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Ethics body calls for DNA safeguards

More controls to protect the innocent

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An independent medical body has warned that more controls are needed to protect the innocent against unjustified DNA profiling.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which examines ethical issues raised by new developments in medicine, has sounded the warning in a new report titled The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues.

Among a series of recommendations aimed at protecting the freedoms of innocent people, the council says the police should only be allowed to keep the DNA of people who are convicted of a crime. Currently, the police can permanently store the samples of people who have been arrested on the National DNA Database (NDNAD) regardless of whether they are later found to be innocent.

The exceptions, says the council, should be people charged with serious violent or sexual offences, whose DNA could be kept for up to five years even if they are not convicted.

The government has consulted on plans to allow police to take and store DNA from those arrested for non-recordable offences, such as littering and minor traffic offences. The report urges these proposals to be dropped.

"After careful consideration, we do not think that this is justified at the current time," said Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC, chair of the council. "We would like to see the police put more resources into the collection of DNA from crime scenes, rather than from individuals suspected of minor offences."

High Court judge Lord Justice Sedley recently called for the DNA of every UK citizen and foreign visitor to be entered on the database. He suggested that it is currently an imperfect mechanism and open to problems of discrimination. But the council believes that this would only have a small impact on public safety and would not justify the intrusion on privacy.

The retention of around 750,000 under-18s on the database is also a matter of controversy, as the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child gives children special protection under the legal system, including opportunities for rehabilitation.

Speaking to GC News, Jackie Worrall, director of policy and public affairs at criminal justice charity Nacro, said that the retention of DNA under such instances could undermine the potential to rehabilitate. She said: "A significant number of offenders who are young would want to put their offending past behind them."

The report recommends the removal of children's DNA from the database, if requested, unless a very serious offence has been committed.

The council also calls for controls to prevent ethnic inferences from being routinely sought, and for legal professionals to gain a minimum understanding of statistics with regard to DNA evidence in court.

Regulation of forensic databases should also be enshrined in law, while an independent tribunal should be set up to oversee requests by individuals to remove their DNA from the database.

Commenting on the report, Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary Nick Clegg MP said: "The retention of the DNA of thousands of innocent British citizens is an outrage and must stop. It blurs the fundamental distinction between innocence and guilt upon which our whole criminal justice system depends."

The DNA debate has caught the attention of other civil liberties groups in recent weeks, with human rights lobbyists Liberty calling for similar safeguards in a report on privacy published last week.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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