The government insisted that the creation of the world’s biggest DNA database was to retain vital information on criminals that would help to secure leads and aid convictions on crimes. Unsurprisingly, even official bodies are questioning whether the database is performing this role. An independent government advisory panel – The Human Genetics Commission – today announced that they have concerns over the unclear nature and practicality of the database. Of the 5 million profiles on record, 1 million are of innocent people. Is this supposed to be a database of offenders, or of the whole of the UK?
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act states that an “arrest must never be used simply because it can be used”. However, evidence given to the HGC review suggests that in some cases, arrests take place simply to get hold of a citizen’s DNA. Giving evidence, a retired senior police officer claimed “It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so. Chairman Jonathan Montgomery remarked “there was some evidence that we received, although it’s hard for us to test, that occasionally people are arrested in order to retain the DNA information even though they might not have been arrested in other circumstances”, and should this be perpetuated it would be of “very great concern”.
The review also raises the problem that the database actually has little “forensic utility”. While it rejects the creation of a nationwide database, it doesn’t call for a curb in scope of the project or the removal of innocent people from the database. This is regrettable. Retaining the DNA of those not convicted creates a class of the ‘semi-innocent’; if you are ‘bad’ enough to be arrested, you are “bad” enough to be considered a potential suspect for all future crimes. The massive overrepresentation of young black males on the database suggests the creation of a group of ‘potential’ criminals, who are arrested more on the assumption they may later commit a crime than any current misdemeanour.
The HGC’s report does however make one particularly important recommendation – that the purpose of the DNA database should be set out and constrained through primary legislation. Parliament has never formally debated the establishment of the national DNA database; it came into being through the amendment of existing legislation on the retention of fingerprints and physical evidence. There is thus no act of Parliament that exclusively or coherently outlines the purpose and scope of the project, and therefore there are no legislated constraints on its expansion. It is essential that if such a heinous contraption must exist, it should receive the official approval approval of our representatives, otherwise its creation is as undemocratic as it is authoritarian. Without the legal jargon to outline the limits of the purpose and function of the database, few safeguards exist to prevent a further ‘function creep’.