DNA update - What Sir Alec Jeffreys thinks

The scientist who discovered genetic fingerprinting has called for a drastic reduction in the DNA database.

The scientist who discovered genetic fingerprinting has called for a drastic reduction in the DNA database.  This happens to be on the 25th anniversary of the scientific breakthrough. 

This follows criticism inherent in recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights - questioning whether it is satisfactory to hold genetic profiles indefinitely irrespective of the person’s innocence.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, whose discovery has had a tremendous impact upon criminal investigation, has announced that in his view Britain has gone too far in disregarding the rights and privacy of innocent people through the practice  of collating a huge database of genetic information.

Sir Alec's technique has been used to identify and convict tens of thousands of criminals.  Those convicted include rapists and murderers, but Sir Alec has in effect said this does not justify the refusal to change the law and erase hundreds of thousands of innocent people from the Home Office list.

He has been quoted as saying "We now have a database that is populated within the order of 800,000 entirely innocent people which is bigger than the entire database of Germany or France,”

Sir Alec has been very direct in his views adding “So, this does raise very serious issues of discrimination, genetic privacy and stigmatisation. There’s a whole host of issues here and my view is very simply that they should not be on the database at all.”

The ruling last year in Strasbourg by the European Court of Human rights that Britain's 'blanket' policy was infringing the right to privacy may well be further fuelled by the comments of Prof Sir Alec Jeffreys. Human rights judges in Strasbourg ruled in 2008 that the "blanket" policy was a breach of the right to privacy.  This may raise the profile of further actions in the future.  Sir Alec says "Innocent people do not belong on that database. Branding them as future criminals is not a proportionate response in the fight against crime.  I've met a fair number of these people and some of these people are very, very upset and are distressed by the fact that their DNA is on that database. They cannot get it off and they feel as if they're branded as criminals."

In the meantime a report has just been published which suggests that the number of solved crimes using DNA samples has fallen despite the dramatic increase in the number of samples taken and which now form part of the National database.  The official report just published indicates that a record number of DNA samples are on the national database.  Apparently the number of crimes solved using DNA profiles has fallen by a fifth.

This news may fuel the debate about the government's policy especially as we are told that the cost of running the system has more than doubled.  It now costs over £4 million.

For those of you who are hungry for actual figures, over one million new DNA profiles taken from individuals have been added to the database over the last two years.  The total stands at more than 5.6 million.

The number of crimes solved where a genetic match was available, during this same period, fell by 16,000.

Peter Neyroud, Chief Constable of the National Policing Improvement Agency, which runs the database, has sprung to its defence reminding us that DNA was “the most effective tool for the prevention and detection of crime since the development of fingerprint analysis”.

Mr Neyroud was also quick to point to such high-profile cases in recent years as the murder of 18-year-old Sally Ann Bowman and the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich which were solved with DNA matches.

So why the fall in figures?  Well the National Policing Improvement Agency has been reported as saying the fall in detections was as a result of falls in recorded crime, particularly “high volume crimes” such as burglary and car break-ins.  This seems to reinforce the view of some victims of crime that the police only target certain crimes i.e. where they stand some chance of catching repeat offenders or known criminals and don't bother in other cases! Statistics can paint an encouraging picture particularly figures that suggest that reported crimes are down, but, on the other hand, and more worryingly, this may be due to other factors such as the fear of reprisals or the lack of community values in some parts of the country.

Certain reported crimes may be down but this is small comfort to victims of the many unsolved crimes. 

And the higher costs?  NPIA say this was largely due to the administration costs involved in the transfer of the service from the Forensic Science Service to the NPIA.

This debate will no doubt continue especially now that the Home Office has said that it has completed the consultation process on proposals to remove from the database, the DNA of innocent people after a statutory period.  The statutory period will be six or twelve years depending on the seriousness of the alleged offence.

What will the Bill look like?  Will the government listen to what other bodies and agencies have to say?  Will the government modify it's proposals and try to reach a reasonable compromise or will they stick to their guns in an attempt to appear strong, only to have to back down later to get their legislative programme through Parliament?  This has happened before with other proposals for example the increase of the 28 day detention period in the matter of terrorist suspects,







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