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UK National DNA Database – what will change?

May 7, 2009

One thing that has struck me recently in the UK has been the sudden increase in the level of defensiveness by New Labour over the surveillance apparatus it has constructed over the last 12 years. Report after report has damned their slapdash attitude to human rights and civil liberties – we expect the government’s official response to the Lords Constitution Committee report next week – and there have been attacks from various political ‘big beasts’ including David Blunkett, former MI5 Chief Stella Rimington, and most recently Stephen Byers and even current cabinet ministers reportedly asked for the ID card scheme to be scrapped.

As a result, there has been a splurge of sudden backtracks, retreats and promises of change and consultation on future plans but there have also been rather devious attempts to avoid taking real action to remedy already existing wrongs. In the first category, we have seen the abandonment of Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, where a an blanket permission for government data-sharing had been hidden, and there have been suggestions that the proposed new super-database of communications traffic data might not be constructed after all – though largely, it seems, on grounds of cost not principle.

However, in the second category, today we got the government’s official responseto the damning ruling by the European Court over the retention of DNA and fingerprint samples and data by the UK police. It is, to put it mildly, a farce, which seems utterly contemptuous of the ruling and reasoning of the court, and shows no sign of understanding the significance of Article 8 for individual liberty. Mind you, it also shows little sign of comprehending the British common law principle of innocent until proven guilty.

The government proposals are to retain the DNA samples and profiles, and fingerprints (these are just as important and not so often mentioned in the news reports) of all those convicted of a crime. Of the innocent, the National DNA Database (NDNAD) has around 350,000+ people who are certainly in such a position, however the police apparently need two years to go through the Police National Computer to check the other 500,000+  DNA profiles of those not convicted of any crime, as they can’t be sure whether existing profiles match to those who have committed offences (so much for joined-up government…).  Then those people, who are, let’s not forget, entirely innocent in law will be sorted into two categories – those arrested but not convicted for serious and violent offences, and those arrested and not convicted of minor offences.

Will the latter have their profiles immediately removed, as we might reasonably expect?

Err, no.

In fact, these innocent people will have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained for 6 years – more than the number of years (5) that Scotland retains the DNA of those suspected of serious and violent offences. Those in the latter category will have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained for 12 years. In addition the profiles of children will be retained until they are 18, and then removed only if they have been arrested (again, not convicted) for one minor offence.

Is this an acceptable response? Quite clearly not. It is against the spirit of the ruling by the European Court, even if it might be interpreted as complying with the exact wording issued. More to the point, it is an attempt to get around the difficult issues, not deal with them. It is devious, based on the pre-emptive logic of risk-surveillance principles, and goes against the long-standing principles of British Common Law as well as more recent developments in Human Rights law, and is not the response of a government that has any trust in the people who elected them. It allows the police to continue to populate the NDNAD by stealth.  And they certainly are using whatever methods they can to do so – for example, one key indicator is the rise in the number of stop and searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which in London, it was also reported today, rose from 72,000 in 2007 to 170,000 in 2008, a rise of 236%, however it rose by 325% amongst the black population. There seems to be no mention of the role that discriminatory stop and search policing plays in populating the NDNAD in recent government statements, however it is quite clear that stop and search policing is discriminatory, and we know too that young black men are disproportionately represented in the NDNAD.

In this climate, with a government obsessed by pre-emptive security to compensate for its growing loss of power and trust, and a police service that appears, after the G20, increasingly out-of-control, what is the chance of developing a fair, accountable, just and transparent system of personal data retention in law enforcement in the UK? At the moment, it could appear, the answer is ‘very small’.

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