HL Deb 03 July 2003 vol 650 cc1031-3

3.24 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the national DNA database complies with the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, it fully complies with the Act. The chief scientist of the Forensic Science Service is the custodian of the national DNA database under a memorandum of understanding with the Association of Chief Police Officers. DNA samples are collected from suspects and the personal data derived from them are loaded by the FSS on to the database. As an executive agency of the Home Office, processing of personal data by the FSS is within the Home Office notification to the Information Commissioner.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Will she accept that I have no wish to underplay in any way the importance of DNA evidence as a potent weapon against crime? That said, is it really possible to square the fifth data principle, that: Personal data … shall not be kept for longer than is necessary with the proposition, as I understand it, advanced by the Home Secretary, that the police should have the power to take and retain indefinitely DNA samples from anybody who has been arrested and not just, as currently, those charged with an offence?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we would say that it is. Noble Lords will know that there is a balance to he struck: they will also be aware that it has been possible for us to identify the perpetrators of crimes committed many years ago with the benefit of DNA samples taken recently. For example, a person was stopped for shoplifting a very small amount; the DNA sample indicated that, 25 years previously, he had been responsible for a series of sexual assaults. We believe it is critical evidence which is of great use to the public.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I was present at the Police Foundation lecture last week in memory of my noble friend John Harris, Lord Harris of Greenwich, at which the Home Secretary stated that there were now over 2 million DNA profiles on the database. Does that figure actually represent people convicted of a criminal offence?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the data are collected from those who have been charged and those who have been convicted, and I cannot tell him how many people fall into either category. It is only very recently that we have been able to retain samples taken from those who have not been convicted but who have been charged and prosecuted in relation to offences. It is true to say, however, that data collected in that way has been used to identify subsequent offences which have led to successful definitive convictions.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, what is the position in relation to those who have been arrested but later not charged?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, your Lordships will know that it is being proposed that those samples will be retained so that they can be used in due course should they be necessary in relation to comparative samples. That proposal will have to be debated. When this matter came before the House, there was a question in relation to where the balance between public good and personal privacy should be struck. We have said very clearly that this is an implement which can be used to free people as well as to identify the perpetrators of wrongdoing. Those who have committed no offence need fear nothing from the retention.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is it not true that there is overwhelming support for such a policy in the country, particularly in areas where there is crime?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is certainly true that the public are very anxious that those who can properly be identified as the perpetrators of crime should be so identified. Indeed, there is a very interesting document that I am very happy to put into the Library produced by the Forensic Science Service called Case Closed: 50 years of DNA—a gallery of cases involving DNA profiling, which demonstrates the utility of this procedure.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, is it not fair to remind the House that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill contained a provision that retrospectively legalised the 50,000 or so illegal retentions of fingerprints and DNA samples? At the time, a great many of your Lordships felt that that was an improper way to proceed, but none the less, it became law. Can the Minister assure the House that, given public anxiety about these databases and that piece of history, the present collection and retention of DNA samples and fingerprints is strictly in accordance with the current law?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly assure noble Lords that that is the position. Of course we are, as we have already said, going to debate more fully the issue of whether we should now be able to retain all the samples so obtained. However, I can certainly assure your Lordships that everything we have is in accordance with the rules and has been applied quite properly.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the national DNA database is in fact open to Interpol, Europol and other European criminal investigative organisations, and indeed, outside Europe, to American law enforcement agencies? What safeguards are there, particularly in relation to the unconvicted on the database?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, requests for a search of the national DNA database are channelled through the Interpol London Persons Desk. Those are processed only where it is clear that the request is in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime, national security or the data subject. Only a one-off speculative search of the database is made and information fed back via Interpol. A risk assessment on the dissemination of this information is then made, and the risk assessment will consider the justification and proportionality of the disclosure of the information. That does not tend to pose a problem with our other partners, the EEA countries, where similar DPA and human rights principles apply. All proper safeguards are put in place to ensure that this information is used properly and in accordance with the criteria that I have just outlined.

Back to