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UK: DNA samples of all arrested persons to be taken, despite the failure to remove the records of people which should not be held

As part of the new "modernisation" package for "law and order" Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, announced on 31 August that an extra £107 million was to be made available to ensure that everyone arrested by the police would have DNA samples taken from them which would be stored on the national database (National DNA Database, NDNAD). In a speech to police officers in Kent he said the aim was to raise the number of DNA samples held from 940,000 to 3 million by 2004. This would comprise "almost the whole criminal class in the UK", according to Downing Street. Mr Blair said: "I believe the civil liberties argument is completely misplaced. This is using technology to catch criminals." The extra money is intended to ensure that police forces are not put off taking DNA samples because of the cost said to be £40 each.

However, according to a report prepared for Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) published in July, "Under the Microscope", the estimated true cost of each sample is a minimum of £443. The same report says that the NDNAD held 752,718 samples at the time the study was carried out. But it said that "urgent action" was needed to remove from the national database those who had been arrested but not charged and those who were subsequently acquitted. The report estimated that: "perhaps as many as 50,000 may be being held on the database when they should have been taken off". This estimate is based on a 20% non-conviction rate but the report then admits that in reality the figure "falling within ACPO's CJ sampling guidelines" was "over 45% not convicted" and the overall figure for those charged but not convicted for all offences is 33%. The true figure for the number of DNA samples which should have been removed would therefore not be 50,000 but somewhere between 82,500 and 112,500.

The power to take DNA sample which are termed "non-intimate" derives from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 as amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This allows the police to take, without the consent of the person being held, samples of hair or saliva. Under Home Office Circular 16/95 and the Data Protection Act 1998 police forces are required to notify the NDNAD of all acquittals and "discontinuances" (no charge is made). The report concludes that in the short term forces should comply with the law but that: "perhaps the time has come to revisit the legislation to consider whether all CJ samples.. should be retained on the NDNAD to provide a useful source of intelligence to aid future investigations." (DNA samples are referred to by the police as "Criminal Justice (CJ) samples").

Liberty has commented on the new plan to extend DNA sampling that this will increase the number of samples illegally held and that: "This is a clear breach of privacy for the individuals concerned and Liberty would be very interested in pursuing a judicial review." The Vice-Chair of the Human Genetics Commission, set up to advise the government, questionned whether it was justifiable to take DNA samples from people who had committed minor offences. The Commission, he said, would be consulting the public over the controls necessary to protect civil liberties where a person's details are on a DNA database.

Sources: Guardian, 1 & 2.9.00; Independent, 1.9.00; "Under the Microscope", report for Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, July 2000.