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Home Office jumps the gun on DNA research

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The single most significant piece of research cited by the government in its review of current DNA practice was incomplete and published prematurely following pressure from the Home Office.

This inconvenient undermining of the consultation process came to light as the BBC did some background research into the issue, following the decision of Labour MP Diane Abbott to hold a surgery especially for constituents who want their DNA profiles to be deleted.

It also follows a series of embarrassments for government in general and the Home Office in particular over the use of evidence as the basis for developing policy.

The consultation document, which closed for submissions on 7 August stated in respect of evidence provided by the Jill Dando Institute (JDI): "Importantly, the JDI research concludes that the seriousness of the initial offence for which the person was arrested does not necessarily predict the seriousness of subsequent offences with which the person may be associated.

"As a result, a policy which only retained profiles where an individual was arrested for a serious or violent offence (as applies, for example, in Scotland) would risk missing numerous detections."

Quite clearly, the Home Office are using research provided by the JDI as a key justification for some of its subsequent recommendations.

However, speaking to El Reg, Gloria Laycock, Director of the JDI stated: "In the best of all possible worlds, we would have waited far longer for the results of this research to be done. Robust answers are unlikely to be available before 2015 or even 2020.

"We did not have direct access to the DNA evidence and no statistical check was made of the work at the time.

"However, we were under pressure from the Home Office to publish, and felt we had no option but to allow them to use this work."

And in an interview with the BBC, she concluded: "That was probably a mistake with hindsight - we should have just said 'you might as well just stick your finger in the air and think of a number'".

A statement put out today by the Home Office continues to assert that: "The DNA database is a vital crime fighting tool, identifying 390,000 crimes with DNA matches between April 1998 and September 2008 and providing the police with a lead on the possible identity of the offender.

They add: "Last year a total of 17,614 crimes, including 83 homicides and 184 rapes, were detected in which a DNA match was available."

However, arguing for the policy is not the same as defending the use of evidence. Back in April 2008, then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith responded to a question in the Commons by asserting: "The Home Office’s policy-making process makes it clear that policies should be based on sound evidence".

However, the Home Office has form on this front. A large part of the case for new laws being proposed on trafficking in the Policing and Crime Bill, currently before Parliament, is justified on the basis of research by the Poppy Project.

This research has been heavily criticised by others working in the field of sex and sexuality, both on the grounds that it was unethical and poorly constructed, and also that the Poppy Project, which receives significant funding from the Home Office (£3.7m announced in March 2009), has a vested interest in inflating the impact of this issue.

A spokeswoman for the Poppy Project responded: "Despite many false allegations suggesting the contrary, the money we receive from the Ministry of Justice does not fund our research or lobbying activities. Big Brothel, and other studies about trafficking or prostitution, were neither commissioned nor funded by the Home Office.

"The Home Office has never said that its policies around prostitution were informed by Big Brothel. In fact, the report is only one year old, while the Home Office’s prostitution policy first began to take shape in 2004 with the publication of Paying the Price. This consultation, followed by its publication of Government Strategy on Prostitution in 2006, has informed its own prostitution policy."

Meanwhile, this same unholy alliance of dodgy research and government is continued by children’s charity beatbullying. Earlier this year they published headline-grabbing "research" which made claims about the prevalence of "sexting" in the UK.

El Reg has spoken to beatbullying on several occasions in an attempt to obtain some context to this research, which appears never to have been fully published nor formally refereed. Beatbullying has worked on joint projects with the Department of Children Schools and Families, including a cybermentoring initiative, continues to receive funding from the DCSF and was singled out for praise by Gordon Brown in July 2007. ®

Update: This story has been updated with comment from the Poppy Project.

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