UK DNA Database Needs Own Law says Report

November 26, 2009 Updated: November 26, 2009

Senior retired police officer says arrests are made just to get DNA samples


LONDON—Britain’s DNA database was developed piecemeal, and without a specific law binding it, ballooned into the largest such database in the world through "function creep", says a new report.

The five-million-strong database should be governed by a specific act of parliament and supervised by an independent authority, says the report.

The report by the Government's independent advisers on human genetics also quotes an unnamed retired senior police officer as saying that officers are encouraged to make arrests just to get people on the database.

Black men are highly over-represented in the database, as are young people and those with mental health problems, and this inequality poses big questions, says the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) report.

The HGC Chair, Professor Jonathan Montgomery, said in a statement: "Parliament has never formally debated the establishment of the National DNA Database and safeguards around it – it has developed through amendments to laws designed to regulate the taking of fingerprints and physical evidence before DNA profiling was developed.

“In the meantime there has been a steady 'function creep', allowing more and more people’s DNA to be kept, but it is not clear that this is matched by an improvement in securing convictions."

The report calls for a full parliamentary debate on the database and for the creation of new legislation specifically tailored to handle it, together with an independent overseeing body.

Eight per cent of the population are estimated to be on the database. Police take DNA profiles from all those arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, and the DNA profile is kept regardless of whether they are charged or not, or found guilty or not.

In response to the report, Chris Sims, Chief Constable of West Midlands Police said in a statement: “DNA evidence has helped to solve numerous crimes as well as bringing offenders to justice.

“The Government’s Crime and Security Bill will address these issues and the police service welcomes the opportunity to establish some new clarity within which the police service can work.”

The 104-page report, Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?, suggests the popularity of forensic-based TV dramas has contributed to a myth that distorts the real contribution of DNA profiling to crime solving.

The report notes that the efficacy of the database is still in question and does not appear to live up to the claims of its proponents. It cautions against the presumption that DNA profiling is now a key element in crime-fighting. By overemphasising its status, police run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, with policing techniques and the focus of policing being built up around the database, prior to objectively establishing its efficacy, the report says.

A retired senior police officer is quoted in the report as saying: “It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so … It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained: samples can be obtained after arrest but not if there is a report for summons. It matters not, of course, whether the arrest leads to no action, a caution or a charge, because the DNA is kept on the database anyway.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) strenuously denied this. Chief Constable Sims, ACPO’s expert on forensics said:
“The suggestion that using powers of arrest to obtain DNA has become routine policy is plainly wrong. The law around powers of arrest is very clear. Taking a person’s liberty away through arrest is a hugely significant step and it is crucial that the police service acts only according to necessity and is proportionate when doing so.”

The report did not provide further evidence of the claim, but did allude to other changes in policing due to an emphasis on DNA profiling.

“In response to our consultation, Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) told us that it was 'aware of anecdotal evidence that police may drop investigations if DNA evidence is not found at the crime scene'. While it is acknowledged that police forces may, for entirely proper and practical reasons, decide that greater effectiveness and efficiency is to be achieved by directing resources to those cases where DNA evidence is available, Liberty nevertheless comment that doing so 'will necessarily skew any figures which aim to show the number of cases in which DNA is a factor in conviction'.”

The report notes that the arguments in favour of the current DNA database have often drawn on a small number of high-profile often emotionally-charged cases. “Their repetition, constantly recalling them to memory, reinforces attitudes towards them, as if they were new cases,” says the report. It notes that in one policy document from the Home Office, the only quotation – and evidence – about the effectiveness of the DNA database as a deterrent was an emotive statement from the mother of a murdered child.

Some of these high-profile cases used to bolster support for the database have since been shown by organisations such as Liberty, to have not been reliant upon DNA profiling techniques in the first place.
The report says, “The fallacy of drawing general conclusions from individual cases, and the use of rhetorical devices (repetition, appeals to sentiment or to presumed majority views, etc.) to assert or reinforce beliefs, should not replace sound evidence and reasoned argument."

Over-representation of certain groups in the database means people of certain ethnicities or ages are statistically more likely to be convicted of a crime and that this raises important equal opportunities issues, states the report.

“People with mental health conditions are considered much more likely to be arrested by the police and have their DNA taken. Children and young people are also thought more likely than older people to come to the attention of the police."

The report quotes statistics from a recent report for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC):
“By our own calculations, using a range of official statistics, in excess of 30 per cent of all black males are on the NDNAD, compared with about 10 per cent of white males, and 10 per cent of Asian males. Estimates suggest that black men are about four times more likely than white men to have their DNA profiles stored on the police NDNAD.”

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