Gene watchdog attacks Straw's DNA crackdown

Patrick Wintour, chief political correspondent
Friday 6 April 2001, The Guardian

Jack Straw's plans to keep the personal DNA samples of millions of British citizens acquitted of any offence have been attacked by the government's own human genetics commission. The commission, which was set up to advise on genetics policy but was not formally consulted about the proposals by the home secretary, is seeking changes before the radical measures become law.

The commission's chairwoman, Lady Kennedy, a Labour peer and lawyer, warned that plans for the police to keep samples of suspects found innocent is "a frightening move to a national database".

She said: "Being on a database of potential offenders which might be regularly trawled by the police means that, in a very important sense, one is on a list of suspects and that surely very subtly alters the way in which the state sees and the way in which we see our fellow citizens."

She suggested such a course would be seen as "a major erosion of presumption of trust which which exists between us and the state". She also warned the plan may be in breach of the European convention on human rights.

Members of the commission believe that an independent body, as opposed to the police, should oversee the samples.

The plan to keep DNA samples of anyone picked up by the police on suspicion of an offence is contained in the criminal justice and police bill, which has still to be considered by the Lords. The measure has the strong support of Tony Blair, and will be a key plank of Labour's manifesto if the measure does not reach the statue book before the election.

Police regard DNA samples as the biggest technological breakthrough of recent years in their battle to identify criminals. But some commission board members fear that the database could be used to predict a tendency towards criminality.

The commission, which is undertaking a wider review on the storage of genetic information, has found that Mr Straw's plans go much further than most European countries.

Lady Kennedy would personally like to see only those convicted of a serious crime included on the database. She said suspects found innocent should be entitled to apply for their sample to be removed after a period of time.

She added: "If there is one thing which the Alder Hey inquiry and its counterpart in Scotland have shown it is that people have very strong feelings about their own tissue and members of their family."

A Mori survey for the commission found 98% supported DNA samples being kept of anyone found guilty of murder. The figure dropped to 46% support for keeping DNA samples of someone acquitted of a crime.

The police DNA database already contains profiles of 900,000 individuals and 100,000 scenes of crime, with the numbers are growing at between 25,000 and 30,000 a month.

• A £90m boost was announced yesterday for law enforcement agencies to break up the networks of illegal people smugglers and drug traffickers over the next three years. The extra money will be used to improve the "strategic and tactical" intelligence capabilities of the agencies which include MI5 and MI6, the national crime squad and customs and excise.



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