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DNA database reports shows costs up, 'detections' down

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Analysis Researchers looking to assess the effectiveness of DNA profiling in solving crime are unlikely to take much comfort in the recently released Annual Report of the National Policing Improvements Agency (NPIA).

Meanwhile, civil liberties campaigners must wait to discover what the Government plans to do about removing the profiles of innocent people from the database.

The Annual Report, which covers two years' activity on the DNA Database (NDNAD) is part propaganda, part statistical report. Early sections reference one case where a chance profile for a minor offence (a pub brawl) led to arrest and conviction for a major one (murder) as in the case of Mark Dixie. Similar cases are documented, as well as cases where individuals have been cleared of crimes as a result of DNA profiling.

However, when it comes to a fuller explanation and analysis of the effects of DNA, the report can only document the current picture, as issues such as outcomes (criminal convictions as a result of DNA profiling) are beyond the NPIA's remit.

The NDNAD holds DNA profiles, not individual details. Over the last two years, the number of individual profiles held on the NDNAD has risen from around 4.4 million to 5.6 million in March 2009.

Fuzziness in the estimates derives from the fact that figures given for the numbers loaded on the database do not quite tally with the number of profiles added year on year. The actual number of individuals for whom profiles are now held is estimated at around 4.85 million, with around 13 per cent of the database consisting of "replicates".

This report does little to answer the vexed question of effectiveness. NPIA boss, Peter Neyroud describes DNA profiling as "the most effective tool for the prevention and detection of crime since the development of fingerprint analysis".

However, during the period in question, the total number of crime scene matches dropped from 41,717 to 36,727. Given the increased number of profiles held, this is not inconsistent with some criminals changing their behaviour to avoid leaving samples.

Total detections involving DNA samples also fell from 41,148 to 31,915. The official reason given for this fall is that over the last five years there has been a major fall in recorded crime. A spokesman said: "Burglary offences are down 29 per cent over a five-year period and offences against vehicles are down by 40 percent."

Also, the topline figures hide as much as they illuminate. A "detection" means that the crime was cleared up and a DNA match was available. It does not mean a conviction was obtained, or that guilt was established.

However, the NPIA do not report to this level, as this is a matter for the Home Office – while the Home Office sees the DNA figures as an operational matter, and does not make this link either.

Furthermore, the headline figure includes all crimes where DNA aided detection, and includes a suspect confessing to other offences. The raw figure for offences where crime detection resulted directly from a DNA match show a fall from 19,949 to 17,463 in the same period.

Over the last year, costs have doubled – from £2.1m to £4.2m, due to the transfer to the NPIA and the need to accredit and monitor additional suppliers.

Meanwhile the government continues to play its cards very close on new regulations for the DNA database: what they will be and when they will be announced are both, at this moment, unclear. Following a European Court ruling last December in the case of S and Marper, the government has spent nine months consulting on the way forward, and even included proposals in the recent Policing Bill to continue to retain the profiles of innocent individuals, albeit for set periods of time, according to the seriousness of the crime alleged.

Reports that this plan has been dropped are premature. A Home Office spokesman today indicated that new proposals would return for the next session of parliament, which begins on November 18, and that nothing could be ruled either in or out at this stage.

The legislation is highly unlikely to pass in advance of a general election, which means that the Police position of adhering to the status quo and keeping DNA profiles indefinitely could yet remain unaltered until the middle of 2011.

The Home Office continues to claim that the proposals that it put forward during consultation were "embodied in research", despite the Jill Dando Institute having now comprehensively repudiated the usefulness of that research in relation to the current debate. ®

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