30,000 children’s DNA on police database

By Christine Sexton

THE DNA profiles of more than 30,000 Essex children are being kept on a police database.

Figures released in response to a Freedom of Information request also reveal that 12,345 of those young people are under 15.

The news comes after it was reported how the profile of a 13-year-old boy from Benfleet boy was being kept on the DNA database, despite police admitting he had been wrongfully arrested.

The boy’s mother, who is considering legal action to have his profile removed, said: “The Government has already proved what a bad record it has on keeping such sensitive information, so I don’t trust them with this.”

Since 2003, police have been able to retain DNA taken from anyone over the age of ten arrested for a criminal offence, whether or not they go on to be convicted for it.

Under-18s now make up a quarter of the 120,946 samples to be added to the Essex database since it started in 1995.

Essex Police are unable to say how many children on their database were eventually found to be innocent of the offence they were accused of.

Prior to 2001, police had to destroy samples from people subsequently proved innocent, but an amendment to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 2003 gave police the right to take and retain the DNA profile of anyone they arrested over the age of ten.

Some argue the database has helped police to solve recent high-profile crimes, such as the murder of 18-year-old Sally Anne Bowman by Mark Dixie, and the deaths of five Ipswich prostitutes at the hands of Steve Wright.

Both men are now serving lengthy jail sentences.

But others fear it is the latest infringement of civil liberties. A European court test case arguing samples should be destroyed if no charges are brought may help to clarify the issue.

Closer to home, the mother of the Benfleet boy is determined to have his DNA removed from the database. He was released without charge for throwing pebbles into a road near his school.

A woman who had had her car vandalised filmed the act, believing the boy might have been reponsible for the damage.

Despite him later being exonerated, his DNA still remains on the database.

The boy’s mother, who does not want to be identified to protect her son, said she was considering mounting a legal battle to get it removed.

She said: “It happens all the time.

“I don’t think people realise how many children there are on the database now.

“I don’t think it would work having everyone on the database because it would take so long to eliminate everyone’s DNA from a crime scene.”

However, the man in charge of taking samples for the Essex database is adamant it is the “best crime fighting tool” in the police armoury to date.

Tom Harper, scientific support manager and head of forensic investigations, said: “We will take a sample from everyone arrested and we will retain that forever, but there are exceptional circumstances where they can be removed.

“Where it has been found there was no original offence, for example, if we go to a scene of a suspicious death and we arrest people in connection with it, but then on post mortem it is found to be a natural death, then there would have been no offence committed.”

Mr Harper said the UK’s DNA database was now “the envy of the world”.

He added: “A few countries have a DNA database, like the US, but that is not across the whole country.

“Where someone is found not guilty, that’s where the problems happen, because they feel they haven’t committed an offence. But the law is very clear.

“Say during an investigation we find evidence of criminal damage and we arrest someone on suspicion of criminal damage, then provided that arrest is lawful and the offence happened, we should retain the samples.”

Mr Harper believes people are worrying needlessly about having their DNA on record and says it is not akin to having a criminal record.

He said: “We don’t give this information out.

“It is owned by the police and managed by the Forensic Science Service.

“I can’t sit in my office and access this, I have to go to the FSS.

“There is a tremendous benefit in terms of crime detection. It gives us thousands of leads on crimes each year. To have a national DNA database of everyone would be quite useful.

“At the moment we probably have about 5 per cent of the country on the database, but to increase it by another 95 per cent would require a big increase in the administrative system.

“If people are not committing crimes, they have nothing to worry about.”

Human rights groups such as Liberty are calling for a national debate.

Spokeswoman Mairi Clare Rodgers said: “Taking the DNA of every man, woman and child is expensive and impractical, yet it is impossible to have no DNA database.

“We need a sensible debate to find a fair and proportionate solution which will satisfy civil rights as well as crime prevention concerns.”

The national picture

BY the end of 2005, about 200,000 samples nationally had been retained that would have been destroyed before the change in legislation.

Of these samples, 8,000 matched with DNA taken from crime scenes, involving nearly 14,000 offences, including murders and rapes.

Under-18s make up 23 per cent of all arrests. There are no legal powers to take a DNA sample from anyone under ten without the consent of a parent or legal guardian.

About a million people who have not been convicted of any offence, including at least 100,000 children, are now estimated to be on the national DNA database. Many others have been acquitted, or have been convicted of relatively minor offences (including begging, being drunk and disorderly, or taking part in an illegal demonstration) but will remain on the database for life.