UK DNA Database Needs Major Legal Overhaul, Report Says

November 26, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
Britain's DNA database grew without proper oversight, becoming an impetus for police to make arrests in order to add samples to it, according to a new report.  (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's DNA database grew without proper oversight, becoming an impetus for police to make arrests in order to add samples to it, according to a new report. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON—Britain’s DNA database, developed piecemeal and outside the strictures of its own law, has ballooned into the largest of its kind in the world through “function creep,” says a new report.

The 104-page report titled “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?” says the five-million-strong database should be governed by a specific act of Parliament and supervised by an independent authority—but it’s not.

Parliament never worked out how the database should be used and safeguarded, and it developed in a largely ad hoc way, according to Professor Jonathan Montgomery, chair of the Human Genetics Commission, which published the report.

There have been various amendments made to various laws to deal the database, bolted onto various other laws but never envisaged to handle something like the DNA database.

“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,” he said.

The report calls for a full parliamentary debate on the database, new legislation, and an independent oversight body.

It quotes a retired senior police officer who says that many police on the front lines arrest people primarily to harvest their DNA, with the profile kept regardless of whether or not they are charged or found guilty, the report says. Now 8 percent of the population is estimated to be on the database.

The authors partly blame the popularity of TV dramas featuring forensic science, saying this has contributed to a distorted perception of the role of DNA profiling in solving crimes.

The report says that the efficacy of the database is still in question, that it does not appear to live up to claims, and that police may become overly reliant on DNA.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) denies this.

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.

The report says that the arguments in favor of the database have often drawn on a small number of high-profile, emotionally-charged cases.

“Their repetition, constantly recalling them to memory, reinforces attitudes towards them, as if they were new cases.”

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 organizations such as Liberty to have not relied on DNA evidence in the first place.

“The fallacy of drawing general conclusions from individual cases, and the use of rhetorical devices … to assert or reinforce beliefs, should not replace sound evidence and reasoned argument,” it says.

Overrepresentation of certain groups in the database raises important equal opportunities issues, the report says.
This includes people with mental health conditions, children, young people, and black people, who are all more likely to be arrested than the rest of the population.

Black men are about four times more likely than white men to have their DNA profiles stored on the police database, the report says.

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