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National DNA Database

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will take steps to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on 4 December on the retention of DNA samples of innocent people on the national DNA database.

My Lords, the Government mounted a robust defence before the court and are disappointed by its findings. We continue to believe that DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime and will now carefully consider how best to give effect to the court’s findings. We recognise the importance of the judgment and will publish our responses and a timeline to the court’s findings as soon as possible. At this stage, the existing law on taking and retaining DNA and fingerprints remains in place.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which was not entirely clear to me. I must ask him again whether the Government intend unequivocally to abide by the judgment of the court. What has the Home Office contingency team, which is in place, laid down as a contingency with police forces to remove the DNA of all the innocent people who ask for it to be removed from the database forthwith?

My Lords, the UK Government are bound by international law to comply with the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights was established to protect the interests of us all. However, it will be for the UK Government and Parliament to consider how best to give effect to the judgment. We established a contingency planning group earlier this year to look at the potential implications of a violation judgment. The group has been dealing with a hypothetical situation up until four or five days ago, and it will now focus its planning on the implications of the judgment.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this country should be proud of the fact that we developed DNA technology and probably lead the world in its use? Does he also agree that as well as establishing the guilt of people who are guilty, it also helps to establish the innocence of those who are not guilty, thereby securing justice—which is in everybody’s interests—and upholding human rights, rather than the opposite?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Keeping DNA and fingerprints on the database has no impact on the innocent. It does not affect their employment or travel, unlike arrest, which is looked at. We should be proud of the fact that of the 200,000 DNA profiles that were taken between May 2001, when the Criminal Justice and Police Act was passed, and 2005, 8,500 have been linked with crime- scene profiles involving 14,000 offences, including 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes and so on. We should be proud of our capability, which has now been introduced worldwide.

My Lords, the European Court pointed out that we are alone in Europe in having totally indiscriminate use of this material. It particularly focused on Scotland as an example of good practice. Is there anything to stop the Government implementing the judgment soon by making a remedial order under the Human Rights Act to put English law in the same position as Scottish law?

My Lords, as I stated before, we are now looking at the implications. We will have to come up with an answer to the Committee of Ministers by March 2009. In doing that, we will look at lots of options, and that may be one. One has to remember that the necessary legislation for what we are doing went through Parliament, and the House of Lords upheld the appeal in the S and Marper case. Our policy is aimed at tackling crime and bringing offenders to justice. We will have to look at the full implications of this.

My Lords, would the Minister accept that the amendment put forward by this side of the House during the latter stages of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which was rejected by the other place on privilege grounds, on the DNA database and on statutory guidelines for those who are on it about how they could get off it, anticipated well the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights? Would it not have served the Government better if it had been accepted?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is trying to luff me into a difficult position here yet again. I certainly could not accept that and cannot comment on what the other place said, as it was an issue of privilege.

My Lords, although there may well be a superficial attraction to the argument that a totally innocent person need fear nothing from the retention of his or her DNA sample, the European Court said that the maintaining of such a sample in the case of a person who had not been convicted was disproportionate. With great respect, it seems to me that either we accept that or we fly in the face of that judgment. What attitude are the Government going to take in what seems to me to be such a white-and-black situation?

My Lords, as I hope I made clear, we accept that judgment. We are bound by law to accept it and we do. We now have to look at what measures we take to achieve that. The judgment also recognised what value that procedure had been in arresting and finding guilty some very unpleasant people who would have caused a lot of damage to our society.

My Lords, Section 82 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act only gave the Government power to retain samples indefinitely; it did not oblige them to do so. What instructions have been given to, for example, Special Branch officers who are at present taking samples from innocent British travellers coming through Heathrow and retaining them indefinitely? Will that practice cease?

My Lords, at the risk of being boring, I say again that we are looking at all options. At the moment, however, we remain as is because legislation passed by this House is in place. Until we come up with changes to our recommendations—as I said, we must come up with proposals by March 2009—nothing will change. There are also issues with operational implications. For example, if someone is at this moment being tried for rape and he was caught because of retained samples, will that be allowed to continue? Perhaps we will have to set him free; I do not know. We will have to look at all those issues.