|Keeping DNA data is illegal. So stop
No matter what the challenges are, if we abandon our democratic principles we do the work of terrorists and criminals for them
Guardian | April 6, 2009
No one would normally accuse me of being soft on crime. I think that far too often we let those who commit crimes in our society off far too lightly. A future Conservative government would change that. But our justice system and our society are based on fundamental principles. No government has the right to change them.
One of those principles is the right to be treated as innocent unless you are proved to be guilty. That right is inalienable. It is not a product of recent human rights legislation. It is a right that has formed the cornerstone of justice in this country for generations. It must never change.
The arrival of DNA testing has brought new dimensions to the investigation of crime. It has brought resolution to old cases where past investigators were unable to uncover the truth. It has brought justice in new cases where once the truth might never have been known.
It is an invaluable tool for our police, and it will help ours and future generations in the battle against those who commit the most terrible crimes.
But I believe that its misuse represents an unacceptable extension of the power of the state at a time when this government is making the state far too intrusive in our society.
Today the DNA data of around five million people is stored on our national DNA database. Almost one in 10 of the population. And a substantial proportion of those people have never been convicted of any crime.
They include tens of thousands of children – and even people in their 90s. They also include my fellow MP Greg Hands, who was asked by police to provide a sample to help them compare family DNA after the untimely death of a relative, which turned out to have been accidental. His DNA is on the database – and the government has refused to remove it.
Much of that data will be stored indefinitely – often against the wishes of those whose data it is. That is an unacceptable extension of what is increasingly becoming a surveillance society. Of course we need to take sensible measures to battle both terrorism and serious crime.
But if we abandon the principles of a democratic society in order to fight that battle, we do the work of the terrorists and the criminals for them. And the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty is one of them. The European Court of Human Rights agrees with us. It has declared the practice of storing the DNA of innocent people indefinitely to be illegal.
An open and shut case, you would think. The system should change immediately. But the government is having none of it. It is moving tentatively towards yet another "consultation". But there is nothing to consult about. The situation is straightforward. It's illegal. It's wrong. So stop.
We are today publishing our view of how to replace the current system. It is based on a model already working well in Scotland – which is legal and reasonable. It will not allow DNA data to be held on the innocent, except in cases where a very serious crime is involved, and then the data can only be stored for a limited period.
It's consistent with international law, and it strikes the right balance. It could also be introduced tomorrow. So why the wait? Why do ministers have to delay obeying the law?
When I challenged Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, about this recently, she just blustered. But there is no excuse for inaction. Yes, we need to be tough on crime. Yes, we need to use DNA evidence to put some of our worst criminals behind bars. Yes, we need to use all the tools we have available to us to make our society a better place. But we won't make it a better place by bending the rules upon which we have built our nation. The government has done much too much of that already. People are innocent until they are proven guilty, and we will make sure that stays the case.