The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has rejected a key part of the UK government’s new plans for the National DNA Database (NDNAD). The plans came in response to the ruling by the European Court that the NDNAD was being operated contrary to human rights law by keeping the profiles of innocent people indefinitely. The database has been filled largely through the provisions of a very vague and wide-ranging provision that allowed the police to take DNA from anyone arrested for an indictable offence, and to keep it even if they were never even charged (let alone charged and not convicted). The result had been that long-standing prejudices within the police had meant a bias in the databases against young black men, and a rapidly expanding set of profiles of children and the entirely innocent.The NDNAD had also been attacked by the HUman Genetics Commission (the government’s own watchdog) which recommended multiple reforms.
One of the main parts of the government’s response to the European Court ruling was that DNA should be retained for 6 years – the committee has recommended that this be halved to 3 years (we are still talking about the DNA of innocent people here…), and that there should be some proper national system for deciding who gets deleted entirely (at the moment it is at the discretion of Chief Constables of local police forces!). Of course all of these leaves the wider question of fairness and rights undebated. There are only two properly just ways to run a database of this sort. One would be to include only the DNA of those convicted of a crime or suspected in an ongoing investigation. The other would be to include everyone (as the UAE has decided to do). At the moment, the NDNAD is, like most things in Britain, an unaccountable mess of law, customary practice and happenstance that pleases no-one and is also remarkably ineffective for the money and effort put into it. This will only improve slightly even if the select committee’s recommendations are accepted.