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National DNA Database

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

We can tell that the debate is serious because no one is in the Chamber except the Minister and me. That is a good omen that something will happen in the future, which is what I want from the debate.

I want to raise the issue because it is clear that the police and judges in western countries agree that the advent of genetic testing is a revolutionary development, much more so than fingerprinting, which came in at the end of the 19th century. It is impossible now to say that a criminal disappeared without leaving a trace. Even if he or she wore gloves, it would be possible to trace them by using new technology, and I want to explain that point.

Forensic science made that leap forward in 1985 when a British scientist, Alec—now Sir Alec—Jeffreys, of Leicester university, discovered a new way of identifying people within a few hours using the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA for short. I say a few hours, but that took days at the time. The technology is developing all the time. Scene of crime identification—picking up the DNA and identifying the individual—can now be done in a matter of minutes. We are taking this seriously. Britain being ahead in anything these days is good news, and encouraging such a situation underlies this debate.

DNA can be obtained from all sorts of sources: minute specks of blood; single hairs; a trace of saliva left on a cigarette butt; a stamp; a glass; a toothbrush; sweat on clothing; and, more importantly, a tiny drop of a rapist’s sperm. Despite the fact that people think that such things are proof, they just identify that an individual has been at the scene of a crime and do not necessarily mean that the individual is guilty of the crime. Being there does not provide the necessary legal identification.

This is what it is all about. I took this from a member of the Cabinet who had touched a glass of orange and put it down. I purloined the glass and took the DNA off it. I went back to a laboratory that I used to work in and identified that individual. I am sure that I could get £1 million—

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that visual aids are not encouraged in the House? It might be helpful to the Official Report if he described what he is holding.

I am sorry that I have used a visual aid, but I thought that it would help the debate amazingly well.

This is a DNA analysis. I took a small piece of DNA from a glass of orange that somebody held. I broke it up into pieces, and these are those pieces. Each individual has a band pattern—like a bar code in a supermarket, I guess, which identifies a particular object—and this identifies the individual. It tells me so much, but even if The Times offers me £1 million, I will not divulge who the individual is, although it is rather tempting to do so. That is what it is all about. The DNA analysis goes into the computer and a coding relationship is introduced, which allows us to pick something up, identify DNA and match it to what has gone into the computer.

Such evidence has been used very positively not only in this country, where it has been used a great deal, but in the United States. We have been able to look at prisoners there, some of whom—54 to be exact—were on death row, but were innocent of the rapes of which they had been convicted. When there was an identification of sperm found at the scene of the crime, it did not match that of the individual who had been put away, so DNA, which we might call bar coding, identified the fact that those people were innocent. It is extremely important in being able to do that.

An amendment to the law in this country made in 2001 allowed us to take DNA samples from individuals who had not necessarily been charged and had only been cautioned. That enabled us to do this kind of bar coding and put it on a database. Some 3.4 million individuals—a small fraction of the population, but growing all the time—are on a database, which is accessible to many different people.

Is there a benefit in keeping those people on a database? There is a good answer to that from the Home Office, which is true: 8,251 profiles have been matched to 13,749 offences, and they show that some of those individuals whose records have been kept are guilty of previous offences. That is quite a good record and quite enticing in relation to carrying this out.

I am talking about murderers, attempted murderers, rapists and sex offenders, and those figures relate to the national database in 2005. Such cases are often called cold cases in the press—people look back down the line in terms of taking data to see whether there is an association with crime scene data that are being taken up. This is one of the stories. In 1988, two young girls were raped and sexually abused. In 2001, somebody was picked up for shoplifting and their DNA taken. Blow me, it was seen that the DNA was the same as that picked up in the case involving those young women many years before. There are positive stories about what science, technology and DNA profiling have brought to the crime scene.

The Government have invested millions of pounds in the programme and we have increased the size of the database in the last five years. There is no universal demand for this kind of thing to be compulsory and no insistence that we must have a database of everybody in this country, but the issue at the minute is, should we be doing this for everybody? That is a fair question.

If, because of such disparate successes, there is a call for a database to be introduced, we must consider the other side of the argument, and say what problems might arise. In the Queen’s Speech debate—as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I always link up with previous debates—ID cards were discussed. We are not talking about introducing a DNA database for ID cards, but one can see that there might be an argument for doing that in a different political climate. There is no insistence on it at the moment, but it could happen. That worries many people. We live in a world in which people are worried about terrorism, and one can see the justification for such a database. We also live in a world in which people appeal to civil liberties and ask why such DNA information should be held on them.

The DNA information can be used not only to locate someone at a crime scene, but for other matters. The DNA bar coding can tell us whether people have type 1 diabetes, for example. This country is also running what is called a biobank—DNA based, again with bar coding—which tells us what genes we have and what we might die of, whether cancer, diabetes or whatever. That worries many people, and I shall deal with why that is so.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, the father of the industry, has said that the biology used involves about 10 different genetic markers. He says that that is okay at the moment, but that we ought to develop 16 markers to be absolutely sure, because, as use of the technology increases, the problem of mismatching could become greater. He told the Select Committee of which I am Chairman that only one bad mismatch would be needed to destroy not only the industry but the whole culture around what the technology can do. He asked us to hold back and not consider putting everybody on a database at this stage.

Another issue is whether we should be allowed to take DNA from people. I did it surreptitiously by taking somebody’s glass. I did not abuse the person, and I have not revealed who he is—as I said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would never do that. However, one can see how many people could commit abuse by being much more subtle about getting the DNA sample. You will have read about people taking samples from buckets, picking out hairs on documents and so on. That is possible, and dirty tricks can be played. Normally, we do not do that—we take samples of blood, saliva and so on—but one can see how that can be developed, and that worries many people.

The ownership of samples is also an issue. Private companies take such samples and hold them under police jurisdiction, but there is a real risk that others will get their hands on such information. People worry about insurance companies getting DNA profile information, which tells them what diseases or problems a person might have. Who knows what genetics might be able to tell us about the personalities of individuals and so on? Such information could be very interesting to life insurance companies. In the United States, it is estimated that 6 per cent. of employers use genetic tests as part of job selection procedures, to find out what candidates might be afflicted with, and so on. Large databases have developed in the United States through the collection of samples on the basis of finding out who had died in the Vietnamese war, for example. Those contain a lot of information that could be used.

People also worry about the management and oversight of such a database agency. They worry, too, that more black and ethnic community individuals are on the database, and that there is a bias in that regard. People are worried about the way in which samples are taken and the state of the DNA. Questions about the database, its growth and the problem of mismatches to which I referred are raised continually.

Research is showing that DNA can come from different sources. I do not want to get technical, but it can be located in mitochondria—inherited from the mother, for instance. It is possible to discover all sorts of information in that way.

People ask why samples are retained. The Home Office rightly gives the example of “cold cases”, arguing that retained samples make it possible to backtrack and find out what happened years ago, given that people reoffend. Others have said that samples should be retained only in the case of serious and sexual crimes, but there are many other circumstances in which DNA is on the database. We have heard in the Chamber about young people whose DNA is there because they have been impudent, using mobile phones without respect. They have been picked up by the police and not charged, but the legislation allows the DNA to be taken and to lie on the database. That worries people.

There is also the problem of familial searching. The DNA of an individual under suspicion may not be on the database, but if DNA is taken from the scene of the crime the database may contain the DNA of someone who, ostensibly, is a relative of that individual. The individual may then be told “Although your DNA is not on the database, it is very similar to that of your brother”—or sister, or cousin. People may suddenly find that they have cousins, brothers and sisters of whom they have never heard.

I know that if I took DNA samples for everyone in the country, establishing what they believed to be their origins and who their parents were, surprises might well emerge in relation to behavioural patterns. Nevertheless, people are worried, and there will be the odd case that newspapers such as the News of the World would just love to get hold of.

It is not good enough just to say that there should be as much DNA as possible on the database. There must be a real policy on what the database is for, what its limitations are, what it is good for and what it is bad for, and where we are headed. I think that we are drifting around. We have the biggest DNA database in the world, containing DNA from a larger percentage of people than anywhere else, and the DNA of more and more people is going on to it. We must make it clear to the public why we are taking such action, and what the advantages might be. Many people say that there has not been proper consultation with the public, and certainly there has not been a huge debate in Parliament about the new information that is becoming available. As part of the terrorism debate, it is important for us to have a database and to know its purpose.

As for the ethical problems, I have suspicions about ethics. Whenever people want to stop something happening, they form an ethics committee to ensure that it will be difficult for it to happen. It is the fastest-growing industry in the country. I am on five of those committees, and—gosh!—I do not understand ethics or philosophy, but I do understand that DNA technology can be very important.

We have a real problem in British society, which emanates from the debate on this subject. We want to stop terrorism. We want to catch terrorists before events happen. We want to pick up evidence. However, we do not want to abandon some of our principles involving what could be described as civil liberties—giving people the right to a possibility that their data will be removed after a certain time, or in some cases will not even be on the database. I am thinking of some of the so-called problems that people may have caused, such as a one-off incident in which a person abuses another on a phone and is picked up by the police. We must be careful not to act willy-nilly, but to act for the right reasons.

We really do need a proper debate in Parliament; we need to discuss what kind of information we need. It is not just that the newspapers are having a go at it; we need to know what is happening in the context of our politics and our understanding of society. It is not good enough just to say, “Get as many as you can get and put them on the database”.

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

An old alma mater of mine, POST—the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology—has done an excellent report on all this, which has gone out to MPs, so they have been well acquainted with the arguments. Ruth Croxton, supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry, did the analysis. It is an exciting time for us to look at the details of the advantages and disadvantages of the technique and to formulate a rational policy based on good solid evidence, knowledge and experience.

The experience is that different countries do it in different ways. Whenever someone gets in trouble and has problems such as this in the United States, they plead the fourth amendment and nothing happens. We can do better than that. We can have a proper analysis and judgment about the kind of situations where we would want DNA band patterns to be available and to be taken. I ask the Minister to consider a deeper debate on the subject.

I was going to have a drink of water, but I am a bit worried about what might happen to the glass if I did.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate on the national DNA database. As he says, this extremely important, short Adjournment debate gives us the opportunity to discuss the key contribution made by the DNA database to the work of the police and the wider criminal justice system, and the benefits to society as a whole through the detection and prevention of crime. As he says, it gives us the opportunity to think about some of the major issues that arise from the establishment and growth of the national DNA database.

As hon. Members know, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety were able to visit a forensic laboratory in London recently to see at first hand the remarkable contribution that forensic science is now able to make in the prevention and detection of crime. We as a nation can be justifiably proud of that and the United Kingdom is acknowledged as the world leader in the use of DNA technology to assist the police. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North rightly drew attention to the contribution that science makes and to the fact that British science is at the leading edge compared with the rest of the world. We need to pay tribute to the science sector for that.

Hon. Members may have seen about the same time as that visit headlines in the media asking whether we want to be a nation of citizens or suspects. The fact is that simply being on the DNA database does not make anyone a suspect. What makes someone a suspect is if the police match their DNA profile with that found at a crime scene. Therefore, the question should be: do we want to be a nation that catches the people who commit those appalling crimes?

As we have said many times, law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from being on the database. We also need to remember that the database is often effective in eliminating suspects at a very early stage in an inquiry, saving them inconvenience and the police time and resources.

DNA samples retained under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 may be used only for the purposes of prevention and detection of crime, the investigation of an offence, the conduct of a prosecution, or the identification of a deceased person or of the person from whom the body part came. May I try to reassure my hon. Friend? It is unlawful under the Human Tissue Act 2004 to take someone's DNA and to test it without their knowledge. May I also try to assure him about information? Access to information on the database may be made available only to relevant law enforcement agencies. It is not made available to lawyers or insurance companies.

The Government firmly believe that the current powers to take and to retain DNA are proportionate and justified in the interests of preventing and detecting crime. As always, the debate is about individual liberty and public protection, and the balance between the two.

Since the legislation change in 2001 that allowed the police to retain DNA profiles of non-convicted persons, approximately 8,500 profiles of such individuals have been linked with other crime scene stains, including 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 sexual offences and 119 aggravated burglaries. The House might wish to reflect on the figures and ask whether these crimes would still have been detected had the police not had available to them the match between the person’s DNA profile and that found at the scene of the crime.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, Parliament further extended police powers to enable the police to take and retain DNA from persons who have been arrested for a recordable offence and detained in a police station. It is a fact that the police arrest more people than they charge and we do accept that broadening police powers in this way has civil liberty implications. My hon. Friend raised some of them, and if he wishes to meet me, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) to discuss these matters, we would be only too happy to do so to take forward the debate and discussion.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that generous offer and I would be glad to do that. I hope that we can find a way forward to try to get the balance between civil liberties and the essential practices of the Home Office.

I thank my hon. Friend. That shows the importance of Adjournment debates, which give us the opportunity to discuss matters of national importance such as this.

We recognise the civil liberties concerns but we have nevertheless concluded that any intrusion on personal liberty is both necessary and proportionate to the benefits for the victims of crime and society generally in terms of detecting crime and protecting the public against criminals.

The Government have no plans to introduce a universal compulsory or voluntary national DNA database or to seek to obtain a DNA sample from the entire population. To do so would raise significant practical and ethical issues and it is something for which we would need a national debate. It would be extremely expensive and we would have to consider whether this was the most effective way of targeting crime. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

The police may, as part of their investigation of a crime, ask a victim, witness or other persons who perhaps fit a general description of a suspect to provide a DNA sample voluntarily. These profiles are not retained or added to the database unless the person has given their specific written consent for it.

Young persons under 18 who have their DNA on the database have been portrayed in some sections of the media as innocent children. We need to recognise that, sadly, this is not always the case. Under-18s make up approximately 23 per cent. of all arrests and thus a comparable proportion of young person’s profiles on the NDNAD should not be unexpected.

The proportion of white-skinned European and black and ethnic minority people’s DNA profiles on the database closely mirrors the proportion of ethnic groups reported at different stages of the criminal justice process in England and Wales. This suggests that the national DNA database fairly accurately reflects the police processes by which people are brought into the criminal justice system and lawfully sampled under suspicion or arrest for a recordable offence.

The smart crook might pick up other people’s DNA illegally and splash it around at the scene of the crime to confuse. How would my hon. Friend handle that kind of issue?

DNA is only one of the tools by which the police would prosecute, or seek to suggest to the Crown Prosecution Service that somebody should be charged. In most circumstances, they will need corroborating evidence, or they will need to take others factors into account. In such circumstances, one would suppose that the police would do that.

Generally, the use of DNA has proved to be an effective and efficient way for the police to identify those who are responsible for crimes, but one would expect the police to have further evidence to place before the courts. Indeed, our criminal justice system is based on the fact that, whatever a suspected criminal might do, guilt has to be proved in court.

There will inevitably be some cases where persons, juvenile or adult, are arrested but are not charged or convicted, and will want their DNA profile removed from the database. In relation to such cases, chief officers have the operational discretion to remove a DNA profile from the database and destroy the DNA sample. Earlier this year, the Association of Chief Police Officers published a document, “Retention Guidelines”, on exceptional cases. The guidelines make it clear that it is expected that lawfully taken DNA profiles will be removed in exceptional cases only.

Almost every week, the media report on the outcome of criminal cases in which DNA match intelligence has been relied upon or used. On average, the database provides the police with about 3,500 intelligence matches each month, thus enhancing their capacity to detect crime. There were about 45,000 matches in 2005-06; those included 422 homicides, which include murder and manslaughter, 645 rapes, 256 other sexual offences, 1,974 other violent crimes, and more than 9,000 domestic burglary offences. That is significant.

The Government recognise the need for, and are committed to, establishing arrangements for an ethical review of NDNAD policy and decision making through—I hesitate to say this to my hon. Friend, given what he said in his remarks—an ethics group dedicated to the NDNAD. Independent ethical advice and input is necessary to ensure that appropriate account of a wide set of views and protection of individual rights are retained in the decision-making process.

Increasing criminal activity, facilitated by ease of travel and communication, particularly between EU member states, requires an increase in international co-operation to prevent and disrupt such activity. Key to that is ensuring inter-operability of national procedures. That will be achieved by working with our partners in the EU and G8 to ensure common DNA procedures and safeguards. The Government are fully committed to ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in the use of DNA technology.

Is the database available to the French Government, Interpol, the Russian Government, and other such bodies? How freely available is it—or is information released or made available only in specific terms, for an individual case?

From memory, it is available only in individual cases. We have, through Interpol, various guidelines that we use to govern the exchange of information. But clearly, where we get requests, we would want to share DNA information between countries. I ask my hon. Friend to cast his mind back to 1996; a young girl was murdered in a youth hostel in France, and the sharing of DNA information between countries allowed the guilty individual to be detected and brought to justice.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue, but I seem to remember—I hope that he can confirm this—that the whole village or area was “DNA’d” in an effort to find out who the individual might be. Did not everybody rally together to do that? Perhaps there will be such cases in this country, whereby something happens in a village and everybody is asked to do that. Would it be compulsory or voluntary? That is the problem.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, but in the French case to which I referred the DNA profiles were shared internationally. The culprit was actually a Spaniard, who was eventually found in the United States. As I said, there are international agreements and protocols, the purpose of which is to find a way of sharing DNA information that is consistent with the laws of each country. What we do not want to do, however, is to provide automatic access to our database; we want to share it where doing so will prevent or detect crime.

The message that this Government want to send to offenders past, present and future is that science and the law, working together, will bring more offenders to justice. I again thank my hon. Friend for raising what is a hugely important issue for this country as we try to balance public protection against individual liberty, and to bring more criminals to justice. I repeat the offer that I made earlier—I look forward to my hon. Friend’s pursuing these issues further as part of the ongoing debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Ten o’clock.