Nuffield DNA consultation

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics held a consultation on the police use of DNA and fingerprints. The consultation finished on 30th January 2007 and the Council published its report on 18th September. The report concludes that the law in England and Wales should be brought in line with that in Scotland, so that people are removed from the Database and have their DNA destroyed on acquittal. It also makes recommendations for further safeguards to prevent misuse of people's genetic information.

The following information was provided by GeneWatch UK as background to the consultation.

The consultation is important because there has been no public debate about a series of changes in the law in England and Wales. Instead of only keeping the DNA of serious criminals, the National DNA Database has expanded rapidly and now includes about a million people who have not been convicted or cautioned for any offence.

The consultation is the first chance for people outside Scotland (where the law is different) to have a say about the DNA Database. It asks many questions, some of which are quite technical. However, the main issues are:

1. Who should be on the National DNA Database?

2. How should it be controlled?

If you don't have time to answer the full consultation, you can still send your views on these two issues to:

If you or your children are on the DNA Database, you could just tell the Nuffield Council on Bioethics how you feel about this. Do you think it was fair for the police to take your DNA and fingerprints? Do you think it is reasonable for them to keep your DNA profile on a computer database and store your DNA permanently? Should DNA taken by the police be used for genetic research?

If you want to encourage other people to have their say, you can print our new leaflets and cards (for printing on 'Avery' double sided business cards order code 8865), or order free copies from

GeneWatch UK believes that the most important safeguards are time limits on how long people are kept on the Database - so that only people convicted of serious violent or sexual offences are kept on it permanently - and an independent regulator. We also think that DNA samples should be destroyed once the DNA profiles used for identification purposes have been obtained.

Who should be on the National DNA Database?

GeneWatch UK believes that there should be time limits on how long people are kept on the Database, depending on the seriousness of their offence. Time limits would provide an important safeguard to prevent excessive surveillance by future governments, without noticeably reducing the chance of solving a serious crime. Britain has the biggest DNA Database in the world, but making it bigger is not helping to solve more crimes. Collecting more DNA from crime scenes has made a big difference to the number of crimes solved, but keeping DNA from more and more people who have been arrested - many of whom are innocent - has not. Since April 2003, about 1.5 million extra people have been added to the Database, but the chances of detecting a crime using DNA has remained constant, at about 0.36%.

Number of individuals' DNA profiles on NDNAD2,099,9642,371,1202,802,8493,534,956
DNA detections21,09820,48919,87320,349
Recorded crimes5,920,1566,042,9915,623,2635,556,513
DNA detection rate0.36%0.34%0.35%0.37%

Sources: NDNAD Ann Rpt 2002-03; Home Office (2006); Hansard 24th July and 4th Sept 2006.

The Government often cites the number of DNA matches between crime scenes and individuals on the Database. Although they sound impressive, these figures include many matches with victims and innocent passers-by. Only some matches (called DNA detections) involve sufficient evidence to charge someone for a crime, and not all DNA detections lead to prosecutions or convictions.

The police often report the success of the Database in solving 'cold' cases (past unsolved cases of rape or murder). These cases have sometimes involved the DNA of someone arrested for a minor offence being matched with DNA from a serious past crime. These cases show how important it is to keep past crime scene DNA evidence and can perhaps be used to justify taking DNA from relatively large numbers of individuals. However, they do not justify keeping DNA from people whose DNA has not matched a past crime scene.

A smaller DNA Database, with DNA samples kept only temporarily and people's DNA profiles and other information removed after fixed time periods, could be introduced without reducing the role of the Database in tackling crime. It would also cost less than the current system.

How should the National DNA Database be controlled?

The National DNA Database has been used for controversial genetic research without consent and one of the companies involved also kept copies of people's genetic information. Before the law was changed to allow permanent retention, many people's DNA was not removed when it should have been. An independent regulator is therefore needed to make sure the Database is not misused and that new safeguards are implemented. A regulator could also check that the police and courts understand the limitations of DNA evidence and ensure that people are consulted about new uses of the Database.

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