27th February 2006
GeneWatch UK today criticised the Government and the police for misleading the public about the benefits of retaining DNA from large numbers of innocent people. The new GeneWatch briefing, as reported in today's Herald (1), examines Home Office figures and statements by ministers and the police (2). It concludes that the decision in England and Wales to retain DNA permanently from people who have never been charged or who have been acquitted of an offence, has probably contributed little to tackling crime. GeneWatch called for a new independent evaluation of the National DNA Database to inform the political debate (3).
"An important public debate is needed about how to balance the role of the National DNA Database in tackling crime with privacy and human rights" said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "Misleading claims about the benefits of keeping innocent people - including children - on the Database are distorting the debate. This policy has not delivered in terms of crimes detected using DNA".
GeneWatch also criticised the Scottish police for an article claiming that 10,000 offences, including 88 murders, had been 'solved' as a result of the decision to keep innocent people's DNA permanently in England and Wales (4). This claim is wrong because these are estimates for DNA matches, not successful prosecutions. Many matches between a DNA profile from a crime scene and an individual arise because someone was at the crime scene earlier in the day, or because they came to help or were a victim.
The Scottish Parliament is shortly to decide whether or not to change its law to allow permanent retention of DNA profiles and samples by the police.
"DNA matches are not solved crimes and claims that they are mislead the public", said Dr Wallace. "It is important that Scotland does not swallow this misinformation, and makes its own informed decision on how to balance crime detection with human rights".
The main findings in the briefing are:
The number of crimes detected using the DNA Database fell in 2004/05, when the DNA profiles of 124,347 people who had been arrested but subsequently not charged or cautioned were first retained in England and Wales;
The success of the Database is determined largely by the number of DNA profiles collected from crime scenes, not by the number of individuals' DNA profiles taken at police stations. The decision in 2000 to collect more DNA from scenes of volume crime (such as burglary and car theft) has successfully doubled the number of crimes detected using DNA.
However, the expansion of the Database to include many more DNA profiles from individuals appears to have contributed little to detecting crime. The chances of matching a DNA profile from a crime scene to an individual's DNA profile (the DNA detection rate) has not significantly increased despite the number of individuals' DNA profiles in the Database expanding from 2 million (in 2002/03) to 3 million (in 2004/05). This is probably because the chance of an innocent person retained on the Database committing an offence is very low compared to the likelihood of a 'career criminal' doing so.
Ministers have repeatedly failed to distinguish between DNA matches and successful prosecutions, and the relative merits of entering and permanently retaining people's DNA profiles on the Database. This tends to exaggerate the contribution of the Database and its expansion to solving crime. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) has claimed falsely that police forces in England and Wales have 'solved' 10,000 offences (including 88 murders) due to the law on retaining DNA being changed in 2001 (2). These are the estimated number of DNA matches, not prosecutions - they will include many matches with the DNA of victims and of passers-by.
Only 0.35% of crimes were detected using DNA in 2004/05 and this percentage has stayed constant for the last three years. Most of these are volume crimes (such as burglaries and thefts). This number is an overestimate of the value of the Database, because only about half were new detections (i.e. had not already been made by other police work) and many detections do not lead to convictions.
Even if the Database expanded to include everybody in the population, it is unlikely to play a role in more than 0.5% of crimes. This is because the number of cases that can be solved using DNA will always be limited by the number of crime scenes from which DNA profiles can be collected and the need for corroborating evidence.
Dr Helen Wallace on 01298-871898 (office) or 07903-311584 (mobile).
Notes to Editors:
Police DNA records plan 'fails to solve more crimes'. The Herald, 27th February 2006. http://www.theherald.co.uk/news/56982.shtml
"The DNA Expansion Programme: Reporting Real Achievement?" by GeneWatch UK is available on: http://www.genewatch.org/HumanGen/Consultation%20responses/NDNAD%20in%20Scotland.htm
GeneWatch is calling on Home Office minister Andy Burnham MP to implement the 2005 recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee by commissioning an independent evaluation of the Database. This evaluation could then inform the decision to be taken in Scotland about whether to permanently retain all DNA.
This claim was made by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland's Lead on DNA Issues, the Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders police, on 14th February in the Edinburgh Evening News. Available on: http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=231002006