Violation of election pledge
The coalition government's U-turn on the retention of DNA from innocent people by police must be challenged by all legal means.
In a letter to a committee of MPs, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire MP, confirmed that the DNA profiles of those arrested but not charged or convicted of any crime will be retained by the forensic science laboratories in an anonymised form.
This is a clear violation of an election pledge.
Before having a look at what the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative manifestos said regarding the retention of innocent people's DNA, let's go through what some of their prominent leaders said.
In November 2009, Mr. Brokenshire criticized the Labour Government's policy of retaining DNA profiles of people suspected but not convicted of offences. He wrote on the http://blog.conservatives.com: "Nearly a year ago it was ruled that the blanket and indiscriminate retention of DNA profiles of people suspected but not convicted of offences breached the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet rather than deal with this serious situation, the Home Office have been dragging their feet."
He added: "We have already announced that a Conservative government would adopt a system where DNA profiles of those not convicted of an offence would only be retained where someone had been charged with a crime of violence or a sexual offence. These DNA profiles would be retained for three years subject to the right to apply to court for a further two year extension. This is a workable approach which balances personal freedom against community safety."
Brokenshire speaking at BMH UK parliamentary reception
In early 2010 Mr. Brokenshire hosted a Parliamentary reception on the impact that the national criminal DNA database had on innocent people from the African Caribbean community. Speaking during the event organised by the Black Mental Health UK.
He said: "The DNA of innocent people should be removed in all instances, except where someone has been arrested for a serious or violent crime."
Addressing the same forum, Paul Holmes MP, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman said: "The retention of innocent DNA on the criminal database is a travesty and a disgrace, it has no relation to crime and the way data is being collected is not accountable. The Liberal Democrats have made a commitment to delete the DNA records of anyone not convicted of a crime."
In a debate in the House of Commons on 23rd March 2009, the then Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling (now Employment Minister) said: "This is a very straightforward and simple issue. It is, right now, illegal to store the DNA of innocent people over long periods on the DNA database, but as of today, the Government are still doing that. Why?"
'Indefinate retention of innocent people's DNA is unacceptable'
Even the Prime Minister David Cameron himself seems to have changed his mind on this issue.
When he was in Opposition, in a speech in June 2009, Mr. Cameron supported the call to remove innocent people's records from the DNA database. He said: "Nearly five million people are on Labour's DNA database. The Government says it's to help fight crime. But almost a million of the people on it are completely innocent. And tens of thousands of those innocent people are children. It's a situation that would cause concern under the most oppressive regimes in the world, but it's happening right here, right now in Britain."
He added: "We will remove innocent people's records from the DNA database."
The pledge to remove innocent people's DNA from the police database was made by both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the manifestos.
The Conservative Manifesto said: "The indefinite retention of innocent people's DNA is unacceptable, yet DNA data provides a useful tool for solving crimes. We will legislate to make sure that our DNA database is used primarily to store information about those who are guilty of committing crimes rather than those who are innocent. We will collect the DNA of all existing prisoners, those under state supervision who have been convicted of an offence, and anyone convicted of a serious recordable offence. We pushed the Government to end the permanent retention of innocent people's DNA, and we will change the guidance to give people on the database who have been wrongly accused of a minor crime an automatic right to have their DNA withdrawn."
The Liberal Democrat Manifesto said: "Liberal Democrats will protect and restore your freedoms. We will... Remove innocent people from the police DNA database and stop storing DNA from innocent people and children in the future, too."
In the Coalition Agreement, the two parties agreed to "implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion." One of the measures was "Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database." In Scotland, only the DNA of those convicted of a crime or arrested for a serious offence are kept on the database.
Now, can any government official clearly explain to us why they have made a U-turn on their election pledge and decided to continue retaining innocent people's DNA?
About the author
Stephen Ogongo Ongong'a is editor of both The Afro News a newspaper for Britons black communities living in the UK and The Afro News website and the Africa News a newspaper for Africans living in Europe. He also edits the Foreigners in the UK website.
He is also the editor in chief of Karibu Kenya, a magazine published by the Kenya Embassy, Rome, Italy. Ogongo is also a lecturer in journalism, at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social Communications, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.