where they
had been arrested for serious offences. But the proposal faced defeat in the
House of Lords and yesterday the Government proposed a six-year limit.

Its move marked a minor climbdown, but will do little to allay fears that the
rapid growth of the database is part of the remorseless expansion of the “surveillance
state”.

Why the six-year cut-off period?

Home Office research suggested there was a high risk of someone who is
arrested, but not charged, being picked up by police again within two or
three years. After six years, however, their chance of being re-arrested
appears to be no higher than in the general population.

Mr Johnson said the compromise was “the most proportionate approach to
DNA retention, as well as the most effective way of ensuring the database
continues to help us tackle crime”. He was backed by the Association of
Chief Police Officers, which acknowledged that it was vital the database “retains
the full confidence of the public”. Yesterday, the Government insisted
it believed its proposals were sufficient to meet the ECHR’s judgement.

How many people are on the database?

At the latest count it contained 5.9 million samples from 5.1 million people,
close to one in 10 of the population. The Home Office estimates that up to
one million of the people whose genetic information is stored have never
been convicted of a crime. Under yesterday’s moves, they will be removed
from the database, but with some five million samples it would still far
outstrip any DNA database in the world.

Why do so many names feature?

The database was established in 1995 by Michael Howard, the last Conservative
Home Secretary, but was enthusiastically embraced by his Labour successors.
Seven years ago they gave police the power to take mouth swabs from anyone
they arrested, with the result that Britain today leads the world on DNA
collection ? by a very long way.

Ministers repeatedly argued that its effectiveness in catching offenders
previously beyond the reach of the law outweighed civil liberties
objections. Tony Blair even raised suspicions in 2006 that his government
had designs on creating a universal DNA register, arguing: “The number
on the database should be the maximum number you can get.”

Does the information on the database help to fight crime?

According to one recent estimate, less than one per cent of recorded crime is
solved using the database.

But the Home Office said successful matches had been obtained in 390,000 crime
scenes between April 1998 and September 2008. Last year police achieved
17,614 matches, including investigations into 83 murders and 184 rapes.
Ministers say about 10 per cent of matches for serious offences are with
people without a criminal record. Ministers can point to a series of “cold
case” successes where criminals have been caught because of DNA samples
taken years earlier.

James Lloyd, the “shoe rapist” who preyed on women between 1983 and
1986, was jailed for life 20 years later after a sample was taken from his
sister over a drink-driving offence suggested the attacker was a close
relative. In 2004, brothers Lee and Stephen Ainsby were found guilty of rape
and abduction of a 17-year-old girl nine years earlier. Lee Ainsby had been
arrested for being drunk and disorderly when a DNA sample was taken from
him.

Critics retort that DNA is strictly limited in its effectiveness, with false
matches at crime scenes to passers-by and victims, often because the genetic
material has deteriorated.

Why is there alarm about the database?

In the eyes of opposition parties and civil liberties organisations, the
Government is still failing to acknowledge the fundamental difference
between innocence and guilt. The group Genewatch says almost one million
children have been “criminalised” by having their details added to
the database. They also warn that some 30 per cent of the black population ?
and a much higher proportion of young black men ? have their DNA profile on
record.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “Nobody disputes the
value of DNA and anyone arrested can have a sample taken and compared to
crime scenes. But stockpiling the intimate profiles of millions of innocent
people is an unnecessary recipe for error and abuse.”

The personal impact of being added to the database was illustrated by the
suicide of Robert Chong, 41, a machinist from London, who was falsely
accused of indecent exposure. His mother, Josephine, told The Independent
last year that her son was “traumatised” by the experience. She
said: “Robert thought he was being branded a criminal for absolutely
nothing.”

What happens next?

The Home Office said yesterday that it aimed to modify the operation of the
database as soon as possible, making it clear that it wanted the changes in
place before the general election expected in the spring. Given the state of
the opinion polls, the more relevant question could be the attitude of an
incoming Conservative government.

Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, disclosed yesterday that his party
intended to adopt the system operated in Scotland. “What I don’t think
we should be doing is saying to absolutely everybody who is pulled into a
police station for any reason your DNA will be taken and it’ll be stored
indefinitely, as is the case at the moment or indeed will be stored for up
to six years as the government appear to be proposing,” he said. “One
of the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system is that you are
innocent until proven guilty and I think this actually undermines this
principle.”

Are too many names kept on file?

Yes…

* No other nation holds the genetic details of so many of its citizens. Why
does Britain feel the need?

* It is unfair to keep DNA records of people unlucky enough to be wrongly
arrested

* Whole sections of the population, for example young black men, risk being
criminalised

No…

* Killers and rapists who would otherwise have escaped justice have been
caught

* Innocent people have nothing to fear from being included on the DNA database

* Deleting the records of unconvicted people after six years will stop the
database growing too fast

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