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Take my DNA, please

How I learned to stop worrying and love the police database

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

What are the chances, do you reckon, of my finding a taker for my DNA? I’d like to make the offer on account of the forthcoming (Protection of) Freedoms Bill, which promises to make the police drop the DNA details of roughly a million people from the national database who have never been found guilty of an offence. I’m against, which I know puts me at odds with the mass of right-thinking opinion. From the Daily Mail to Nick Clegg, liberals and libertarians are united in regarding the database as one of the more Big Brotherish manifestations of the state, and its restriction as a return to the spirit of Magna Carta.

I am as fond of the spirit of Magna Carta as the next person, but I’m keener on more fundamental liberties than the right to keep my genetic details to myself. Such as? Well, I rang the Police Federation to ask what the effects would be of dropping a million people from the database. The spokesman said that, because the police would have recourse to a smaller pool of DNA data, a significant number of crimes, including serious crimes, would not be solved, at least not so readily. He didn’t offer a precise figure. But he did point out that since genetic evidence was first used, hundreds of crimes have been solved — and by extension, innocent people absolved — precisely because police had access to the data of people who had been arrested but not convicted.

It is odd that no one talks about this downside. For every Damian Green — the Tory minister whose DNA was removed, to great fanfare, from the database last year, having been put there after his arrest on a nonsensical charge — who approves the measure, there will be scores of individuals who won’t now benefit from the detection and incarceration of real, live criminals.

It may be because of my sex — women tend to be pragmatic about these things, if you don’t count Shami Chakrabarti — but I’d trade the Freedom Bill for the more tangible benefit of having fewer murderers and rapists on the streets. I’ve heard Damian Green wax lyrical about the state retaining innocent people’s DNA. And I do understand that people get arrested all the time on fatuous charges. The database, as Philip Johnston pointed out in the Telegraph, includes details of a grandmother arrested for not returning a football that had bounced into her garden, and a 14-year-old girl who pinged the bra of a classmate. Naturally, they object to their DNA fingerprint being kept along with that of the Yorkshire Ripper.

But if the objection to being put on the database is that it implies guilt by association, why don’t lots of innocent people — me, for instance — volunteer our genetic details to the police so as to make clear it’s not some sort of genetic sin bin? The database would look less like a databank of the criminal classes if it included a few thousand respectable individuals. If the police had recourse to genetic information from people found guilty of offences, people charged in connection with crimes but not found guilty of them, and people who have had no involvement with the justice system at all, being kept on police files would lose some of its stigma and there would be less reason to insist on being removed.

My argument isn’t popular, I grant you. I did a trawl of a random group of distinguished individuals — in short, the drinks party before the Oldie of the Year lunch — and none of them agreed with me. As Bob Marshall-Andrews, distinguished lawyer and, former Labour MP, put it: ‘I don’t trust the state; I just don’t. And after being in parliament for 13 years I trust it even less.’

It is true that idiot reliance on DNA is not good police practice. DNA evidence is not incontrovertible; it can degenerate over time and it can be misused. But allowing for this, DNA remains a very useful resource. The police can, under the provisions of the Freedom Bill, retain the genetic fingerprint of people charged (but not convicted) with serious crimes for five years. Yet it sometimes happens that DNA acquired in connection with some trivial offence enables them to identify a genuinely dangerous criminal. And it happens all the time that guilty people are arrested but not convicted simply because of the incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service, which was ruthlessly exposed in a report by its inspectorate in March last year.

Under the Freedom Bill, the DNA acquired in those cases would be destroyed and it’ll be the victims of crime who will suffer. So, here’s my offer. If I, and a few thousand other pragmatists, offer our DNA to the police, wouldn’t that help decontaminate the brand? Mine’s there for the asking.

I’m as fond of the spirit of the Magna Carta as the next person, but I’m keener on not being murdered

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