64,000 DNA samples from our children – This needs to be stopped

Western Mail | THE debate over privacy and the rights of the individual against those of society at large has been given a fresh twist this week with the arrest of an MP and complaints of police heavy-handedness.

Damian Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman, has become one of the thousands of people forced to give a DNA sample. Mr Green has not been charged with any offence, yet his sample will lie on the database.

As we report today, the expansion of the DNA database has an even more sinister side. Thousands of children have had their DNA taken and stored — a staggering total of 64,610 youngsters in Wales alone.

Are all these children hardened criminals? Is holding their DNA helping to clear up dozens of cold cases, forgotten murders or international terror plots? Of course not. This is an insidious trend that needs to be stopped before it becomes accepted practice.

The discovery of DNA has proved something of a double-edged sword. Its uses in tackling and solving crime have been astonishing.

There are innocent people who would be in prison today were it not for scientists’ ability to clear their names through using new methods of analysing DNA samples. Similarly there are killers behind bars who would still be at large were it not for those same techniques.

And yet the story of DNA technology has not been an entirely happy one. Its success as a crime-solving tool depends on a database from which samples found at crime scenes can be matched. It could be argued, therefore, that the more people there are on the database, the greater the chances of catching more criminals — an argument that has been put forward of late by Lord Justice Sedley.

That takes us into an important area of civil liberties. DNA samples from individuals have to be obtained, with or without consent, for a database to be constructed. Police have already established the right to do this, and have the further right to retain the DNA sample even if no charges are ever brought against the individual they detain.

No-one is arguing that criminals in particular should not have their DNA taken and stored. It’s not clear, either, why samples should always be taken at the moment of arrest rather than at the moment of conviction.

But the biggest change that needs to be made relates to children. What message do we send to youngsters if we take more than 60,000 DNA samples from them, regardless of whether they are then found guilty of anything?

Discovering DNA has transformed crime-fighting, for the better. We shouldn’t allow this achievement, however, to be used as the pretext for another assault on our civil liberties. Mr Green’s arrest has prompted much loose talk about a police state. That’s an exaggeration — but taking DNA samples from our children really is a question that needs an urgent answer.