It was never going to be long before the Tories noticed NuLabour were trying to outflank them on law & order from the right and decided to do something about it. The ConDems have decided to ‘anonymise’ DNA samples the authorities hold of people who have been arrested but never convicted of a crime:
One of its key features of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, we were assured by Nick Clegg in January, would be an end to the “indefinite storage of innocent people’s DNA”.
That seemed to be an unambiguous promise, and a welcome one. Unfortunately, as The Daily Telegraph reveals today, the Government has decided not to keep this promise, bringing the number of policy U-turns to at least 14.
Instead of clearly and simply wiping out the DNA of more than one million people who have been arrested but not convicted, the authorities will retain the samples, but in an “anonymised” state.
This means that the names and other identifying features will be removed from the police database but kept elsewhere, enabling agencies with the right expertise to join the pieces of data together again and identify the DNA.
In the clumsy but revealing phrase of James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, the genetic information will “be considered to have been deleted”.
Considered by whom? Certainly not by civil liberties groups, which have accused the Government of betraying an explicit commitment in the Coalition Agreement and ignoring a judgment of the Court of Human Rights.
Back we trot to the database state, which would always reform under different guises, with different agendas in play. The motive here seems to be straightforward party political – splitting Ed Miliband from his authoritarian underlings, whilst snubbing the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to please the right wing of the Tories. We deserve better politics than this, but there seem to be very few politicians in the British parliament who have any interest whatsoever with the rule of law. You’d think with the influence of Murdoch waning that you’d have one or two MPs shrieking with outrage at the injustice of it, no longer that worried about a NOTW campaign against them, but no – the cowardice lives on.
Post-Blair/Brown Labour hasn’t yet started to define itself coherently, and there were initial fears that new Shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls would use his new (and unlikely) position to attack the ConDems from the right on civil liberties, but he’s hinting the opposite:
Mr Balls, in his first newspaper interview since being appointed shadow home secretary, admitted Labour’s policies under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which led to failed attempts to get Parliament to pass laws to permit suspects to be detained without charge for 90 and 42 days, had been a mistake.“Even 42 days was a step too far,” he said.“Our reputation as a party which protected liberty as well as security suffered as a result.“Our approach should always be that if the evidence shows we can go down from 28 days without impeding the police and security services from doing their jobs, then we ought to do it.”
“They are such exceptional measures that in an ideal world of course we would want to manage without them.”Labour would be prepared to consider alternative methods, such as a combination of covert surveillance and travel restrictions, he added.His comments come at a tricky time for Labour, with the party gripped by renewed in-fighting during the two-week paternity leave taken by party leader, Ed Miliband.Mr Balls said: “I’m quite clear we must always strike a balance between protecting our country from the risks of terrorist attacks on the one hand, and preserving our democratic freedoms and fundamental liberties on the other: it should never be a case of one or the other.”
Balls was also on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, where he fleshed out his position. He reaffirmed his support for a 14-day limit but warned that the coalition was “way too” liberal on CCTV and the DNA database.
So this is the important bit in the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, promising a bright, new, un-authoritarian future, with:
Landmark legislation, from politicians who refused to sit back and do nothing while huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests.
Who stood up for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few.
A spirit this government will draw on as we deliver our programme for political reform: a power revolution.
A fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen that puts you in charge.
‘Much in this new Government statement accords with the BHA’s policies we set out in our own manifestos ahead of the election and with the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We particularly welcome moves to increase freedom of speech, and a reformed House of Lords which, by being fully elected, would necessarily remove the right of Bishops to sit in our second chamber.’
‘We also look forward to making our case for the repeal and revision of unjust, restrictive and discriminatory laws, such as those which require compulsory worship on our school children – a clear violation of their freedom of conscience – and those which unfairly restrict the right to free speech and protest.’
I think Copson is generally right but there are serious problems here. Clegg’s ideas are laudable, but there are as yet no indications as to how he thinks he’ll implement them – moving children of asylum seekers from one detention centre to another (particularly one with a notorious reputation) is not a remotely adequate solution. Much of the push towards ID cards came from within the civil service itself, and there is still an entrenched authoritarian culture in government agencies which needs urgent tackling; just yesterday the new government took the same stand on control orders as its predecessor.
I don’t just expect a repeal of New Labour’s surveillance state laws, I expect a change in culture to uphold the rule of law and to abide by evidence-based policy making. That means not just accepting the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on the National DNA Database, but abiding by rulings against denying prisoners the vote and on the legality of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. I’m worried that now in government Clegg is going to pick and choose what works for him and what doesn’t and not challenge the vested interests, defeat of whom really would make the “most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great enfranchisement of the 19th Century” much more than overexcited hyperbole.
The government has for months ignored the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) ruling that its policy of indefinite retention of the DNA of people not convicted of a crime was illegal. Home Secretary Alan Johnson today played further mischief with the human rights of hundreds and thousands of entirely innocent people, purely for partisan political advantage in the pre-general election ‘wash up’ period:
The Conservatives have dropped their opposition to the government’s crime and security bill, including its controversial provisions to allow the police to retain the DNA profiles of innocent people for up to six years.
Instead of blocking the bill, the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, made a fresh commitment that the Tories would bring in early legislation to ensure the DNA profiles of innocent people arrested for minor offences would not be retained on the national police DNA database.
“We will not seek to block this bill because the indefinite retention of innocent people’s DNA is unacceptable and has been ruled illegal,” said Grayling.He added that on taking office the Conservatives would also change the official guidance to the police, to give people the automatic right to have their DNA withdrawn from the database if have been wrongly accused of a minor crime.The decision follows a threat by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to ditch the DNA provisions of the crime and security bill entirely, unless the Conservatives dropped their opposition to keeping profiles of innocent people on the database for up to six years.
Johnson said this morning he would pull all provisions from the amendment bill today if the Tories refuse to assent to the government’s plans. The bill is destined for this afternoon’s wash-up session to complete the government’s legislative programme ahead of the dissolution of parliament for the election.
Johnson told Sky News: “This is a basic example of how they [the Tories] talk tough on crime but act soft.”
I don’t normally use strong language on this blog, but what a cynical bastard the Home Secretary is. He’d rather play politics with one of the most important human rights issues in Britain today, and keep the country in breach of the Court’s ruling, instead of ensuring there was a system of appeal for people even to argue for their removal from the database. Yet more undemocratic game playing in the ‘wash up’ period by a government which has presided over the most out-of-touch, corrupt and inept parliament in living memory. The right to privacy and the presumption of innocence are commodities too precious to use as electioneering bargaining chips. When will this abuse end?
The Labour Party has released an advert which attacks David Cameron’s policies on crime. No surprise there you might say, we’re in a pre-election period after all, but what’s done in the video below is actually quite sinister. They present their authoritarian project as absolute and unquestionable – our streets are so unsafe that any human rights-breaching use of the National DNA Database or overextension of CCTV (how many actually work, and how effective is it statistically in either reducing crime or prosecuting it?) are prices worth paying. Cameron standing against Labour’s surveillance society’s and database state’s human rights breaches makes him somehow weak and pro-criminal. This video makes me absolutely furious, but it does help in knowing once and for all that their position isn’t accidental; it’s tactical.
Where’s the evidence that retaining DNA profiles of innocent people on the scale (and without any debate) perpetrated by the Home Office has actually led to more matches and more convictions? Oh there isn’t any. But hey vote Labour folks, after all they have policies which may breach human rights, but they make you safer. Except they don’t. Instead we have police forces which fail adequately to protect the public, but admitting to that wouldn’t be a vote winner in marginal seats. This started out as a government committed to human rights; its third attempt at retaining power proves it’s now more interested in power. That’s something we should be afraid of. New Labour, New Danger.
Over the span of this Labour government we’ve seen the degradation of the rule of law and attacks on evidence-based policy making, but now we have full-blown pre-criminalisation:
He said the [human genetics] commission had received evidence from a former police superintendent that it was now the norm to arrest offenders for everything possible. “It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained,” said Montgomery, adding that it would be a matter of very great concern if this was now a widespread practice.
The report says there is very little concrete evidence on the importance of the DNA match in leading to a conviction and whether the suspect would have been identified by other means anyway.
It argues the database creates “pre-suspects” who are the first to be checked whenever a new crime is entered. This leads to a “no smoke without fire” culture that may be pervasive and hard to overcome.
Whatever happened the presumption of innocence? How can this database have been allowed to ‘function creep’ this severely, when its to crime detection is falling, despite an exponential increase in the number of profiles retained on it? And given the way in which the database is being used, how can any of the near-million innocent people on it be confident that their genetic information won’t be misused? Over three-quarters of black men between 18 and 35 having profiles still on the database suggests something has already gone horribly wrong. There is an attitude in the criminal justice system that anything goes in avoiding risk and preventing the public from danger, but also incredible laziness by the police, who seem to think that DNA matches are the catch-all solutions to crime detection. The figures sadly prove them completely wrong. The Home Office blusters:
“DNA samples are taken on arrest for recordable offences carrying a prison sentence. The Government is clear that this is the right threshold for taking and retaining DNA. We know that the DNA database is a vital crime-fighting tool, identifying 410,589 crime scenes between 1998 and March 2009 with a DNA match and a possible lead on the possible identity of the offender.”
Yet look at the figures:
Figures show that for the past six years the number of crimes solved using DNA evidence has remained static at between 0.34 and 0.36 per cent – about one in 300 of all recorded crimes.
The number of crimes which were solved by a DNA match fell by 13 per cent to 17,614 last year as recorded crime fell overall, according to figures contained in Parliamentary answers.
Over the same period the number of people’s whose identity was on the national DNA database more than doubled in size from 1.9million people to 4.1million.
Trust the Home Office on this? I think not. Independent oversight over the National DNA Database must happen immediately. As Liberty quite rightly points out, leaving it as a tool for the police to do with as they wish is leading to abuses of people who still have the right to be presumed innocent.
The European Court of Human Rights may have ruled it illegal to hold DNA profiles of innocent people on the national database, but that hasn’t stopped the Home Office:
More than 90,000 innocent people have been added to the national DNA database since a landmark human rights ruling that keeping indefinitely the profiles of unconvicted suspects was illegal, according to new figures.
The disclosure comes as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is pressing the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to withdraw guidance to chief constables to carry on collecting DNA profiles of innocent people. It says it will take enforcement action if the chief constables fail to act.
Liberal Democrat research, based on parliamentary answers, shows that 433, 752 profiles have been added to the DNA database since the ruling by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg on 5 December last year – the equivalent of 1,480 a day.
It’s unthinkable that ACPO – a for-profit advisory body should have the power to be able to instruct chief constables to defy the court’s ruling, and heartening that the EHRC has decided to do something about it:
The EHRC has given ACPO 28 days to confirm that the advice to chief constables will be withdrawn and replaced by advice that complies with the law. If ACPO fails to do this, the commission will consider taking formal enforcement action.
The Home Office repeatedly insists on the importance of the database, yet over the last year the number of detections as a result of matches to it fell, whilst its cost doubled to £4.2 million. It pointedly doesn’t comment on why, under those circumstances, there is a need to breach human rights law by continuing to store profiles of innocent people.