Another Cameron U-turn on DNA
His Grace can live with the U-turns on scrapping free school milk, capping welfare handouts, privatising forests, and sentencing discounts for criminals pleading guilty. The Conservative Party is, after all, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and compromise is the order of the day, if only out of sensitivity for the Liberal Democrat polling meltdown. But when it comes to abandoning manifesto commitments which relate to our rights and civil liberties, we move into the realm of betrayal.
And betrayal is not too strong a word, for the pledge to expunge from police databases the DNA of more than a million innocent people was not only a Conservative Party Manifesto commitment; it was in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto and then reiterated in the joint Coalition Agreement, which constitutes the Coalition Manifesto.
The Conservative Manifesto pledge (pp79f):
The indefinite retention of innocent people’s DNA is unacceptable, yet DNA data provides a useful tool for solving crimes. We will legislate to make sure that our DNA database is used primarily to store information about those who are guilty of committing crimes rather than those who are innocent. We will collect the DNA of all existing prisoners, those under state supervision who have been convicted of an offence, and anyone convicted of a serious recordable offence. We pushed the Government to end the permanent retention of innocent people’s DNA , and we will change the guidance to give people on the database who have been wrongly accused of a minor crime an automatic right to have their DNA withdrawn.The Liberal Democrat Manifesto pledge (p94):
Liberal Democrats will protect and restore your freedoms. We will... Remove innocent people from the police DNA database and stop storing DNA from innocent people and children in the future, too.The Coalition Agreement (Section 10):
The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion. This will include... The Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.The pledge really couldn’t have been any clearer: it accorded with conservative, liberal and democratic values, and was issued in triplicate.
The Scottish model is a reasonable and fair balance between the manifest need to solve serious crimes and the negative impacts on people's rights and liberties if their details are stored in perpetuity on a state database. Since 2004, anyone (including children) arrested in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can have a sample of their DNA taken, which is then retained in police records forever, regardless of whether or not a person is charged or convicted. There is an inherent presumption of likely future guilt. In Scotland, some DNA from innocent people can be retained, but only for three years and only in cases relating to violent or sexual offences. After that, the police must apply to a Sheriff, who may grant permission for the police to retain the DNA for a further two years. Scotland prohibits the permanent retention of the DNA of children: there is an inherent presumption of future innocence.
But The Daily Telegraph tells us now that the Conservative Party will not ‘end the permanent retention of innocent people’s DNA’; the Liberal Democrats will not ‘stop storing DNA from innocent people and children’; and the Coalition will not be ‘adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database’. Instead, the police will permanently retain DNA profiles ‘in anonymised form’, leaving open the possibility of connecting them up with people’s names.
This is a perversion of the definition of ‘anonymous’: if a mechanism is retained for matching a DNA profile to an individual, there is no anonymity. The Telegraph observes that this ‘appears to break a Coalition commitment to delete all innocent profiles’.
Appears to break a commitment?
No, it is a positive, absolute, undeniable and unequivocal break of the agreement: it is a breach of faith and trust; a broken promise; a betrayal.
There are presently more than five million profiles on the State Database, which includes a million completely innocent people. The State has thereby assumed the right of ownership of our DNA. If the State can harvest that, why not our kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts and eyes?
The bizarre thing is that this illiberal, undemocratic and un-conservative U-turn does not come as a result of Liberal Democrat pressure upon Conservatives. And neither is it a result of an EU directive or diktat; indeed, the ECHR ruled in 2008 that such data retention was unlawful. So to whose tune is the Coalition dancing? Surely not a police jig?
Daniel Hamilton of Big Brother Watch observes: “This is a disgraceful U-turn on the part of the government. Destroying physical DNA samples is a pointless gesture if the computer records are to be retained. Despite paying lip service to freedom and civil liberties, this government is fast proving itself to be every bit as illiberal as its predecessor.”
Come on, Prime Minister. Could you please explain the provenance and reasoning of this U-turn? And while you're at, could you also please clarify what it is you believe and stand for? Thank you.