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Serious Convictions (DNA Evidence)

Volume 490: debated on Monday 23 March 2009

3. How many convictions for serious crimes were secured on the basis of evidence from DNA samples in the last 12 months. (264797)

6. What estimate she has made of the number of convictions for serious crimes which relied on evidence from DNA samples retained on the national DNA database in the last 12 months. (264800)

The national DNA database plays a key role in catching criminals, including many years after they might think that they have got away with their crime, eliminating the innocent from investigations, and focusing the direction of inquiries. In 2007-08, 17,614 crimes were detected in which a DNA match was available. Those included 83 homicides and 184 rapes. In addition, there were a further 15,420 detections resulting from the original case involving the DNA match. Those occur when, for example, a suspect, on being presented with DNA evidence linking him to one offence, confesses to further offences.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The high figures that she quotes show how valuable DNA can be in both solving crimes and ensuring that the innocent do not suffer. I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who are concerned that cleared suspects’ DNA evidence is still held on police databases, however, despite that having been ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. What action does she plan on that matter?

The specific ruling was on a blanket policy of retention of the fingerprints and DNA of those who had been arrested but not convicted, or against whom no further action was being taken. The Court also indicated that it agreed with the Government that the retention of fingerprint and DNA data

“pursues the legitimate purpose of the detection, and therefore, prevention of crime”.

We are, however, looking at the key point in the judgment, and drawing up proposals that will remove the blanket retention policy. We will bring forward those proposals for consultation soon.

Although I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that the database is a breakthrough in modern policing in the country, does she also agree that young people, and particularly children, need to be dealt with sensitively?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is why I announced in December our intention to remove all those aged under 10 from the database. That has now been carried out. When we bring forward proposals to change the blanket approach to retention, we will give particular consideration to those aged under 18, and to how the protection of the public can be balanced with fairness to the individual.

There will be considerable relief about the fact that the Home Secretary is going to end this blanket policy, but can she assure the House that there will not be so many exceptions to the rule as to make the change worthless?

I can, I hope, assure the House that that is the case, and we will ensure that we discuss the details of our proposals with colleagues in all parts of the House.

The report published today by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the proliferation of 46 Government databases, including the DNA database, makes alarming reading. It suggests that a quarter of those databases are illegal under human rights or data protection law. What assessment has the Home Secretary made of the legality of the databases, and will she undertake a full review to ensure that they are proportionate and protect privacy?

I believe that the databases referred to which are my responsibility are fully legal. I have repeated today that, notwithstanding the case of S and Marper, the courts found that the function of the DNA database in those circumstances was legal and important. Of course we need to maintain a proportionate approach to the way in which we use data to safeguard and protect the British public. That is what I spelt out very clearly that I would do in a speech that I made before Christmas, that is what we are doing, and that is what we are in the process of ensuring that we do through our proposals and consultation.

When compiling my recent parliamentary report, I issued a questionnaire asking people in Bridgend whether they supported the development of a national database. Of those who responded, 89 per cent. supported it. However, the questionnaire also asked whether the details of people who had been found innocent should be kept on the database. In this instance, 59 per cent. thought that those details should be removed, while 41 per cent. felt that they should be retained. There seems to be a lack of clarity in regard to the implications of the retaining of databases—

I am, Mr. Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a clear dialogue with the public about the use of the national database in solving not just current crimes, but old crimes?

I agree that we need to be open about how we proceed with our proposals. I have been very clear about that. However, I am sure that people in my hon. Friend’s constituency would be interested to hear of cases such as that of Abdul Azad, who was arrested for violent disorder at his Birmingham home in February 2005. A DNA sample was taken, and he was subsequently released without charge. In July that year, a stranger rape occurred in Stafford, 25 miles away. There were no clues until skin from beneath the victim’s fingernails was profiled and found to match the DNA taken from Azad. The senior investigating officer commented that

“we would never have caught him had his DNA not already been on the database—he didn’t even live locally so we had no intelligence leads either”.

Azad was jailed for six years for sexual assault.

What does the Secretary of State say to Mr. Daniel Baker, a constituent of mine who was a victim of mistaken identity? He was never charged with any crime and is entirely innocent, but the police are retaining his DNA against his wishes. When will the Secretary of State start recognising the liberties of the individual, and stop regarding everyone in the country as a suspect?

I think that the case study that I cited a minute ago identified some of the important benefits of DNA retention. There are real-life cases in which people have been made safer by the retention of DNA post-arrest. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent can apply to the police force, in exceptional circumstances. That is why I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will look closely at our proposals for a more proportionate way of dealing with the retention policy.

While I recognise the merit of what has been said by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), was it not DNA evidence that led to the release last week of someone who had been wrongly convicted of murder, and who had served 27 years in prison? So much for the point made at the beginning of Question Time by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper).

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The case of Mr. Hodgson last week demonstrates how the DNA database and the use of DNA can prove people innocent after a period of time, and also how it can ensure both that innocent people are removed from an investigation at an early stage so that they receive justice, and that important police resources are not used up on false investigations or investigations that will not come to a conclusion. Those hon. Members—they are largely on the Opposition Benches—who throw up their hands in outrage at the idea of the DNA database need to have a sensible answer as to how we will make up for the difference made each month when more than 3,000 matches on the database provide the police with the ability to investigate and bring to justice criminals, including some who are convicted of the most serious offences in this country. Opposition Members may for political reasons want to throw that opportunity away, but I do not think the British people want to see that protection done away with.

This is a very straightforward and simple issue. It is, right now, illegal to store the DNA of innocent people over long periods on the DNA database, but as of today, the Government are still doing that. Why?

I have made it very clear to the hon. Gentleman that we have looked in detail at the judgment in the case of S and Marper and we will bring forward proposals very soon—and when we do so, I hope that Opposition Members will engage with them with slightly more sophistication than they have done today.

But this is illegal now, today. Furthermore, it is a principle in our society that people are innocent until proven guilty. This Government have a habit of throwing away many principles in this society, but that is one that should be sacrosanct. In the case of the DNA database, however, they appear happy to abandon the principle. They are also happy to store the data of babies and children. Their actions are clearly morally and legally wrong. Why will they not just stop keeping this data illegally, right now, today? Why will they not stop now?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a period of time during which, quite rightly and reasonably—not least given that the Government’s approach to the retention of data was upheld in the UK courts—there is consideration and proposals are brought forward. That is what the Government are doing, and he obviously was not listening when I said that no DNA of children under the age of 10 is kept on DNA databases now.

Does not the Home Secretary agree that there is a distinction to be drawn between people who have come under reasonable suspicion but for one reason or another are not prosecuted, and instances such as the one we heard about earlier from the Opposition Benches, in which there is a clear case of mistaken identity? Nobody suggests that the other police records of suspects, such as interviews and evidence, should be destroyed just because the suspect is not charged. Does she not agree that a reasonable course of action would be to have an independent body—not the police—that can be appealed to and which can see whether there is a clear case of mistaken identity and whether the person’s DNA ought to be removed?

My hon. Friend is engaging seriously with the difficult issues involved in this debate. It is important to put it on record that the entry of a profile on the DNA database does not cause any detriment to an individual in seeking to do a particular job or looking for clearance for anything, for example. In that way, it is very different from having a police record. I think people are sometimes unclear about that distinction. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the blanket approach taken to retention. That is why in the consultation and proposals we will bring forward, we will look at a system of stepping down individuals over time in terms of the retention of their profile, and a differentiated approach, possibly based on age, risk or the nature of the offence involved.