Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Simon Hughes: We shall support the amendments if they are pressed to a Division, but we shall oppose clause 81 for reasons that can be anticipated.

There is all the difference in the world between information held by the police that is obtained lawfully in the pursuit of people suspected of having committed offences who are then convicted, or information, evidence or material that is voluntary given to the police by members of the public; and using material, evidence or information that was given to the police involuntarily by someone who was being investigated and was thus subject to the authority of the police but who was subsequently released without a conviction.

Someone who goes through the hands of the police and comes out at the other end of the criminal justice process as not guilty of the offence about which they were being investigated or with which they had been charged is, in law, entirely guiltless, as are those who have never been through that process. Society believes in several things that we in Parliament should hold dear. The first premise is that people's liberty should be respected and invasions of liberty should be carried out as infrequently as possible. Maximising the liberty of the citizen against the state, whether or not the state is acting in the good interests of society, is a principle that should be compromised only with good reason and if the general consensus is that it should be done.

The second premise, which is held by all the nations of the United Kingdom, is that people are innocent until proved guilty. Those who go through the hands of the authorities and are found not guilty must be presumed innocent. We in England do not have the middle-way alternative verdict available in Scots law of not proven, but even in Scots law that verdict should not imply guilt. I believe that the same principle should apply to those found not guilty in Scots law as applies elsewhere in the UK. They should be entitled to the same rights as those who have never been through the hands of the police.

The Government concede that people who have always been innocent and who never been in the hands of the police should not lose their right to resist having their body samples, fingerprints or DNA samples taken and held without their authority. That puts in a different category from the rest of us people who happen by the accident of life to pass through police hands on the basis of suspicion, but are found not to be guilty, and who should be presumed to be as innocent as someone who has not been investigated. That is an entirely improper and prejudicial differentiation that for the rest of their lives will give those people a status with the authorities that disadvantages them in terms of their freedom and liberty.

Mr. Clarke: When the hon. Gentleman uses the phrase ``disadvantages them'', does he mean in the event that they have committed a crime for which their DNA or fingerprint has identified them? In what sense does he mean that phrase?

Mr. Hughes: It disadvantages them in the sense that material evidence samples are in the hands of the authorities, which they do not have on other innocent people. I mean it in that straightforward sense. The authorities have information about them that they do not have about other innocent people for no good reason other than that they happen to have been subject to police arrest.

Mr. Clarke: I understand the point about information being different between such people and other innocent people, but why should the authorities having that information be a disadvantage to such an innocent person?

Mr. Hughes: Because the authorities' holding of information on them is not the norm in a society in which we concede information only in exceptional circumstances. I take the view that all information about me, the Minister and other Committee members should be private unless there is agreement and justification for its being made public. Information should be held on us by others only if we consent, or if there is a good case.

We have the same argument about private selling agencies, banks, cash cards and so on. We are at present fighting a battle in which private sector companies seek all the time, before they give us any service, to know our name, our address, our postcode, our mother's maiden name, our wife's date of birth—a whole list of things that appear to me to be gross intrusions into our liberty. We do not have to submit to that, because we do not have to have cashpoint cards from bank X or a loyalty card from multiple retailer Y, but in this case there ain't no choice.

Surprisingly for a Labour Government, the Government propose that someone who goes through the hands of the police should have information taken from them and retained without their consent. It will be entirely an accident whether their information remains in the hands of the police; it will depend on the police investigation, which may or may not have been well organised, accurate or justified by intelligence-led policing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton put it to the Minister that there is no fundamental difference between arguing for the clause and arguing that everyone should have their DNA sample made available to the state when birth is registered, or when the baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut—that when the nurse comes in someone should come in on behalf of big brother and take all the samples that the authorities may need for the rest of the baby's life. I am sorry, but I am not signed up to that society. I do not know all the details, but I saw some programmes about whether that would be appropriate to deal with crime in Iceland. I gather that there was a great debate, and it was extremely controversial. We should not go down that road.

It is entirely justifiable to argue that where someone has a record of criminality, there is a greater propensity to further criminality, but not that where someone has no record of criminality, information should be held that gives the police an advantage that they do not have over anyone else. One might argue—though I would not—that that case was difficult to make if DNA sample matching were perfect. I am not a scientist, but I understand that it is very good but does not always give the right results. If there may be a scientific and technical failing, that is another reason for resisting the proposal that authorities should hold such important information on innocent people against their will.

4 pm

Mr. Clarke: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is important not to overstate it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)—a bio-technologists who chairs the all-party group on science and technology—recently asked some parliamentary questions on the issue, which I answered as fully as I could. Information is available on international standards for the accuracy of the DNA technique. The weight of the hon. Gentleman's point, which I accept, depends on the scale and nature of the probability of mistakes being made. The chances of such mistakes are remote—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred to a one in 70 million chance—and it is important to put the philosophical point, which has weight, within the scientific context of the very small risk.

Mr. Hughes: I understand exactly what the Minister is saying; it is a philosophical, state versus individual, argument. The risk of an inaccurate result when DNA samples are matched is very much a supplementary, or secondary argument. I did not know the exact figures and I have not seen the answers to which he referred, but I shall make it my business to look at them. My understanding was along the lines of his answer, that the scientific assessment is that there is an extremely high probability of accuracy and a low probability of inaccuracy.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although both he and I have great respect for forensic scientists and forensic science laboratories, part of the problem with the society that he said he has not signed up to—he and I both fear that the Labour Government, with their recently discovered authoritarian tendency, will move towards it—is that however careful forensic scientists are, mistakes are made. It is not just a matter of statistical probability; some major miscarriages of justice arose from the negligent or malicious misuse of forensic scientific evidence.

Mr. Hughes: I was about to come to that point, which was well made.

In my relatively short time as a member of the Bar, between working on the other side of the channel and being elected to Parliament, I had much experience of cases where there were mistakes in the identification of materials, scientific inaccuracies, the path lab getting it wrong or the sample being lost or mislaid, just as medical records go adrift. Even if I was minded to agree with the philosophical point, I would need to be satisfied that I, as a citizen, had the opportunity to assess whether the system was accurate, throughout its processes. Many people do not have such opportunities, and I doubt that the independent scrutiny of the accountability and transparency of record keeping is such that everybody can have confidence in it.

We are not yet at the stage where we can say that there will not be any case in which someone will argue that there was inaccurate marking, tagging or transfer or a mismatch between information that left one place and arrived at another. Until we can be sure that there is a perfect system—if we can ever be sure—I have another reason for resistance and reluctance. It is a little like the arguments about computer databases. They are generally wonderful, but sometimes go wrong. I am not satisfied, and I have never had any reason to be persuaded, that the system whereby all the information is held will not at some stage get something wrong. Of course, we can build in checks, balances and opportunities to inspect it, but that still does not guarantee a perfect system, nor will it. As the old cliche says, what comes out depends on what one puts in. Occasionally, people may make mistakes when inputting the information, which may mean mistakes in the information that comes out.

 
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