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Top judge: put everyone in UK on the DNA database

Wiggy jurist wants a more inclusive society

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One of the UK's top judges has thrown a grenade into the smouldering debate around the national DNA database, saying that everyone in the UK - including visitors from overseas - should be on file.

Lord Justice Sedley, a senior appeals court beak, said the current situation was "indefensible."

At the moment the database contains the genetic signatures of around four million people. Anyone arrested for a recordable offence (meaning all but the most trivial misdeeds) is sampled and filed. In England and Wales, that's it; you're normally in for life. Under Scottish law the plods must delete the file if they fail to get a conviction. If you are convicted though - even for quite minor crimes - again, you'll be on file forever.

Given the current state of British society and policing, this means that the database contains a large number of ethnic-minority files, which is one reason why it comes in for criticism.

"Disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities get onto the database ..." Sedley told the BBC.

The good judge reckons the database is too useful to get rid of, however. He is also against the discarding of old files, or ones where no conviction has resulted. Apparently there have been cases where serious villains have been nabbed purely because of DNA files which would have been deleted under a less sweeping data-retention policy.

Given that he's in favour of keeping DNA files on people for life, even where there is no conviction, and he's against letting contact with the police be the criterion for sampling in the first place, Sedley feels he's left with only one place to go: sample and file absolutely everybody in the sceptered isle, even those who are just visiting. It's the only way to be fair.

There could be a few problems with that.

"A great many people who are walking the streets and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free," says the judge, and that has to be true.

Nationwide sampling would be sure to trawl up a significant number of uncaught criminals. But the jails are already full; so we're not just talking about a huge multibillion pound government-IT disaster, but also a big prison-building programme; or else letting a lot of people out of jail to make room.

But Sir Stephen isn't bothered.

"Everybody, guilty or innocent, should expect their DNA to be on file for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention."

Others were a little sceptical, particularly about that last part. The Beeb quoted Prof Stephen Bain of the database's strategy board as saying:

"If the information about you is exposed due to illegal or perhaps even legalised use of the database, in a way that is not currently anticipated, then it's a very difficult situation."

At least some among the plods, too, aren't sure that they fancy trying to keep a titanic DNA database on every single person in the UK. Top Lincolnshire cop Tony Lake favours keeping files forever on violent offenders - or maybe just people suspected of being violent offenders - but perhaps deleting other files after a time.

"If people have been convicted or have been arrested for offences which involve violent crime or offences of a sexual nature, I think there is an argument [that DNA] should stay on the database for life," he said.

"If we are talking about very minor offences... I don't think that it's a problem to say let's have a means by which we would reassess if we want to keep that DNA."

The government says it has no plans to sample everyone just now. Perhaps worryingly, however, Tony McNulty (the minister for plods'n'spooks, who has advocated compulsory sampling before) said:

"No-one ever says never."

It wasn't clear whether he followed this with a sinister chuckle or not.

In the end, Sir Stephen may be right and the current DNA database system may be indefensible. But, as he says, it's probably too useful to bin. Perhaps the only truly fair thing is to file everyone up, as he says.

Here at Vulture central we don't really know what's fair. We've got some idea what's practicable, though. Given the track record of big government IT in terms of cost, timeliness, accuracy/error rate etc - let alone the non-IT type snags with sampling everyone at passport control, overflowing prisons - it seems safe to say this proposal isn't actually achievable. Not at any kind of reasonable cost, anyway.

Details from the Beeb here

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