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Police: DNA Database

Volume 687: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they hold records relating to the ethnicity of those whose DNA is collected for the National DNA Database.

My Lords, the National DNA Database holds records on the ethnic appearance of persons who are arrested and have a DNA sample taken and loaded on to the database. That is a record of arrested persons’ visual appearance based on the judgment of the arresting police officer. It is recorded for police intelligence purposes only, to assist in subsequent identification of the individual.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Last week, speaking in a debate on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, the Minister said:

“I am particularly exercised about disproportionality”.

Some 5 per cent of our population are now on the DNA database, and that includes those whose cases are not proceeded with or who are found to be not guilty.

Does the Minister accept that there is adversarial contact between young black people and the police? After stop and search, nine out of 10 cases are not proceeded with. How does the Minister intend to address that disproportionality, because if we are not careful, three-quarters of the young black population will end up as a profile on the DNA database?

My Lords, I understand the anxiety that the noble Lord raises on the matter. Although I think that the nine out of 10 figure is not accurate, the proportion is still high, which causes us a great deal of concern. He will know that we have a stop and search action team considering the issue and I certainly assure him that I will continue to give the issue my real, focused attention.

My Lords, once someone is on the DNA database, is there any procedure to take him off in the sort of cases talked about by the noble Lord?

My Lords, there is not if the person has been appropriately put on the database; if they have not, an application can be made to take them off. If someone has been properly arrested and the system has gone through as it should, once you are on the database, the data remain there.

My Lords, if a person is arrested in error and those details are taken, is that information properly on the list or not?

My Lords, if there has been an incorrect arrest, an application can be made to the chief constable to consider whether it is appropriate to retain the data and whether someone can come off the register; but if they have been properly arrested and there has been no improper act, the information can stay on the database.

My Lords, if someone has been correctly and properly arrested but is then cleared of the charge, is their name then removed?

My Lords, it is not. One of the things that we did when we changed the law was to enable data to be retained. Noble Lords should know that, as a result of that change, hundreds and thousands of people have been properly identified and prosecuted for some very serious offences indeed.

My Lords, the Minister told me that if a person was arrested in error, the discretion whether to release the name from the list rested with the chief constable. Why is there that discretion? Why cannot the removal be automatic?

My Lords, I will certainly write to the noble Lord. As I understand it, the chief constable would have an opportunity to see whether the arrest was a proper arrest. If he concluded that the person, for whatever reason, had not been properly arrested, he would exercise his discretion. But I am very happy to write to the noble Lord with further clarification of that matter.

My Lords, would not a lot of these problems come into perspective if we encouraged everyone to go on to a voluntary DNA database? It is hard to know why it is such a disadvantage. Anyone who wants my DNA is welcome to have it; I do not have a problem with that. More importantly, it works as a very effective deterrent to people who are thinking of committing violent offences, including rape, because they know that they will be caught if they do so. I am never quite clear why people are so opposed to this.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very powerful point. The DNA database has been very successful in clearing people as well as in identifying them, so it can act both as a shield and as a sword. There have been over 292,000 crime-scene profiles from unsolved crimes on the database, and we have been able to match almost 300,000 crime scenes to persons between 1998 and 2005-06; so it is a very powerful tool to identify accurately those who have committed offences.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how many people have had their DNA removed from the database as a result of being wrongly arrested?

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord that figure. I certainly undertake to look at it, but I am pleased to say that very few people are subsequently found to have been inappropriately arrested.

My Lords, may I say to the Minister—because I do not understand this—that surely a proper arrest is an arrest made in good faith on reasonable suspicion? If it is then found out or decided by a court that the man is innocent and cannot be tried, why then is his DNA not automatically removed? Why is that not a practice, if not a legal requirement?

My Lords, it is because the position used to be that we retained data only if the person was charged, arrested and convicted. We then changed the law to enable us to retain data on arrest because of the validity of having that data to clear individuals who may subsequently be found not to have committed offences and/or to be able to prosecute them accurately. We, together as Parliament, decided that that change was right and proper.