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Bioethics group raises DNA database concerns

'There has to be a limit to police powers'

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Analysis The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has condemned the retention of "innocent" DNA on the National Database as unjustifed and unethical with "overtones of a police state".

The council - a group of clinicians, lawyers, philosophers, scientists, and theologians - was established in 1991 to examine ethical issues raised by new developments in science.

In its report, The Forensic Use of DNA and Fingerprints: Ethical Issues, the council recommends that police should only be allowed to permanently store bioinformation from people who are convicted of a crime.

Today, the police of England and Wales have wider sampling powers than the police force of any other country, and the UK has (proportionally, per head of population) the largest forensic database in the world.

When the police first began using DNA, consent was required before samples could be taken. A succession of Acts of Parliament and legislative amendments has increased police powers of sampling; the police can now take DNA samples from all persons arrested, without their consent, for recordable offences (an "arbitrary" classification), and retain the samples indefinitely regardless of whether the person arrested is subsequently convicted or even charged.

In response to comments from the Home Office that retaining the DNA of people who were innocent at the time of arrest had helped to solve crimes they committed years later, the Nuffield Council stuck to its guns. "There has to be a limit to police powers," said Dr Carole McCartney, one of the report's authors. "DNA shouldn't be retained simply on the basis that it might turn out to be useful."

She added that many of the statistics from the Home Office were "inconsistent, incomplete and confusing" and that much of its evidence consisted of anecdotal accounts of "horrible men caught with DNA".

The council recommended that the police should put more resources into the collection of DNA from crime scenes, noting that less than 20 per cent of crime scenes are forensically examined, but urged caution with regard to their analysis.

Professor Read outlined some of the information that could be mined from a data rich bio-sample found at the scene of a crime. Conceding that recent advances permitted forensic scientists to have a "pretty good stab at the eye colour", and quickly identify redheads, ethnic profiles generated by DNA analysis were still limited to providing a "very iffy statistical prediction" and there was a danger that such predictions encouraged the police to narrow the focus of their inquiries prematurely.

The council rejected calls for a population-wide database, which would "make all citizens suspects", on account of the lack of empirical evidence that this would substantially improve crime detection rates. It dismissed the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument as "fallacious".

The finding of a match between a person and a crime scene does not indicate that the person was at the crime scene or that they committed the crime in question, but it might lead to them being subjected to a police investigation.

The report points out that "simply being the subject of a criminal investigation by the police can cause harm, distress, and stigma", and Sir Bob Hepple QC, chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, cited a newspaper comment on the McCann case that the couple would find it "difficult to prove their innocence" as a result of widely reported forensic links.

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