As I mentioned last year, following the victory of the S and Marper case against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Home Office became obliged to remove innocent people from the National DNA Database. Not only then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith showed a lack of interest in doing so, but then this month the for-profit policing organisation ACPO outright instructed Chief Constables in England and Wales not to comply with the ruling. Makes it interesting when Tory shadow cabinet minister Damian Green then finds himself able to be taken off the database:
Damian Green, the Conservative frontbench immigration spokesman whose arrest during a Home Office leaks inquiry sparked a parliamentary storm, has won a four-month battle to have his DNA, fingerprint and police records destroyed.
The Metropolitan police told Green’s lawyers he is to be treated as “an exceptional case”. His DNA sample and fingerprints, taken when he was arrested, will be deleted within “a number of weeks”.
Green last night welcomed the decision “as a small but significant victory for freedom” but asked when DNA samples and profiles of 850,000 other innocent people who had been arrested but never charged would be destroyed.
Now why should a Tory front bencher (likely to be in government in the next 12 months) be able to force the Met to change their position on the DNA database, when so many others can’t? Green has the same question:
The home secretary is dragging his feet in producing even a consultation document in response to the European court’s ruling, which destroys the legal basis of current policy. So the policy, which intrudes on the privacy of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, could remain in place for months.
Britain is at the extreme end of this kind of state intrusion. At the end of September 2008, the national DNA database contained computerised DNA profiles and linked DNA samples from approximately 4.7 million individuals (more than 7% of the UK population). This is a much higher proportion of the population than any other EU or G8 country.
It’s quite unthinkable that the Home Office should so willingly ignore the ECHR’s ruling, although less so for the Association of Chief Police Officers, who contrary to popular belief aren’t even a government body. It might make political sense for both to limit their future embarrassment at a government minister with his DNA on the register, but their compliance with the ECHR ruling should be paramount. It’s a joke, as Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti points out, for decisions about which innocent people get their DNA removed from the database to be determined by whether or not they have an entry in Who’s Who! Liberty’s response has been to begin ‘DNA clinics’ in Hackney alongside local MP Diane Abbott, to begin helping people locally who have had their DNA retained illegally. Liberty says:
“If Damian Green MP can have his DNA destroyed in record time, young people in Hackney should be entitled to the same. Those without a powerful voice are just as innocent, yet the police seem to find their requests for DNA destruction considerably easier to dismiss.”
Forty percent of Britain’s criminals are not on the database but hundreds of thousands of innocent people are. The National DNA database is one of the largest in the world, holding 4.5 million profiles – this includes around 300,000 children and approximately 850,000 innocent people who have never been charged or cautioned.
And Abbott provides an important reminder why it’s important to begin this process in somewhere like her constituency:
[But] as the Home Affairs Select Committee pointed out this month, black men are disproportionately represented on the database. In particular there are tens of thousands of completely innocent young people who have been stigmatised in this way. It is time that the government acted on the ECHR ruling that automatic retention of DNA is wrong. And I am looking forward to working with Liberty to make sure that young people in Hackney who are innocent of any crime can have their DNA taken off the government’s database just like Damian Green”