Balancing the responsibilities of the State against the rights of the individual is one ofthe most difficult things for politicians to get right. The tendency is to be all in favour of civil liberties while in opposition but to revert to authoritarian type when in government. That’s certainly happened with this Labour government. And in times of threats to national security, politicians need to be quite courageous to resist all the demands to impose authoritarian measures on the populace.
The argument surrounding DNA evidence is a perfect example of the dilemmas faced. At the moment only someone interviewed by Police has their DNA taken. If they are charged it is kept on their records, but not removed if they fail to be convicted. Some argue that if the government had everyone’s DNA on record it would make the Police’s life far easier and crimes would be solved much more quickly. It’s a similar argument to ID cards.
This week European judges will consider the case of two people who were charged with a crime but never convicted who want their DNA wiped off the national database. This case has far reaching implications and could lead to more than 500,000 other people’s DNA being wiped.
This is a really difficult one for people like me who believe that the rights of the individual must be protected from the pervasive influence of the State. In theory I would support the right of the innocent individual to have their records wiped if they had been found not guilty of a crime, or not even charged. However, the real world does not operate in this way. The individual also has the right to be protected from harm by others, and it is the role of the State to introduce laws which enable that to happen.
As I understand it the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives believe that only those convicted of a crime should be on the DNA database. It’s a consistent position and easy to argue. The fact that 100,000 innocent children are on it and should never have been, 26,000 police-collected samples have been left off it and half a million entries have been misrecorded lend weight to the view that the government is incapable of managing such sensitive data.
And yet, and yet. What worries me is that sex attackers and murderers are more difficult to find without full access to DNA records. So I wonder if a messy compromise isn’t something we should be considering. My only exceptions to the “No DNA record unless charged” rule would be for people interviewed on suspicion of rape or murder. I accept that it would mean some innocent people being added to the DNA register, but it would undoubtedly reduce the time it takes the Police to solve these two heinous crimes, and therefore prevent others from taking place. Of course one can take this further and use the same argument in favour of everyone having their DNA taken, as it would then lead to other crimes being solved more quickly. I realise that. But I’m afraid that murder and rape are crimes which merit a different and stronger approach.
UPDATE: Martin corrects me in the comments: “Actually Iain you’re wrong to say:”If they are charged it is kept on their records, but not removed if they fail to be convicted.”People who are arrested but not charged remain on the DNA database.”Before 2001, the police could take DNA samples during investigations but had to destroy the samples and the records derived from them on the Database if the people concerned were acquitted or charges were not proceeded with.The law was changed in 2001 to remove this requirement, and changed again in 2004 so that DNA samples could be taken from anyone arrested for a recordable offence and detained in a police station.”http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/science-research/using-science/dna-database/So the dataabse is already being populated with the DNA of people who have never been charged just in case they later go on to commit a crime. Either they should be removed or everyone should be added.