Protection of Freedom Bill a 'significant step forward'
The massive expansion of the DNA database that has taken place since 2001 has criminalised every black family in Britain. Estimates suggest that more than a third of black men, rising to 3 out of 4 young black men (aged between 15 and 35), have records on the database.
The Government's new Protection of Freedoms Bill is a significant step forward for one million innocent people with records on the DNA database. However, more should be done to make the system fairer. MPs will be voting on the Bill in the coming weeks so now is the time to visit, write to or email your MP to have your say.
Overall, the Freedoms Bill is welcome
The Freedoms Bill will require the police to delete DNA database and fingerprint records from people who are not convicted of any offence. Under the new system, most innocent people will have their records deleted as soon as an investigation is complete. Some people accused of serious offences will have their records kept for 3 years, and a smaller number for 5 years (if approved by a court).
This is a significant and welcome improvement compared to the current system (where all records are kept to age 100). It is also much better the previous government's Bill (which would have kept all innocent people's DNA and fingerprint records for 6 years after their arrest).
The proposals in the Bill will also result in the removal of DNA and fingerprint records from children with convictions for a single minor offence after five years.
In addition, all DNA samples will be destroyed once the computerised DNA profiles (a string of numbers based on parts of the DNA) have been obtained and stored. This will prevent samples being used for controversial research (for example, into genetics and race) and is an important and welcome safeguard.
Need for deletion of police records
The most important omission from the Bill is that all records on the Police National Computer will be kept to age 100, instead of being deleted at the same time as records on the DNA and fingerprint databases.
This is a serious omission because a record on the Police National Computer can be used to refuse someone a visa or a job even if they have not been convicted of a crime, or of they have a conviction, caution, reprimand or warning for a single minor offence when they were a child.
The police also access these records on the beat and a record of a past arrest can lead to stigma and discrimination. If you agree that these police records should be deleted, it is important that you visit, write to or email your MP. Tell him or her that you welcome the Freedoms Bill but that it should be amended to include deletion of police computer records at the same time as DNA and fingerprint records.
Other changes are also needed
There are other important changes that you can raise with your MP.
Many people tell stories about how a police record of a caution or old conviction for a minor offence has led to them being refused a job, sometimes making it impossible for them to move on from past mistakes.
The current version of the Bill would allow DNA records, fingerprint records and police records to be kept to age 100 from all adults given a single caution, or children given more than one caution, reprimand or warning.
These people have not been convicted by a court and it would be fairer if their details were kept on record for a limited time: GeneWatch has suggested 5 years for cautions and 2 years for reprimands and warnings.
Convicted adults will also still have all their records kept to age 100. GeneWatch believes there should be a time limit on keeping records from adults as well as children, unless they have committed serious or multiple offences. Deleting adults' records ten years after a minor offence (compared to 5 years for children) would be fairer, and would be consistent with evidence on the likelihood of reoffending.
Finally, there are some important loopholes in the wording of the Bill: one of these loopholes allows DNA and fingerprint records to be kept indefinitely (in repeated two year extensions) if a person is regarded as a threat to national security. It is important that this power is restricted so that it cannot be used to keep innocent people's records indefinitely in the absence of any evidence against them.
About contacting your MP
You can send your MP an email directly from the Write to Them website. Visiting your MP is even better: they are more likely to listen to what you say.
Focus on your biggest concern and let your MP know why you personally care about this issue. This might be because you or someone in your family has been arrested; because of the wider impacts on black and ethnic minority communities; because you want to limit the powers of the police or government to track or discriminate against innocent people; or because you think people cautioned or convicted of minor offences deserve a second chance.
For more information see 'Freedoms Bill: What you can do' on the GeneWatch UK website
You can also contact GeneWatch by email (
) or phone (01298-24300).
About the author:
Dr Helen Wallace is director of GeneWatch UK. She specialises in the ethics, risks and social implications of human genetics. She has a degree in physics from Bristol University and a PhD in applied mathematics from Exeter University. Helen has worked as an environmental scientist in academia and industry and as Senior Scientist at Greenpeace UK, where she was responsible for science and policy work on a range of issues
An expert on the National DNA Database (NDNAD), Helen and her team have advised the Government and monitored the developments of the NDNAD since its introduction in 1999. Helen has also advised the Scottish Parliament on their NDNAD (they have subsequently implemented Gene Watch's recommendations) and she has been involved in consultations with American officials regarding the efficacy of the US plans for a NDNAD.