Innocent people’s DNA will still be retained, coalition admits

By Ian Dunt

Innocent people's DNA will still be retained by the government despite promises in the coalition agreement they would be destroyed.

Home Office minister James Brokenshire admitted that the DNA of people later found to be innocent will be anonymised but still retained – with law enforcement agencies able to later identify it.

"This is a disgraceful U-turn on the part of the government," Daniel Hamilton, director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said.

"It represents a betrayal of an explicit commitment made in the coalition agreement and stands in contravention of a ruling by the European court of human rights banning the retention of innocent people's DNA.

"Destroying physical DNA samples is a pointless gesture if the computer records are to be retained."

The Home Office insists it is standing by the coalition agreement and trying to find a workable alternative to the physical limitations imposed by forensic laboratories' retention system.

When DNA is taken from someone it is sent to the central database and to local laboratories. Innocent people's DNA will be wiped from the central database but laboratories will keep the samples in batches, making it impossible to destroy those of the innocent but not those of people later provide guilty.

The solution – to anonymise the DNA – has been signed off by the information commissioner.

But it does nothing to counter the arguments of civil liberties campaigners and policing experts who warn that retaining innocents' DNA despite their acquittal gives the police a "presumption of guilt".

Under current legislation, anyone charged by the police has their DNA retained regardless of whether they are later found innocent. The system has led to five million profiles being held on the DNA database.

"It's a situation that would cause concern under the most oppressive regimes in the world, but it's happening right here, right now in Britain," David Cameron said in 2009.

"We will remove innocent people's records from the DNA database.”

Government plans would see England and Wales adopt a Scottish model of retention where all people later found innocent have their DNA removed apart from those accused of sexual or violent offences, which are held for five years.

While that plan will hold for the central database, it will not apply to individual laboratories, where Mr Brokenshire admitted that later identification would be possible.

"Most DNA records… will include the original barcode, which is used by both the police and the FSS [Forensic Science Service] to track the sample and resulting profile through the system," he said.

"It is therefore theoretically possible that a laboratory could identify an individual's profile from the barcode, but only in conjunction with the force which took the original sample, by giving details of the barcode of the force and asking for the individual's name."