The UK Police National DNA Database

GeneWatch has raised many concerns about the Police National DNA Database.

We argued the law should be changed to make the Database much smaller and more carefully controlled and that important changes can be made to safeguard privacy and rights without compromising the use of DNA in fighting crime. In a landmark ruling on 4th December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights agreed.

The Coalition Government adopted the Protection of Freedoms Act on 1st May 2012. The Act entered into force on 31st October 2013. The National DNA Database Annual report for 2012/13 reports that over 1.7 million DNA profiles taken from innocent people and from children have been removed from the DNA database and 7,753,000 DNA samples have been destroyed.

New police guidance has also been promised which will require the deletion of innocent people's records on the Police National Computer.

Most innocent people's DNA profiles and fingerprints will now be deleted from police databases automatically, but some people arrested for serious offences may have their record retained for up to 3 years, and others may have these records retained indefinitely (for repeated 2 year periods) for 'national security' reasons. If you wish to apply for early deletion of your DNA profile and fingerprints visit the Reclaim your DNA section of this website.


Until recently, the police in Britain kept more DNA samples than any other country, per head of population. Now, more than 7 million DNA samples have been destroyed. The UK still keeps large numbers of DNA profiles (a string of numbers based on parts of the DNA) on its police DNA database. However, under the Protection of Freedoms Act, most innocent people's DNA profiles have now been removed. The US database is slightly larger in terms of total numbers. Nearly 10% of the UK's population (about 6 million people) is on the National DNA database compared to Austria, which has the 2nd largest proportion of the population on its police database at just over 1%.

Since April 2004, the police in England and Wales have been able to take DNA samples without consent from anyone arrested on suspicion of any recordable offence. The law in Northern Ireland is the same but was implemented later. Recordable offences include begging, being drunk and disorderly and taking part in an illegal demonstration. DNA profiles (the string of numbers used for identification purposes) are kept permanently from adults with a conviction or caution, but children with a single conviction for a minor offence now have their DNA profiles removed after three years. DNA samples (which contain unlimited genetic information), were kept permanently, even if the person arrested was never charged or is acquitted, but now all samples must be destroyed within six months of the DNA profile being obtained, to protect privacy.

Prior to the adoption of the Protection of Freedoms Act, a massive expansion in the number of individuals on the Database did not lead to any noticable increase in the likelihood of identifying a suspect.

In Scotland the law is different and DNA was never allowed to be kept permanently from innocent people. However, DNA from people convicted of relatively minor offences such as Breach of the Peace can be kept for life.

GeneWatch's Position Statement

GeneWatch believes that DNA can be an important tool in criminal investigations. We are not opposed to the existence of a DNA Database. However, prior to the adoption of the Protection of Freedoms Act, we opposed the law and practice in England and Wales because:

  • it allowed the permanent retention of DNA samples and records from anyone arrested for virtually any offence, regardless of whether they are charged or convicted;
  • uses of the Database were not adequately documented or controlled;
  • legislation had been rushed through without adequate public or parliamentary debate, in a political context where there are increasing concerns about a growing police state or surveillance society;
  • the uncontrolled expansion of the DNA database would not make a significant difference to the detection of serious crime.

The law in England and Wales went much further than in any other country and similar proposals to keep the DNA of innocent people permanently were rejected by the Scottish Parliament in 2006.

GeneWatch believed the law should be changed and that more public debate was needed to determine the appropriate balance between crime detection, human rights and privacy. We argued that there were important changes that can be made to safeguard privacy and rights without compromising the use of DNA in fighting crime. These included:

  • a policy of time limits on the retention of people's DNA profiles on the Database, related to the seriousness of the offence and whether a person has been convicted (similar to the original policy adopted when the Database was set up in 1995). A policy on retention would limit the potential for future governments to misuse the data to restrict people's rights and freedoms. A public debate is needed to establish the details of who should be on the Database and for how long.;
  • destroying individuals' DNA samples once an investigation is complete, after the DNA profiles used for identification have been obtained. This would limit the potential for personal genetic information to be revealed in future, as science, technology and new policies develop;
  • an end to the practice of allowing companies to undertake controversial genetic research using the Database (which has included attempts to link DNA profiles with ethnicity). This practice breaches ethical requirements for informed consent to genetic research;
  • a return to the previous policy of taking DNA on charge, rather than arrest, except when the sample is needed to investigate the specific crime for which a person has been arrested. This would reinstate an important safeguard against the collection of DNA profiles reflecting discriminatory policing;
  • the creation of an independent, transparent and accountable governing body.

Many of these issues were addressed in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (brought into force in October 2013), which requires the destruction of DNA samples and the removal of most innocent people's DNA profiles and improves oversight. However, some issues remain to be addressed, for example:

  • Indefinite retention of DNA profiles from children who have committed more than one minor offence, and adults who have committed a single minor offence, is still excessive;
  • Collection of DNA on arrest for all recordable offences (where DNA is in most cases irrelevant to solving the crime) is unneccesary and expensive (especially for children);
  • The issue of how long Police National Computer (PNC) records are retained for innocent people and people convicted of minor offences has yet to be resolved.

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