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Growing DNA database 'turning Britain into a nation of suspects'

London Independent / Steve Connor | November 1 2006

One in four men could soon be included on the national DNA database which is helping to turn Britain into a nation of suspects, an expert group has warned.

The database has been established with little or no public consultation but over the past 10 years has collected DNA profiles on more than 3.5 million people, including 24,000 children and youths under the age of 18.

Britain stores the most extensive DNA database on its population in the world, yet the public has never been properly consulted on it, said Professor Sir Bob Hepple, chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent think tank.

"There are many concerns about the way in which the database is developing. It is increasing at the rate of 40,000 profiles a month but there are no restrictions in this country. It's all at the discretion of chief constables," Sir Bob said.

Everyone who has ever been arrested by the police, even if they are not charged, is obliged to provide a DNA sample for the national database, which also includes victims of crime and others who have volunteered a sample to help a criminal investigation.

Once someone has agreed to provide a DNA sample to the database they have no automatic right to have it removed or destroyed at a later date.

This is not the case in some other countries, said Carole McCartney, a lecturer in criminal law at Leeds University who sits on the Nuffield Council's working group on the DNA database. "Police powers in this country to take DNA samples are unrivalled internationally. We didn't have any legislation to establish the DNA database and it's not been debated in Parliament," Dr McCartney said.
During a recent visit to the Forensic Science Service, which operates the database for the Home Office, Tony Blair said that he would like the national DNA database extended still further, with no restrictions on its size.

Sir Bob said that this implies that the Prime Minister would be happy to see every citizen's DNA profile being stored on the database. "The cost would be enormous but there is also the deeper question - instead of being a nation of citizens we become a nation of suspects," Sir Bob said.

With this in mind, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation exercise to investigate the attitude of the general public, as well as interested parties, towards the national DNA database.

"We want to hear the public's views on whether storing the DNA profiles of victims and suspects who are later not charged or acquitted is justified by the need to fight crime," Sir Bob said.

The database is heavily biased to certain groups in society, such as ethnic minorities and the young. A third of black males in England and Wales are on the database, he said.

"Certain groups such as young males and ethnic minorities are over-represented on the database, and the Council will be asking whether this potential for bias in law enforcement is acceptable," he said.


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