Report on UK National DNA database

2 December 2009

The independent UK government advisory body the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) has released a new report on the controversial National DNA database. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear? calls for the police DNA database, the largest of its kind in the world, to be established in law through new primary legislation that explicitly defines the permitted and prohibited uses of the DNA records. The report also calls for much clearer regulation of the database, including an independent oversight body, strengthening of the National DNA Database Ethics Group, and an independent appeals procedure for people who are not charged with or convicted of any crime to have their DNA removed.

It is proposed that a Royal Commission is also set up ‘to give focus to, and to learn from, the public debate, and to ensure that its outcomes will be taken forward and reflected in future legislation’. Recent public consultation revealed widespread concerns about the National DNA database (see previous news), and the new report itself discusses anecdotal evidence that the police are encouraged to detain members of the public for the primary purpose of taking DNA samples for the database. There are additional concerns relating to unfair discrimination in this respect, with a disproportionate number of young black men having their DNA profiles recorded (see Times article). Interestingly, the report specifically recommends that the police themselves should be required to submit their own DNA samples to the database as a condition of employment.

Other recommendations include collaborative work with European centres to standardise markers (to facilitate cross-border crime investigation) and research to determine the true ‘forensic utility’ of the database – that is, just how effective it actually is in combating crime. HGC Chair Professor Jonathan Montgomery said: "…there has been a steady 'function creep', allowing more and more people’s DNA to be kept, but it is not clear that this is matched by an improvement in securing convictions.  There needs to be a regular review of the positive value we get from the database" (see press release). Another concern voiced in the report is the issue of ‘function creep’ – making gradual new uses of the database without sufficient debate, with the contentious example of behavioural genetics cited – and ‘function leap’, the application of the database for completely new purposes such as biometric identity cards or linkage to electronic health records.

Comment: The HGC report is in some respects ill-timed, coming so soon after a recent Government climb-down from plans to allow continued retention of DNA samples from unconvicted people (see previous news). However, there is still an urgent need to address the current problems with the database and the HGC proposals are sensible, offering clarity for the police whilst addressing public worries about civil liberty, discrimination and wider concerns about how the use of genomic information might expand in the future.

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