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The controversies of the DNA database 29, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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Have you noticed a strange number of cases in recent years of old crimes being solved? I confess, I have hunted around for empirical evidence to back up that claim, but I simply can’t remember the names of the cases themselves. Nevertheless, like any good political scientist, I am still totally convinced that my initial notion is true, despite a dearth of evidence supporting it.Such a hypothesis would, however, fit in with the trend in recent years adopted by the UK government of collecting more and more people’s DNA. This elicits predictable responses from predictable people.

The government trot out the usual dynamic and positive adjectives defending their case along with statistics beseeching people to just see sense and eschew the dark side. According to the Government, if you’re against the plan it seems you are just begging for someone’s daughter to get murdered or raped. In an interview with the home affairs select committee, Meg Hillier the Home Office minister employed, to my mind, despicable and childish emotional blackmail to make her point when she said that she “wouldn’t want to be sat in the same room as someone whose family member was murdered, saying we could have prevented this but we didn’t.” The bizarre thing is that she needn‘t use such a distasteful argument. The figures that the Government quote are really quite impressive (but when are they not?). Apparently, DNA evidence has helped to solve 452 murders, 644 rapes, 222 sex offences and 2,000 violent crimes in recent years. Nevertheless, there are no plans for a mandatory nation wide DNA database.

On the other side of the debate you have, among others, Shami Chakrabarti the Director of Liberty.

“At the moment in Britain, if you were arrested of any offence ever, even if you’re never charged or cautioned, you’ll stay on the database forever…where do you draw the line – market manipulation, dropping litter?”

As far as I am concerned, Shami can keep on going: parking violations, not crossing the street at zebra crossings, gratuitously offensive clothing, talking loudly on a mobile on the train … no offence is too small for your DNA to be scooped up and put in the DNA database. I think it is simply irrefutable that were such a database to be mandatory, more crimes would be solved quicker. This is surely an obvious fact which does not need testimony to back it up. If it did, however, look to Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy who arrested necrophiliac Mark Dixie for the murder of Sally Anne Bowman. Cundy was deported from Australia in 1999 and his DNA – as envisaged by the DNA register – would have been on file. However, it was not, and only when he was arrested for being in a pub brawl was his DNA sampled and the case closed. Therefore, as Detective Superintendent Cundy put it, “If there had been a national DNA register, with all its appropriate safeguards, then rather than nine months before Mark Dixie was identified, he could have been identified much sooner.”

However, this is not the real issue with the DNA database, so far as I see it. Indeed, Mrs Chakrabarti is perfectly correct when she asks whether the government is capable of safely storing such critical information about people. Their current record does not inspire confidence. From the loss of personal data of more than 25 million people by the Child Benefit office, to the loss of data regarding 1400 students here in Scotland, there appears to be systematic problems at all levels of the government and its appendages. Indeed, the fact that at present Britain’s DNA database holds the records of around 4-5 million people, making it percentage terms the biggest file of its kind in the world, may well leave people uneasy.

Were these inherent problems to be rectified then a modest expansion of the DNA database would, I imagine, have most people’s support. However, given that such a solution (or at least people’s confidence in it) is far off, if not impossible, it comes down to a judgement call. Perhaps this particular decision would be better informed in light of the case which is about to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2001 an 11 year old boy with no previous warnings or cautions, was arrested for attempted robbery. He was subsequently exonerated and asked for his DNA to be taken off the register. The police refused and their decision was backed up by the High Court in 2002, owing to the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, which allows the police to retain DNA samples, even if the person in question is cleared or indeed never charged in the first place. The boy in question, who is now a teenager, along with another man in a similar situation are currently in the process of bringing their case to the European Court of Human Rights. If they win their case, it is thought that some half a million names would have to be removed from the database.

That seems like a lot to me. Do you think that there is a chance that one of these half a million people is likely to commit a crime at some time in future? Or that someone whose DNA record is deleted in the future because of this change in law, is likely to commit a crime? Would their DNA being on file aid a quicker arrest and prosecution? Does the chance of this scenario coming to fruition outweigh the chance of the government posting their records to God knows where and losing their them? These are personal decisions for which there are, need it be said, no right or wrong answers. My own inclination is to err on the side of caution (my caution that is) and leave the names and records where they are.