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National DNA Database

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2009

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

I am very grateful indeed to have the opportunity to debate the issue of the national DNA database in this House of Commons. One of the reasons I am so grateful is that I will be contending that although the project has extraordinary implications—both for criminal justice, privacy and science—it has never been subject to a proper parliamentary debate.

The DNA database is an extraordinary innovation, which has emerged sideways and incrementally, without the full glare of parliamentary scrutiny, yet we have the biggest DNA database per head of population in the world. It is extraordinary that a project with such ramifications has not had the parliamentary scrutiny that it deserves, although an excellent report that touched on the issue was published by the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is under the distinguished chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I hope that we will be hearing from my distinguished colleague later in the debate.

The police do an extraordinarily difficult job. Public fear of crime has never been higher and all of us, as elected representatives, must take seriously public fears of crime and the rise in some sorts of crime, such as violent or sexual crime, particularly in many of our big cities. No one feels more strongly about the matter than I do, because I represent Hackney in the east end of London, where, sadly, we do see such crimes.

Of course, if somebody is proven guilty in a court of law, no one objects to their DNA being kept in principle. The issue is the indiscriminate collection of innocent people’s DNA. I spell that out right at the beginning because, sadly, when Ministers talk about the DNA database, they tend to merge and elide innocent and guilty people. It is almost as if the Government have a third category: rather than someone being wholly innocent, they might be not really innocent. As a Parliament, we must stand firm on one of the oldest British traditions: innocent until proven guilty.

Having spoken about the importance of what the police do and our support for the police, the problem with indiscriminately collecting the DNA of innocent people is the very serious possibility that that will undermine the community’s confidence in the police and harm community and police relations. The Home Affairs Committee pointed to that in its report on this and related matters.

Is the situation not even worse, as some people in the community think that the police are making arrests when they would not do so otherwise, in order to collect DNA from people who will almost certainly be proven innocent?

That is a very important point. It is alarming if innocent people are being harassed and arrested when, at the end of the day, the police do not think that a successful prosecution can be brought and the purpose is merely to increase the size of the DNA database. I will touch on some of the cases I have dealt with in which it was very clear that there was no possibility of arrest, but the police refused to release the DNA.

Of course, when talking about the indiscriminate collection of DNA, one must make the point that 77 per cent. of young black men aged 16 to 35 are on the database. As somebody who has been in politics—political activity—for more years than I care to remember, and who has campaigned against the unfair use of stop and search, I believe that we cannot pass over that subject. Even though it might seem like a useful administrative procedure for stopping young black boys willy-nilly to get their DNA, people have a highly developed sense of fairness, and if they think they are being stopped and searched unfairly, or that their DNA is being taken unfairly and there is no possibility of a successful prosecution, it cannot help confidence in the police generally or police-community relations.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on initiating this important debate. Does she consider that profiling is acceptable under any circumstances?

If profiling means that someone will make assumptions about a person’s criminality or the sort of crime they might be about to commit or that they have committed on the basis of their skin colour, no. There is such a thing as scientific profiling, but the broad-brush profiling whereby a black teenage boy will be stopped in an Oxford street store as they go through the door, which has happened to my friends’ children and to my son, does not help anyone and does not help to solve crime.

Let me just give a brief overview of the introduction of the DNA database to this country, because it is so much a part of criminal justice that many people do not know how relatively recently it was introduced. During the early 1980s, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys was working on a scientific basis for DNA fingerprinting. Ten years later, the DNA database was set up based on DNA fingerprinting technology that was invented by Professor Jeffreys. Since the beginning in 1995—not even 20 years ago—more than 5 million DNA profiles have been collected and are currently being kept. Prior to 2001, DNA that was collected from individuals who were arrested was destroyed on acquittal. However, in May 2001, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was amended to permit DNA to be kept on the database—it did not mandate that DNA be kept on the database. The difference between something being permitted and being mandated is a point to which I will return, because I think that the police have got confused between the two issues.

My hon. Friend mentioned the 5 million figure. Some 800,000 of those live in the midlands. At an indie band concert at The Oak in Burntwood, Staffordshire just 2 weeks ago, the band were wrongfully arrested. Police helicopters, dogs and a whole panoply of things were used, the band were taken into custody for having a gun—so a CCTV officer said—and their DNA was taken. However, under pressure from the media and the general public, Staffordshire police promised to delete that DNA and remove it from the database. There is inconsistency here, because the Government say that they will remove DNA from the database after six years, but local police forces will remove it rather earlier when they are under pressure.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. My argument is not that there should not be a database, or even that, under certain specific circumstances, the DNA of innocent people should not be kept. The problem is the chaos and the lack of a system. The people to whom my hon. Friend referred got their DNA removed almost immediately. I am working with completely innocent people who have waited years and years to get their DNA removed because, as I say, the Metropolitan police seem to labour under the idea that keeping such DNA is mandatory rather than being a matter of their discretion.

In fact, there is more than confusion about the matter. The Government cannot rely on the fact that chief constables may at their discretion remove innocent people’s DNA, because some chief constables have a different policy from others. In Essex, I have not been able to get a single innocent person’s DNA removed from the database. That is unfair, discriminatory and arbitrary. The Government cannot hide behind the discretion of chief constables; they must act to resolve the problem.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have an arbitrary, discriminatory system. Yet, Ministers—later in my remarks I shall quote from letters I have received from Ministers—seek to hide behind the discretion of chief constables. The Government have to intervene, and there must be a proper framework.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), Members have pressed Ministers—not necessarily to interfere with the discretion, but at the very least to issue guidance. It is possible for Ministers to issue guidance and for Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, Denis O’Connor, to say to chief constables, “When people write in, at the very least write back,” because one of the problems is that they just do not reply. If we get that customer service sorted out, it could actually improve the system.

My right hon. Friend is, as ever, both a philosopher and intensely practical. If the service offered to people to try to remove their DNA from a database was more efficient and less arbitrary, and if there were guidelines, much of the unhappiness would be removed.

Some people get their DNA removed from a database in weeks or months; some people wait years and are still waiting to have their DNA removed at the whim, in a way, of different police forces. That cannot be fair, it is not regarded as fair and it feeds a distrust of the whole system. That is unfortunate, because a database of guilty people and perhaps some innocent people, whose DNA would only be collected under very specific conditions, serves an important purpose in fighting crime.

I referred earlier to legislation in 2001 to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. That amendment permitted DNA to be kept on the database. However, even when the issue was discussed in the House during debates on that legislation, many Members felt that not enough time had been given to scrutinise it, which, sadly, is not an uncommon occurrence.

In 2004, PACE was amended again, to enable the police to take the fingerprints and DNA of anyone aged 10 or over who is arrested for a recordable offence. Later, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 made all offences arrestable, which had the side effect of vastly increasing the number of people who could go on a DNA database automatically.

Therefore, the database has grown neither through an act of will of Parliament nor through a coherent discussion about the guidelines, the purpose and the underlying principles—how big it should be, the procedures involved and people’s rights in relation to having their DNA kept by the police. Instead, it has grown incrementally as a result of permissive legislation that was slipped into big, portmanteau criminal justice Bills that were never properly debated in the House at any stage. That is not a satisfactory way to set up the largest DNA database in the world, with so many implications for our civil liberties.

It is possible that the Minister, who is in many ways a very able and sensitive man, will say in his response to the debate that he is concerned to hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but that last year alone almost 20,000 crimes were solved using a DNA match, including 83 killings and 184 rapes, and that the retention of the DNA of innocent people on the database is just an unfortunate and unavoidable cost that must be borne by those people. Would my hon. Friend say that that is sufficient reason?

As always, my hon. Friend displays both his perception and his mastery of the figures. Yes, of course, the Minister will throw at us figures for crimes that have been solved by the use of the DNA database. I conceded that point—that DNA is used to solve crimes—at the beginning of my remarks. However, the question is how many of those crimes were solved by the DNA of innocent people having been kept? Furthermore, if we restricted the collection of DNA from innocent people to certain specific categories of violent and sexual crime, could we not achieve the same results without taking DNA willy-nilly from children under 16 or from people for whom there is no chance of prosecution? Also, I was going to return to Sir Alec Jeffreys, the father of DNA—

The hon. Lady is being extremely generous in giving way and taking interventions. I think that she has probably hit the nail on the head, because surely the problem is that we do not have an adequate scientific basis on which to make such judgments. The fact that in November the Home Secretary had to effect something of a U-turn on DNA suggests that he does not have that evidence either. We have no way of judging whether the Scottish system, which is a far more liberal system than the one in England, is better or worse than the English system, which we are debating today. So, does she not agree that we need to have the evidence base before we start making policy? Unfortunately, we seem to have got it the wrong way round.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course that is the problem. There is very little evidential basis for what the Government are doing. Indeed, I would like to quote Sir Alec Jeffreys, the father of the DNA database, who might be supposed to know more about the science and the statistics of DNA than most people. He entirely dismisses the Home Office argument that keeping the genetic details of everyone, even those acquitted of a crime, helps to solve other crimes. On this issue, he said:

“If you just dumped a few hundred thousand people at random on to the database you’d get the same effect.”

I have had meetings with the Metropolitan police and the people in charge of their database and they admit that they have not done the research to demonstrate a real benefit arising from our system, which is indiscriminate, as opposed to the system that exists in other parts of the British isles.

As has been pointed out already, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are alone in Europe in retaining DNA indefinitely from people of any age for any offence. That is why, as I said earlier, we have the biggest database compared with population size in the world.

As I have said, among the problems with the DNA database is the lack of proper debate and thought about it, the fact that it is arbitrary and the fact that it can be seen as discriminatory. The issue has been raised with me in the past, so this year I have been working with Liberty on a project that tries to help innocent young people who have had their DNA taken and kept by the police to get it taken off the database. That speaks to the arbitrary nature of the decisions that are being made in the police force.

For instance, we are trying to help a young man of 21 with serious learning disability and autism. Prior to his arrest, he had no previous arrests, convictions or cautions. However, he is autistic and has a fascination with trains and women’s shoes. Occasionally, he asks women if he can clean their shoes. On one occasion, the woman he asked consented, but then she thought that he touched the lower part of her leg. He was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault, and was photographed and had his DNA and prints taken. Finally, he was interviewed in the company of his father and it was established that he was non-threatening and autistic. No charges were pressed and yet his DNA has been retained indefinitely.

A teenage boy was in Finsbury park with his friends on bicycles. A robbery took place elsewhere in the park, which is huge. The police obviously swept the park and arrested every young black man in it. The teenage boy was arrested and held in a police station for eight hours. Eventually, he was released without charge and the police confirmed that no further action would be taken against him. Again, he had no previous arrests, convictions or cautions, but the police are holding his DNA indefinitely and resisting any attempts to remove it from the database.

A young girl of 17 was shopping with her mum, who was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting. The girl was told that nothing would happen to her, but she was taken to the police station along with her mum and had her DNA taken, which the Met is sitting on indefinitely.

A teenage boy in Greenwich park was having a water-fight. In another part of Greenwich park—it, too, is a big park—an assault took place. The police swept the park for all young black men. They came to the boy’s house, arrested him, took him to a police station and took his DNA. No further action was taken by the police, but they are still sitting on his DNA indefinitely.

A young girl of 16 was a victim of bullying at school. She and the child bullying her got into a fight and the police were called to the school. The police arrested them both and took DNA from them both. No charges were pressed—it was a schoolgirl fight—but the DNA is being held indefinitely.

A young woman of 25, who had no previous arrests, convictions or cautions, went to Primark to return some goods that she had got the day before. She was wearing—well, there are Members here who obviously shop at Gucci, rather than Primark, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East who would not be seen in Primark.

Harrods—exactly. [Laughter.] The girl went to Primark to return some goods that she had bought the day before. She was also wearing a Primark sweater that she had bought the day before, but she took the precaution of taking the receipt with her to the shop. None the less, she was arrested on suspicion of stealing the sweater that she was wearing. Nobody was interested in the receipt that she had for it, so she was arrested. She was questioned for nine hours and released. The police are holding her DNA indefinitely.

The final case that I will refer to involves two young girls aged 17 and 14. They were at a party in south London and then, at 9 o’clock, they were in the back of a car on their way home. It was a party at Easter, as they were on their Easter holidays from school. The car was stopped by the police and there was a scuffle between the police and the driver. The driver, another boy who was in the front of the car and the two girls were taken to Lewisham police station. Both the young girls, who, as I say, were 17 and 14, were arrested, handcuffed and kept in a cell for hours while they had their DNA taken. No charges were ever brought against the young men. So, in April 2006 I wrote to Chief Superintendent Archie Torrance, the borough commander of Lewisham police, about this incident. It took him a month to write back to me and say that the arresting officers were actually part of the territorial support group and I would have to write to that group.

A few weeks later, I heard from a representative of the territorial support group, who said that he was looking into the matter, and in a few more weeks I got a response. Although the response did not say so explicitly, it gave the clear impression that the keeping of DNA after an arrest for a recordable offence was mandatory and that territorial support had no discretion in the matter, so I wrote to my right hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), the then Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety. He wrote back to me saying that it was a matter for the discretion of the police.

The territorial support group representative then wrote to me again. He claimed that he had never told anyone that it was mandatory, but made no offer to remove the 14-year-old’s DNA from the database. I am not talking about the two boys in the front of the car, although they were innocent; I am talking about a 14-year-old girl who was getting a lift home. She had no previous convictions. Her mum is a sculptor and her dad is an architect. The police refused to remove the DNA from their database.

Finally, in June, I got a reply from the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan):

“Chief Constables retain the discretion to decide whether or not fingerprints and samples will be retained in individual cases although it would be the norm to do so. The matter of discretion is an operational one for the police force involved and not one into which the Home Secretary has any input.”

Ministers are hiding behind chief constables, even though they have not issued guidelines to chief constables, there has never been a debate and there is no procedure or process. A 14-year-old girl with no previous convictions was kept in a cell when she should not have been, and the police do not want to let go of her DNA.

I am fascinated to know what the discretion is based on. Do the police feel that the person might have been involved in a crime before and that they need to check up on them, or are they making a value judgment about the likelihood that the person will commit a crime in future? It seems odd that there is no guidance at all. Surely it is a matter for the Home Secretary. If it is his intention to have a database against which suspected future felons can be checked, that is surely a matter for the Home Office and not for individual police forces and chief constables acting on discretion, which does not appear to be based on anything.

It is based on nothing, and it leads to the sort of inequality between police forces that other hon. Members have referred to.

Is there not a risk, or even a suspicion, that innocent people whose DNA is destroyed or withdrawn are likely to be the offspring of local worthies, but that the DNA of someone from the wrong side of the tracks will stay on the database for a long time?

Precisely, unless there are guidelines, transparency and accountability. Chief constables are doing it at their whim and pleasure.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North completed her letter to me by saying that the Home Secretary has no input into such decisions and that:

“Your constituents should therefore contact the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service and ask if he considers there are sufficiently exceptional circumstances in this case to merit the removal of the DNA profile from the database.”

What could be more exceptional than a 14-year-old girl with no previous convictions who was arrested as part of an incident where no charges were pressed? At that point, two years ago, Ministers seemed to be saying that the onus was on innocent people to show why their DNA should be withdrawn and that that would be the exception rather than the rule, however innocent they were.

As a result of what my hon. Friend has done on the issue—she probably does not know this, as it has not been announced—the Select Committee on Home Affairs decided on Tuesday to hold an inquiry into the DNA database. It would be extremely helpful if she could arrange for some of the people whom she has mentioned with such eloquence to give evidence to the inquiry.

I would be glad to do so. I am pleased to hear that the Select Committee is going to take that action.

In July, the mother of the two girls got a letter from Detective Inspector Tracy Sherman of the Met. It simply rehearsed the legal position under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, saying that the police had the power to do what they did:

“In this case the arrest was lawful and therefore the power to take and retain DNA exists.”

In other words, “We can do it legally, we are doing it and there’s nothing you can do about it.” That was the police position. The onus is on an innocent 14-year-old girl to show that the circumstances merit removal.

Since then, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who was also involved with the family, has written to the Metropolitan police. Earlier this year, I met Gary Pugh, the director of forensic services at the Met, to raise the case again. He wrote to me to say that, in the end, the two girls’ DNA was removed from the database in 2008. It took two years and two MPs. The police tried to hide behind Ministers, and Ministers tried to hide behind chief constables. It was a thoroughly unedifying incident, and it is one of the things that drew me into the issue.

Most importantly, in December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the indefinite retention on the database of the DNA of people who have not been convicted of a crime. I will quote some of what the Court said, because it is important. The Court said that it was

“struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales”,

that the retention of the DNA in question

“fails to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests”

and that the UK Government had

“overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation in this regard”.

The Court further ruled that

“the retention at issue constitutes a disproportionate interference with the applicants’ right to respect for private life and cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society.”

Even if some Home Office Ministers are anti-European, one might expect that such a ruling would bring a blush to their cheeks. Not at all. They waited five months before consulting on their proposals. When they went out to consultation, they got 503 responses from lawyers, police organisations, children’s rights groups and so on. It is interesting that their proposals after consultation are almost exactly the same as the proposals that they put out to consultation in the first place. In other words, Members will be shocked to hear, they took no notice of the consultation. That is rare and unusual where Governments are concerned, so I do not want to shock younger Members unduly.

The Home Secretary’s written statement in November setting out the finalised Home Office plans in response to the ECHR ruling took into account none of the opinions in the consultation. I will not go through the Government’s plans, but I will make one point. The original consultation document contained plans to retain the DNA of under-18s who were arrested but not convicted. We have not had any more information, so I would like to hear what will be done about that group of people.

In conclusion, I draw Parliament’s attention to the views of Sir Alec Jeffreys, the father of DNA. One would expect the father of the science to be in favour of a vast database, of collecting as much DNA from as many people as possible and of the fact that we have the biggest DNA database relative to population in the world. However, he says:

“My view is very clear that if you have been convicted of a crime then you owe it to society to be retained on that database for catching in the future should you reoffend. But the retention of entirely innocent people is a whole different issue. There is a sort of presumption here that if they haven’t committed any crime now, then they will in the future.”

That is this Government’s midway point: not quite innocent and not quite guilty.

Which is not a verdict in the British system. Sir Alec went on to say:

“I have never seen any argument in favour of England, Wales and Northern Ireland being the only countries in the world to retain the DNA of entirely innocent people. There are serious issues of discrimination and stigmatisation of branches of society that are over-represented on the database.”

That is the man who invented the science. He also said that there was a possibility of miscarriages of justice:

“Let’s suggest you have two samples that get swapped, and I stress that the likelihood is very low, but given the huge amount of case work one has to be mindful of the fact that there is not a zero probability, then you may get an error. You may have the wrong profile and come up with the wrong suspect.”

If the ECHR judgment did not bring a blush to Ministers’ cheeks, Sir Alec Jeffrey’s reply to the Government’s response ought to. He said:

“It seems to be about as minimal a response to the European court of human rights judgment as one could conceive. There is a presumption not of innocence but of future guilt here…which I find very disturbing indeed.

I do not see this as balanced and proportionate. It still places England, Wales and Northern Ireland as the only jurisdictions in the world, to my knowledge, to retain such large amounts of innocent DNA information.”

He dismissed the prediction that if the proposals were followed, 4,500 fewer crimes would be detected, which we will no doubt hear from the Minister. He said:

“There is an unspoken assumption in here that these thousands of crimes that will not be detected by not having the DNA will remain undetected and that simply isn’t the case. A significant number of these will be detectable through conventional police work”.

We have the biggest DNA database in relation to population in the world. It is an extraordinary innovation in science, which has consequences for personal intrusion and civil liberties. It is condemned by the man who invented the science, even though one might imagine that he would support the hoovering up of DNA willy-nilly. A European Court judgment has struck down the basis of the Government’s collection of DNA. I put it to the Government that a more serious debate on this issue is long overdue.

I repeat that no one is against collecting the DNA of guilty people; no one is even saying that there are not limited circumstances in which we should keep the DNA of people who have not been convicted, but who have been accused of certain crimes. However, there is no scientific research basis for keeping the DNA of innocent people in the way that the Government have done or the way that they propose to do. That has detrimental effects on community relations.

I, too, commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I have listened carefully to her powerful argument. For some time, she has alluded to Ministers hiding behind the discretionary power of chief constables and to the lack of guidance issued by Ministers. Is she aware of the representative body of chief police officers having requested such guidance from Ministers? I am not. Does she know whether such guidance would be welcomed?

I am not aware that chief constables have requested guidance. However, people not requesting guidance has not stopped the Government from issuing it in the past, whether to official organisations or members of the public. The Government are free with their guidance when it suits them. Chief constables not asking for guidance is not a reason for the Government not to provide it.

In closing, at the least there should be proper guidelines. The Government should rethink their response to the European Court of Human Rights ruling because everybody, including the man who invented the science, thinks that it is wholly inadequate. The Government need a much more balanced approach to the keeping of innocent people’s DNA. They are building up a huge database with no evidentiary basis to show that doing so will help to solve crimes, yet they are doing it in the name of being tough on crime and to outdo other parties. They are not considering the implications for civil liberties and community relations or issues of fairness in public policy. I urge the Government to reconsider before it is too late and to allow Parliament a full debate on the issue.

The Minister, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and I have discussed the DNA database at least five times over the past year, beginning with our consideration of the Policing and Crime Bill at the beginning of the year.

I will summarise the key points, which the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) ably encapsulated. We have the largest DNA database in the world. Approximately a fifth of the people on it—about 1 million people—are innocent, which means that they were never convicted or charged. Many people think that to keep such a large database with so many innocent people on it is simply wrong. The database includes disproportionate numbers of groups such as ethnic minorities, and we have heard examples to illustrate that. It also contains a disproportionate number of children and young people, and people with mental health conditions.

The database criminalises many young people for behaviour that would not have been considered criminal in the past. We have raised cases such as the case of the two children building a den up a cherry tree in debates this year in various Committees. As has been reported in the national press, some police forces, such as Derbyshire, are experimenting with restorative justice, whereby police are urged not to take children through a criminal process—including taking DNA—and give them a criminal record in such circumstances, but to get them to apologise to the person involved, restore the damage if possible or make it up in some other way. Although a few forces are experimenting with that provision, it does not alter the fact that over 12 years, there has been an increasing criminalisation of young people for things that would not have been crimes when we were children.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, the huge DNA database has been accumulated not following a major parliamentary or national debate, but incrementally, without any formal discussion, recognition or acceptance. Over the years, an increasing number of people have expressed concern about that. Most recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it contravenes human rights in various ways. The Government’s first response to that ruling came at the Committee stage of the Policing and Crime Bill in February. At the last minute, after six weeks of intensive and productive debate, they took a blank-cheque approach, saying that if we gave them permission to produce regulations, they would do something about the ruling, but that they would not tell us what the solution was until after the Bill had completed its passage through Parliament. Of course, we all said that that was unacceptable. A few weeks ago, on the last day of the last Session, the Government withdrew that proposal and instead a new Bill was proposed in the Queen’s Speech.

As has been said, nobody doubts that DNA evidence is a major scientific step forward. It provides valuable assistance in the convictions of some criminals and in proving some people innocent. As the Secretary of State pointed out in the Queen’s Speech debate in the House, people who have been in prison for years have been cleared as a result of DNA evidence. Despite its value, we should not overestimate the role of DNA. In a parliamentary answer on 21 October, the Minister stated that in 2008-09, a DNA match had been available in only 0.68 per cent. of cases. That is less than 1 per cent.—it is closer to 0.5 per cent. than to 1 per cent. He also stated:

“It is also important to note that the detections are achieved through integrated criminal investigation, not through DNA alone.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 1538W.]

That means that a percentage of cases even smaller than 0.68 per cent. were solved by DNA alone, because other criminal investigations were under way. An even smaller percentage of cases are solved as a result of people being on the database because they were innocent, rather than being convicted of a crime. We do not know quite how much smaller than 0.68 per cent. that small percentage is, because a lot of the Government’s policy seems to be based on flimsy research and assertion, rather than on detailed evidence. One example of the problem comes from the Jill Dando Institute, on whose work the Government based their initial policy of retaining innocent people’s DNA for six or 12 years, depending on the category of crime for which they were originally questioned, but for which they were never charged or convicted. The institute later said that its research should not have been used, because it was unfinished. Gloria Laycock, the director of the institute, said that Government policy

“should be based on proper analysis and evidence and we did our best to try and produce some in a terribly tiny timeframe, using data we were not given direct access to...That was probably a mistake with hindsight, we should have just said ‘you might as well just stick your finger in the air and think of a number.’”

If that is the research on which Government policy is based, we really have to worry.

As regards the people on the database, we also have the evidence of former chief constable Tony Lake, who used to head the national DNA database board. He said that one of the key problems with policy on this issue is the lack of reliable data on the number and types of crimes that have been directly solved by retaining the DNA profiles of innocent people. He said:

“It is not a straightforward issue because a lot of people who commit the most serious crime and become serial offenders don’t start their criminal careers with serious offences…This is an immensely complex issue which is why I do think there needs to be a very thorough study on offending patterns.”

As we heard in the opening speech, however, the Government seem not to have accumulated this huge database on the basis of detailed research and evidence, and they have rushed to make off-the-cuff responses to the European Court ruling, blank-cheque proposals in the Policing and Crime Bill and now their new proposals, which are essentially a rehash of old ones. There is still no serious systematic research to underpin their policy, which, to many people, is extremely illiberal and a contravention of human rights, as well as criminalising people who should not be criminalised and leading to all sorts of other issues. There is therefore a lack of research on exactly how many cases are solved by DNA alone, and there is a lack of evidence to underpin the Government’s proposals on retaining the DNA of innocent people. That must cast very serious doubt on the Government’s approach to this issue.

We have heard of individual cases from the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington in London, but we all have similar examples from our own constituencies. One constituent of mine was assaulted by a group of youths in Derby. There were lots of witnesses, but he was also arrested. The other youths made counter-charges, even though five of them attacked him. The case was going to court, but in April, my constituent finally heard that it had been dropped. He immediately contacted the police and then the chief constable. He says:

“I requested return of my DNA within 24 hours of being told by the police (April this year) that the case had been dropped.”

He goes on to say that the PC

“told me that it was retained. I then pointed out the ‘Exceptional Circumstances’ ruling”—

it is not really a ruling, but a procedure recommended by the Association of Chief Police Officers—

“and asked how to make an appeal under this procedure. She replied saying that she had forwarded my request to the Professional Standards Department, from whom I would hear shortly.”

That was in April. On 13 November—months later—my constituent told me:

“I never heard a thing”,

and we have heard exactly the same thing in other examples that we have been given. As we have heard, people write to the chief constable and their local police force, but they do not even receive an acknowledgement or a letter saying no—they just do not hear anything.

Just for clarification, I should say that in the case that I mentioned of the indie band The Thirst, the chief constable of Staffordshire, under significant pressure, promised the same weekend to remove the DNA from the database. What concerns many people, however, is the inconsistency of the approach.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.

Last April, my constituent said, “Right, you’ve dropped the case. Can you take my DNA off the database?” He had had no answer by November. A few weeks previously, in early autumn, he says that he had again requested removal and that the PC had again said that she had forwarded his request to the professional standards department. Again, however, there was no further response. My constituent added—this was in evidence that he submitted to Liberty—

“It was after this that I got Paul Holmes to write on my behalf”

to the chief constable. However, we are still not much further forward a few weeks later, in December. My constituent went on to say that the professional standards department

“confirmed that my complaint had been ‘recorded’—but have never responded regarding the request for the return of my DNA nor to give details of how to make a request under the ‘Exceptional Circumstances’”


The exceptional circumstances procedure recommended in ACPO guidelines includes all sorts of grounds on which a chief constable might agree to remove a DNA sample from the database. Those grounds include the fact that a false allegation was made; the subject was unlawfully or wrongly arrested or unlawfully cautioned; the caution was inappropriate; or the subject was unlawfully processed. However, most of those grounds do not touch on the possibility that the subject was actually innocent—that is not one of the reasons given for why the DNA might be removed from the database. As we have heard, however, there are lots of examples of chief constables making different interpretations. When the Secretary of State debated the issue in the Queen’s Speech debate, however, he said that the practice of chief constables would not really change until the Crime and Security Bill had gone through the parliamentary process. Given that we have 70 parliamentary days before a general election must be held, that process is unlikely to reach a full conclusion.

There are therefore lots of problems with the database, including the way in which it has been accumulated, the huge percentage of innocent people on it, the difficulty that innocent people have in getting their DNA removed from it, the lack of clarification, guidance and procedures, the Government’s stonewalling and the lack of a scientific base to underpin the Government’s policies.

Why does all this matter? One argument that we hear is, “If you’ve nothing to fear, you’ve nothing to hide.” One point that that I have raised several times, but which always gets rebutted, is that if we follow through the logic of the Government’s wish to have the largest DNA database in the world—the database contains 1 million innocent people, as well as up to 5 million people with convictions of various kinds—the safest thing would be to record the DNA of everybody in the country. There are problems with such a scheme, such as its sheer size and cost, but that would be the logic of the Government’s wish to have the biggest DNA database possible because the DNA might be useful in dealing with just over 0.5 per cent. of crimes in a given year.

The hon. Gentleman mentions an argument that we often hear—“If you’re innocent, you’ve nothing to fear.” One thing that people have to fear, however, is the number of mistakes on the DNA database. In 2007, the Home Office released figures showing that there were more than 500,000 faults or wrongly recorded names on the database. Furthermore, as I said earlier, as the database gets bigger, the issue of errors will become more important.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is quite correct. One problem with creating a database of the current size, let alone a database for the whole population, is its cost and manageability. The bigger the database gets, however, the more chance there is that mistakes will occur. There is also more chance that that data will leak out. In that respect, we all know the record of large organisations—the Government’s is well known, but other large organisations have similar issues. Recently, people in mobile phone companies were selling data from one company to another. In any large organisation with large amounts of sensitive data, there will be more chance of that data getting lost, being sold or being illegally passed on.

In November, in a report entitled “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?”, the Human Genetics Commission said:

“DNA captures an individual’s very ‘genetic soul’…the most intimate medical data an individual may possess.”

It warned of the dangers of such data being collected in large amounts. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has expressed strong concern that the database shifts the relationship between the citizen and the state to the extent that the state will treat all individuals as potential offenders, rather than as citizens of good will.

On all those grounds, which we have addressed several times this year, but which we will obviously continue to address, I urge the Minister to think again about the rehashed proposals in the Queen’s Speech. I urge him to go back to a proper scientific evaluation of the issue, because former chief constable Tony Lake says that we do not have one, as does the Jill Dando Institute, even though the institute was prayed in aid to support Government policy earlier this year. I urge the Minister to start again.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing the debate. I am only sorry that more hon. Members have not participated, because it is an extremely important debate in setting the framework for the retention of DNA, which is highly sensitive material.

We are talking about some fairly fundamental issues in our democracy: getting the right and proportionate balance; considerations such as people being innocent until proven guilty; the fact that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the Government have yet to respond on the matter of the blanket, indiscriminate approach that has been adopted to date; and the fact that 12 months on from the extremely important judgment in S and Marper, we are no further forward. In that case, the court gave a very clear signal that the Government’s current approach is unlawful, and it remains unlawful to this day.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made some important points about the nature and impact of the Government’s approach, and the fact that disproportionately more black boys are on the DNA database, in comparison with other groups represented in the country’s population. That raises serious issues, including the disproportionate representation of young people generally on the database, and how the database has grown. We have had a sort of mission creep. The hon. Lady described the lack of guidelines for chief constables on removal of DNA from the database, and that point was well made.

I am sorry that I missed the first part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbot).

The hon. Gentleman must be aware, as I am, that the retention of young people’s DNA simply reflects the stop-and-search policies that mean DNA can often be taken, if the person is taken into the police station. Also, a lot of young people are, frankly, almost unaware that they have had their DNA taken, or that it is held in a record. Because of that, they have no idea how to get rid of it, either. It returns to haunt them, often many years later, when they were completely unaware that they had any record against them in the first place.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the consequences of having simply let the database grow without proper debate, a proper statutory framework, or proper consideration of whether we wanted, in the first place, to get to the position we are now in. It has simply happened, rather than our making any conscious decision that we wanted to end up where we are. I shall come on to some comments made in the S and Marper judgment about what the policy framework and intentions were.

On the number of young people, both black and white, whose DNA is on the database, is the hon. Gentleman surprised to know that young people in Hackney have, as young people do, turned the whole thing on its head, and that they now feel that having their DNA taken is a mark of being on the way to becoming a fully-fledged criminal? The problem is that that is just one of a series of signals that society is giving young people in some areas that they are almost doomed to be criminals. That cannot be right. We should be reinforcing the positive, rather than subjecting them to an arbitrary regime that gives them the feeling that they are stigmatised.

The hon. Lady makes a point about unintended consequences, and I do not intend to stray into the wider debate about youth offending and the prevention of crime. However, society must consider some of the messages that are being sent out and how, practically, we can break into generational issues and try to stop what we have described as the conveyor belt to crime.

As to how we have got where we are, the hon. Lady described that quite clearly in recounting her own experience. I was interested to read on her website about the clinic that she set up with Liberty to provide advice to young people whose DNA had been retained by the police. It threw up the issue of inconsistency and the lack of guidance and certainty for those young people—and, as we have heard this afternoon, for the police—about the appropriate course of action. I therefore hope that we shall continue the debate in the weeks ahead, when we reach the detailed consideration of the Crime and Security Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech.

We will need a lot of detailed debate, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be permitted to sit as a member of the Public Bill Committee, to contribute her experience to the scrutiny. The issues that have been raised today are the very ones that we shall need to drill down into, in considering the detail of the Government’s proposals. There has been a shift because of the S and Marper judgment, but I would argue that it has not gone far enough. In attempting to understand the Government’s methodology and approach, we will have an interesting debate. In some ways we are starting that this afternoon, but it will continue. I hope that the continuing debate will be well supported and that hon. Members will participate so that we can get the important scrutiny and valid debate that we need in this place; so that we can get a fair, reasonable and proportionate balance between the interests of the state in preventing crime, and of the individual in terms of privacy and human rights; and so that what Parliament does to reflect the European Court judgment is appropriate.

It was interesting to hear the continuation of the debate that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and I have been having with the Minister. This is possibly the fourth occasion when we have had the pleasure of debating the issues. It is important, because the issues are fundamental to the balance of the society we want to create. The Government and state approach, and the relationship of that to the individual, are starkly brought into focus by the issue of the retention of DNA. Nothing is much more personal than the retention of people’s genetic make-up by the state.

I start in a position of consensus with the Government because I welcome the fact that they have at least acknowledged that the DNA itself—the base material—will be kept for only a limited period. I think that they have said it will be for six months. Therefore, what will be retained on the DNA database will be a profile comprising, effectively, lots of numbers that relate to the DNA that has been taken. At least the Government have accepted that the human material shall be retained only for a limited period. Then we get into the detail of retention of the profile, what the matching of a profile might mean, and whether the retention of that profile itself for the time suggested is appropriate.

The retention of cellular samples is particularly intrusive given the wealth of genetic and health information that they contain. The use of the technology must involve the right balance between the promotion of the wider public interest and public safety and the protection of important private life interests. That is obviously central to this afternoon’s debate. As Professor Jonathan Montgomery, the chair of the Human Genetics Commission, notes:

“DNA evidence plays a significant role in bringing criminals before the courts and securing convictions. But it is not clear how far holding DNA profiles on a central database improves police investigations. We have to strike a proper balance between identifying offenders and protecting privacy, including that of innocent people—we should not compromise that privacy without good reason.”

That is a good description of the focus that is needed in the debate—on those principles that Professor Montgomery identified.

The UK, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington mentioned, has proportionately the largest DNA database in the world. We have approximately 4.3 million profiles. That equates to 10 per cent. of the population of England and Wales, if one breaks it down by the profiles that have been added by police forces in England and Wales. One might have thought that retaining all that data would result in a significant increase in the detection of crime—that, by virtue of the growth in DNA records and the amount of material held, there would be a growth in the number of cases solved, assuming that that is the driving factor. However, the number of DNA detections for 2008-09 is 17,607.

The Minister has argued in the past that the reduction in the number of DNA detections is simply a consequence of a reduction in crime. First, I do not accept that argument. Secondly, even if one did accept it, one would still need to explain why the proportion of crimes detected by DNA has fallen: the figure two years ago was 0.76 per cent., and in the past year it was 0.67 per cent. Similarly, the proportion of crimes detected in which a DNA match was available was 36.5 per cent. two years ago, and 32.4 per cent. last year. Therefore, I do not accept the argument that a reduction in DNA detections is the result of a reduction in crime. So, something is happening here.

I would be interested to know whether the Minister has looked at the situation in Scotland, which operates a different and much narrower system, but where DNA detections are higher than in England and Wales. Questions must be asked about the use of a blanket approach to detect and solve crime and provide safety, because the detection rate—I stand to be challenged on this—seems lower in England and Wales than it is in Scotland. That raises some interesting questions. I do not make that point in a directly partisan way, but if we are trying to use a more evidence-based approach, we need to understand why that system is more effective, as our sole purpose is to detect and solve crime.

I was interested to read the Human Genetics Commission’s recent report, which noted:

“There is insufficient evidence at present to be able to say what use holding DNA profiled from different people is—this evidence is urgently needed to support decisions about the scope of the database”.

I looked at the approach the Government started with, prior to the S and Marper judgment, which obviously still pervades today. It was interesting to note in the judgment that the Government’s policy was described as not depending on innocence or guilt, which is clearly how we understand it.

In a further submission in the course of that case, the Government argued that the fingerprints and samples had been lawfully taken and that their retention is not related to the fact that the people involved were originally suspected of committing a crime,

“the sole reason for their retention being to increase the size and, therefore, the use of the database in identification of offenders in the future.”

If there was a policy of simply growing the database for the sake of it, that is worrying, as we are starting to hear reports—I do not know how grounded they are—of police arresting people, allegedly for the purposes of collecting DNA.

I welcome the fact that the Government, following the S and Marper judgment, appear to have recognised that the Big Brother approach is unacceptable. As a result, we now have the proposals that were originally put forward in the consultation documents published in the summer, as has been mentioned. That was reflected in the Home Secretary’s statement in November, as well as in the Crime and Security Bill, which will have further consideration by the House.

It is odd that we got to that position, because, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield rightly pointed out, we had, during the passage of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 in the previous Session, some heated debates about the fact that the Government originally simply wanted to give a blank cheque and to deal with the matter through statutory instrument and order-making power. That was utterly unacceptable, and I am pleased that they brought forward primary legislation to address the valid and serious concerns of many hon. Members’ about the use of such powers on a matter with such substantive and significant implications for private life.

In his statement on 11 November, the Home Secretary said that, since the publication of the consultation document over the summer, the Home Office had

“sought to further the evidence base through additional research.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2009; Vol. 499, c. 26WS.]

We have heard that the research published alongside the consultation document in the summer was not peer-reviewed, was premature and did not take the correct approach, and I think that the Home Office has accepted that that research did not provide the evidence base it sought to procure.

It would be interesting to hear what further analysis the Government have now undertaken, because I am aware of the document, “DNA retention policy: Re-arrest hazard rate analysis”, which was published alongside the Home Secretary’s statement. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the preparation of that document involved. Is it an internal Home Office document, was there some external work conducted and, if so, who conducted it and was it peer-reviewed? We must know that so that we are not in the situation we were in before in relation to the previous published analysis. What robustness has been attached to the document before us?

The approach the Government have sought to take to justify the six-year period, I understand, is based on that analysis document. The approach they have taken is to try to match arrest rate to arrest rate and provide a graph for how that applies to the population in general. Some interesting points come out of the document published by the Home Office to support its proposals, because it has attached various caveats to the analysis that state that in measuring the graph, to try to support the justification, the lines are measured with some degree of uncertainty. The banding, therefore, has a high potential for error, which is reflected and represented in the document itself. The document states:

“However, it should be remembered that this is an estimated maximum which is based solely on a consideration of relative risks. Other considerations could result in an actual policy which is longer or shorter than six years—the evidence we present in this paper is not able to say what this final decision should be.”

Therefore, in fairness, that document could not be said to be in any way conclusive. Indeed, it suggests that after three years, the sharp dissipation in the hazard curve starts to level off, which supports setting a limit at the three-year point. Interestingly, even when one burrows down into the detail of the evidence document the Home Office published alongside its proposals for a six-year period, one does not find the robustness of approach that might be presented as supporting the Home Office’s case.

We have several questions on the proposals in the Crime and Security Bill, which will be debated by the House in greater detail at a later date. However, before I finish my speech, I have one question for the Minister on the advice and consideration that the Home Office has taken on the legality of the blanket, indiscriminate, six-year period, which would not take into account any specific crime. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has written a letter to the Council of Europe, stating of even the revised proposals:

“This fails to address the Committee’s decision that 6 years for non-serious offences lacks the required level of proportionality. The Commission believes that treating adults in this category the same regardless of type of offence is too indiscriminate and lacks the required level of proportionality. It does not comply with Committee of Ministers Recommendations Rec(92)1.”

It is important to put on the record what consideration the Government have given, even in introducing these proposals, to whether they are compliant with the terms of the European convention on human rights. Indeed, I believe that the Home Secretary’s statement in November implied that there was some question about their compliance. He stated:

“Although the ECHR”—

the European Court of Human Rights—

“suggested that the seriousness of the alleged offence should be a factor in determining what length of retention was proportionate, the best available evidence indicates that the type of offence a person is first arrested for is not a good indicator of the seriousness of offence he might subsequently be arrested for or convicted of in future.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2009; Vol. 499, c. 26WS.]

That statement was made by the Home Secretary.

We can, I am sure, have a detailed discussion about this in future, but it would be interesting to hear responses from the Minister on those specific points. My party takes a different view from the Government on the retention of DNA. We believe that the DNA profiles of those arrested for a crime of violence or a sexual offence could be retained for three years with a potential extension for a further two years if a court was satisfied that that was appropriate. That proportionate approach is similar to the one used in Scotland and was specifically recognised by the European Court in the S and Marper judgment as being compliant with the convention. We believe that it strikes an appropriate balance between the interests of the state in seeking to solve crime and protect the public, and the privacy interests of the individual citizen.

I look forward to continuing this important debate when the Government reintroduce their Crime and Security Bill in the Commons in the new year, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to some of the questions that have been raised this afternoon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this important and timely debate, given the wider debate that is taking place around DNA and the database. She will know that the matter formed part of the Policing and Crime Bill but, unfortunately, not the Policing and Crime Act 2009; however, it will be part of the Crime and Security Bill to be reintroduced shortly in Parliament.

Let me begin with common ground. My hon. Friend and I share the ambition of keeping the right people on the database, but we clearly will not agree on who they are or the best way to achieve that. In the time that I have, I would like to address some of the particular points that have come up, and then address general points in the body of my remarks.

I begin with the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). As the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) said, we have locked horns on this issue many times. As I understand it, the hon. Member for Chesterfield complains about a lack of evidence for the changes that we are proposing, and he hopes that we will come back later with proposals based on better research, yet his party’s policy proposes largely dismantling what today we know as the DNA database. He quotes the police in aid of his argument. I have not heard that argument from many police officers, and I caution him if he believes that that is the case.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the safety and security of the DNA database were particularly ill-judged. The people who keep it safe do a remarkable job. I do not believe that he has any evidence of DNA data somehow being leaked from the database, and the suggestion that dedicated officers who work on the database would be tempted to sell data is as outrageous as it is ill-informed.

Of course, I said no such thing. What I said, in a discussion about the Government following the logic of their arguments and having a DNA database of 60-odd million people, was that the bigger a database gets, the more chance there is, first, of mistakes, and, secondly, of material getting out of the domain where it should be into another domain, as we have seen with many other databases.

The assumption would be that that has already happened and that the problem would get bigger. The other assumption is that we intend to have a universal database, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have assured him on many occasions that that is not the case. The two key words are “balance” and “proportionality”. We need to strike a balance, and when there are various views from different bodies—scientists, the police, victims, Members of Parliament and the general public—the Government have to decide and make a judgment on where the balance actually lies. The difference between the hon. Gentleman and the Government is that we would draw the line in different places.

Let me turn to some of the specific remarks. I promise to come back in the body of my evidence to the general remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, in which she again repeated the suggestion that being on the database somehow means that one is halfway guilty and halfway innocent. Let me remind her that being on the database is proof of neither guilt nor innocence. In this country, the courts decide whether someone is guilty or innocent. However, I accept that for someone who has been arrested—that is the threshold that we use for taking DNA in this country—having their DNA taken may leave them with the impression that somehow they have done wrong even though the courts have not found that.

My hon. Friend talks about stigma attached to the database. He needs to come to one of the advice surgeries that I run for innocent children whose names are on a database. Their anxious parents are very grateful to me, because that is when they hear for the first time that they can even do anything. I see nervous and frightened children who sometimes are not aware that their DNA has been taken for an indefinite period. There may not be a legal stigma, but I tell him that, in the eyes of the young people, parents and other people in the community who have their DNA taken, there is a definite stigma attached to it.

And in the remarks that followed my original point on this, that is exactly what I was saying. I recognise that people may feel that there is a stigma, but I am making the point for the record that it is not the DNA database that finds people guilty or innocent but the courts.

My experience and knowledge of this is that young people are frequently arrested in groups on the streets of any of our cities, particularly in the part of north London that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and I represent. They are questioned, DNA is taken, and they are warned that the DNA will probably be kept for all time. On many occasions, they are not subsequently charged but are let go. Sometimes, the police make the arrests as a way of calming a situation down and diffusing a problem. That may be a reasonable police tactic, but it is not reasonable then to take DNA evidence which is difficult to remove from the database. At a later stage, the young person finds that they are on some kind of list of suspects as far as the police are concerned because there is a DNA record of them.

I disagree with the final point in my hon. Friend’s remarks. Earlier, he spoke about this coming back to haunt people. I hope that people do not go away with the impression that DNA is put to a wider use than its actual purpose. I believe that he is referring to the point about removing DNA from the database and the guidance that is given, which I shall deal with in a moment.

On over-representation on the database of a particular ethnic group—in short, the number of young men on the DNA database—I know that that has been a concern for some time, and I shall address the point in detail, but I wish to respond to a point that was at least alluded to in earlier comments, that somehow there is indiscriminate collection of DNA, as recently headlined in the evidence of one retired police officer. Let me put on the record that both the Home Office and the police have entirely refuted the claims that were made. In fact, in reporting them, even the newspaper distanced itself somewhat from them. Let me quote Chief Constable Chris Sims, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on DNA. He stated:

“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.”

The police going further than they ought to would not simply be about breaking the rules; it would, of course, be tantamount to breaking the law. I will return to proportionality and over-representation, but I wanted to make that point now.

The point about removing people from databases was made forcefully, and as a Member of Parliament I understand people’s ferocity about that. At the moment, removal is at the discretion of chief constables, because they own the data, but in the Crime and Security Bill we are setting out the criteria for removal. Clause 14 will amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and set down not just guidelines, but statutory criteria against which individuals may have their profiles removed. I am happy to go further, and to have a conversation about whether there should be guidelines to be absolutely sure that chief constables know what their responsibilities are in that regard.

Does the Minister anticipate that the new guidelines will include guidelines on whether to take DNA in the first place, particularly of young people who are often brought into custody for a short period? Is it necessary or proportionate to take such DNA samples?

We are verging into territory where we must trust the police’s discretion in many ways. That involves an argument that I want to develop later about what happens when young people come into contact with the criminal justice system, and the police are often at the front line of that. I prefer to deal with that remark then.

I want to return to why we have a DNA database, which we are told is the biggest in the world. Of course, we must be concerned about individual privacy, but the database exists also to provide justice for victims and their families. Without it, thousands of crimes would be unsolved, and many serious and dangerous criminals would be walking our streets. Added to that is the deterrent effect if someone knows that they are on the DNA database and believes that they would be detected if they did something wrong. It can have a deterrent effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington listed a catalogue of all sorts of cases that may give rise to concern. I do not want simply to compare my list against hers, but I want to put on record the importance of the DNA database which, in the words of Chief Constable Sims, helps to detect 40,000 crimes a year. I shall give some brief examples.

Mark Dixie, who murdered Sally Anne Bowman, was convicted as a result of DNA taken after he was arrested following a pub brawl in 2006, and subsequently released without charge. His DNA was found to match a sample found at the scene of Sally Anne’s murder, and he was subsequently charged, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 34 years. When we announced our proposals on DNA, Linda Bowman was reported to have said:

“Before this…announcement, it looked like the police would have to destroy the DNA of anyone cleared of a crime.”

When welcoming our proposals, she said:

“Holding DNA is a deterrent to criminals, right from those committing common assault to savage murders.”

Does the Minister agree that Mark Dixie was not convicted because his DNA was on the database from some years ago when he had not been charged? Nine months after the murder, he was arrested during a pub brawl, and his DNA was taken and run against the national database, so it is not an example of old DNA from an innocent person proving them guilty years later.

Okay. Let me try this example for the hon. Gentleman. Steve Wright murdered five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2003. A DNA sample was taken from him when he was arrested on suspicion of theft. His DNA profile subsequently matched DNA from the body of one of the five women murdered in Ipswich in 2006. Wright was eventually charged with and convicted of the five murders, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the small number of cases in which DNA is appropriate. Let me add significant cases, and let him make his case to the victims’ families, because I assure him that their view is different.

These dramatic cases are all very well and affecting, but the House is waiting to hear from Ministers the statistical basis to prove that keeping innocent people’s DNA solves so many crimes that the balance between privacy and civil liberties needs to be altered in the way the Government are suggesting. The Minister knows that individual cases make hard law.

Let me quote again Chris Sims, chief constable of the west midlands who leads for ACPO on DNA. He said on 10 September that 40,000 crimes are matched every year, that the database is helping to keep us safe, and that reducing the numbers on it will tip the balance towards making people feel less safe. I pray in aid that point, because he is giving the other side of the story.

I will come to the research in a moment. I pray in aid that point simply to show that it is plain common sense that the further we diminish the database, the higher the number of crimes that might otherwise be solved but will not be solved. We must draw a line appropriately.

I am running out of time, so I will not give way.

We must strike a balance, and we consider that our proposals in the Crime and Security Bill do just that. There is a debate about so-called innocence, and I am sure that we will return to that.

We have not plucked the period of six years at random. There is not an enormous amount of evidence out there that we can bring to bear, but nor can the hon. Lady. We commissioned evidence, and we are basing our proposals on that evidence. On the best evidence available to us, six years represents the period for which someone who has been arrested once remains more likely than other members of the public to be arrested again.

In case the hon. Member for Hornchurch wants to point out where that line is drawn, six years is a shorter period, and the period of propensity to reoffend is longer than six years. We believe that it is appropriate to retain material from those who have been arrested, but not subsequently convicted, and that is not unique to this country; it applies in a number of countries throughout Europe. When the European Court of Human Rights considered S and Marper, it noted those systems with approval, and agreed that the state can keep fingerprint and DNA information if it pursues the legitimate purpose of detection and, therefore, prevention of crime. The question is: where is proportionality?

Let me turn briefly to over-representation. The DNA database is not self-populating. Before someone’s profile can be added, that person must have been arrested for a recordable offence, and that arrest must have been necessary in law. That is a significant threshold. The problem is that over-representation of any group in the rest of the criminal justice system is likely to be reflected on the DNA database. Our work to look at over-representation of particular groups in the criminal justice system is particularly important. Just focusing on the DNA database, which is somewhat upstream, is interesting, but the reality is that we need to make changes further downstream. We need to know why certain groups coming into contact with the criminal justice system are being arrested and having their DNA taken, which was the point raised by the hon. Member for Hornchurch.

But not charged. However, if the profiles of those who are arrested but not convicted are not kept, a significant group of people who are statistically more likely than the rest of the population to offend within the following six years will be removed from the database. That is the balance that we must strike between people’s privacy and the right of the rest of society to keep itself and others safe.

Turning to the point about children—the European Court made special reference to children—I want to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that we have taken account of what the Court said. There are different proposals for children—