The House of Lords forced another climb-down by the government yesterday by voting to amend the rules for the DNA database to allow innocent people to have their DNA samples destroyed and removed from the database.
The Lords heard that existing guidelines made it all but impossible to get off the database once you were on it. The rules say that standard practice should be to reject out of hand first requests: “In the first instance applicants should be sent a letter informing them that the samples and the associated PNC record are lawfully held and that their request for deletion/destruction is refused.”
Chief Police officers get the final say in deleting records but the rules remind them that this would only be in exceptional cases. The example provided in guidelines is if everyone in a building is arrested and has DNA forcibly taken after the discovery of a body. If this body subsequently turns out to have died of natural causes there might be an argument for deleting those people's DNA records.
Baroness Hanham summed up the amendment: "The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that anyone who is on the database has access to guidelines that will tell them how to get off the database ... Those who are innocent should not be on any database. They should not be under the eye of the law of this country. They are innocent. They have no truck with the law and their DNA should not passed to Europe for whatever reason."
What is needed instead is a clear, publicly available summary of rules for taking and storing DNA samples.
Hanham said: "Regulations laying out the guidelines on the whys, wherefores and means of DNA and other samples being either retained on or removed from the police national computer that are clear, explicit and user-friendly are long overdue. Changes to the whole system during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act in 2001, which turned the assumption of the destruction of DNA at the end of a case into the assumption of retention, upset the presumption of innocence. The balance at present is not in favour of the innocent.
"Endless justifications may be put forward by those who believe that the current use of the database is too restricted and should be widened into one that is universal. However, it is perhaps now time to listen to the voices of those in favour of the current situation, and of those who are frankly appalled by the possibility of having their identifying materials held indefinitely by the police."
The amendment was passed by 161 votes in favour versus 150 against. Hansard's transcript of the debate is here. ®