Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Clarke: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which has substance and is more powerful than his earlier one about scientific error. In fact, when I visited people at the Forensic Science Service recently—which is probably in his constituency—I discussed with them in great detail precisely his point. However, is his not a philosophy of despair? Does it not follow from the logic of his argument that it is not worth compiling a DNA database?

Mr. Hughes: No. I am absolutely aware of the benefits of science, and especially forensic science, in the investigation of crime, and of how much the police increasingly rely on it. To be honest, it is only the development of the old CID work of the great novels, films and television serials of the past. Forensic science is used to make matches, which is particularly important for serious crimes of violence. For example, forensic evidence has already played a significant part in the Damilola Taylor inquiry. We hope that that will lead to a satisfactory conclusion and people will be charged soon and correctly and convicted appropriately. I am entirely aware of the importance of forensic science: it has a huge role to play, and the police will increasingly rely on it.

This whole debate is about the relative liberty of the individual against the state. The proposition is being put in the context of the Bill without all the preparation that we should properly have. We have had important debates in the House on genetic testing, gene-related science and whether it is appropriate to permit research on embryos for the purpose of medical cures for permanent and debilitating conditions such as Parkinson's disease. As I recollect it, the two votes that we had in the Commons and the Lords were preceded by two full days of debate about whether it was appropriate to go down that road. We considered the scientific evidence and the evidence produced by Committees of both Houses, listened to the views expressed and proceeded carefully.

However, I do not think that we in this country have had a debate at all on this issue. We have not faced the question whether it is appropriate to move to a society in which the police can, without the individual's consent, hold such information. It is a large debate and goes to the heart of what information on the individual should be held by the authorities. Although I understand where the proposal comes from and the reason why the police and the National Criminal Intelligence Service would argue persuasively for its inclusion, that does not justify taking a decision of this magnitude in this way, at this time, without a wider debate.

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry to intervene again, but this is an important issue and I want to be absolutely clear on the hon. Gentleman's position. Is he saying that there are circumstances in which, had there been such a debate, he could imagine supporting the measures in the clause?

Mr. Hughes: I do not think that I would be persuaded, but it is a little like the situation with the referendum on the euro. We should not have such a referendum without a great national debate about whether we should join. The Government should not introduce a proposal unless we have had a significant debate that shows that the public understand the implications and have signed up to it.

There are a couple of less important procedural points. We are about to have Lord Justice Auld's report, which deals in part with this issue. I gather that he has said that he will not now sign it off until after an election if an election is held this spring, so that it does not become an election issue, but we are likely to have it before the end of the spring.

Mr. Heald: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm the spelling of ``Auld'', because the Hansard report of an earlier sitting referred to ``the old report''?

Mr. Hughes: I can confirm that it should be ``the Auld report''.

I understand the police's argument in favour of increasing the number of people on the database and having a larger information bank against which suspects can be checked when arrested. It is, however, a poor argument, because the police could be given all sorts of extra powers to increase convictions. If there were enough money in the Budget, if the Chancellor had been so minded and if further recruitment were possible, we could increase the police force 10 times over. That would greatly increase the likely number of convictions, but we would require a national debate before proceeding with that. We could take away the rights of defendants and interpret the right to silence in a particular way to count heavily against them. There are all sorts of ways of increasing the number of convictions.

I am unhappy with the current rate of convictions. Together with cautions, convictions apply to only 3 per cent. of offences in the British crime survey and 24 per cent. of recorded crimes. That is not good enough. We need to improve the detection rate through better policing, and the police need to bring their activities up to speed. More intelligence-led and professional policing is necessary and the police must have all the kit, radios, vehicles and other tools that they need. We must ensure that we have enough police and that the criminal justice system works well, but we must not keep edging away at people's liberties.

Here is another surprising element of policy from a Government who failed to mention it in their manifesto. Civil servants' and the Government's desire to be perceived as strong on law and order is undermining the understanding of some elements of the Labour party—it has always had an authoritarian streak—that civil liberties need to be defended against people in authority such as the police, civil servants and others.

We must resist this measure, as we must resist removing the right to choose a trial by jury—another plank in the Government's current programme, to which they were expressly opposed at the general election. The Government have no public authority for changing their position. On a wide range of matters, they are eroding the balance between the state and the individual, which saddens me and does no credit to the Minister, the Government or the country. We are supposed to be a country in which liberty burns brightly and is taken away only by agreement of the overwhelming majority of the public, and in which the rights of minorities are defended.

Policing must be by agreement, but this proposal certainly does not have the agreement of the Liberal Democrats. I expect that it will not have the agreement of Conservative members of the Committee or, I hope, of those elements in the Labour party who are traditionally committed to civil liberties. The Minister should either accept the amendments or withdraw the clause. If not, we shall certainly return to the issue on Report, when I expect to gain considerable support. Let me tell the Minister now that we will not agree to include these proposals in any negotiated Bill in the event of an early election. It would be better if the proposals were removed from the Bill now, so we would have one less controversial matter to worry about in the weeks ahead.

4.15 pm

Mr. Blunt: First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on the manner in which they highlighted the important issues in the debate—and I shall not go over the same ground again. I agree with Liberty's conclusion that

    ``There is no logical difference between this and the compilation of a mass DNA base of all individuals.''

If a DNA database is created of people who have not been convicted of an offence but who cannot have an earlier consent, given as part of a mass screening, to inclusion withdrawn, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, there will be two classes of unconvicted people—those for whom the police have DNA bases and those for whom they do not.

I therefore wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that that must be the subject of a much wider and more serious debate about the rights of the individual as against the rights of the state. I have not come to a conclusion on the wider issue of whether it is right for there to be a DNA database of the nation—as it effectively would be if, as part of the contract between the citizen and the state, all citizens had their DNA entered on to a national register after their birth, in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Taunton. That is the logic of what the Government are doing. There is a perfectly respectable case for that, because of how important DNA will be in establishing identity in criminal cases. It will also have some part to play in civil cases, in terms of people's entitlement to treatment on the national health service or payment of social security contributions, for example. It will become a way in which the state can establish someone's identity. I do not know how exactly many national insurance numbers exist but it is perhaps around 80 million—while there are only 59 million of us. The system is clearly being used fraudulently on quite a wide scale. That form of identity check is a method by which one can establish that people are entitled to citizenship of this country and the rights that that confers.

In terms of the enforcement of the law—which is in all our interests—we must ask whether there is a case for surrendering part of our liberty to give the police a database of us all, in order to bring people more effectively to justice. That is an immensely difficult philosophical question. I instinctively come at such issues from a libertarian perspective. I understand why the Government are doing what they are doing, and am convinced by the logic of it, but I am concerned that an attempt is being made to widen the DNA database by subterfuge, so that people who willingly come forward to take part in a screening process—for example where the police are checking all males in a particular village in which a rape has been committed in order to eliminate people from their inquiries—become part of a subtle and surreptitious attempt to widen the DNA database. Samples would not be destroyed and the police would gradually move towards having as many DNA records as possible.

If that happens, it must be done in an upfront way. We must be honest with the electorate and have the debate; we must be prepared for the Government—whoever they are—to say, ``This is necessary to protect the wider interests of society to enable police to detect crime, to bring people who have committed rape to justice.'' The Government should also make it clear that such people will think twice about committing offences of that kind if they know that they are registered on the DNA database.

The Police Federation wanted those provisions included in the Bill. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, Fred Broughton said:

    ``We believe there to be a dilemma in relation to the retention of un-convicted persons samples, a dilemma that the Government must argue out themselves in respect of both the Human Rights and Data Protection Acts.''

We also need to argue out the relationship between the citizen and the state. There is dishonesty about the Government's attempts to use the Bill to widen the DNA database. We must have an upfront and open debate. There should not be two classes of unconvicted citizen at risk of having their DNA retained by the police.

Here we are on a wet Thursday afternoon in Committee Room 9 at the end of our consideration of the Bill. It is hardly the national forum in which to conduct a fundamental debate on this principle. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey stressed that we would return to it on Report, but we do not have much time to conduct that debate either. The issue is so fundamental that I am certain that the House of Lords will have much more to say about it when the provisions are sent to the other place. It should have been taken to its logical conclusion, perhaps without the Government adopting a particular position in the first place. They could have pointed to the advantages and disadvantages and stimulated a national debate.

I am concerned about the conduct of science in criminal trials. It is always an issue when scientific evidence is presented to non-scientists. Juries are largely composed of non-scientists, yet they are often told that the scientific evidence is unarguable. That is my worry about DNA profiling. We do not yet know how testable DNA is, or how reliable databases are. It raises all the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath about the reliability of forensic laboratories, and paper processing—ensuring that the right sample is attached to the right name—is another potential difficulty.

The danger is—we see it with Ministers—that, when a case is presented, numbers are clung on to because they appear to represent points of certainty in the arguments. It sometimes seems that all the subjective arguments fall when certainty or objectivity is injected into debates through numbers or science. It might appear only later that the evidence, although scientific, was subject to error. As I say, people might try to cling on to certainty when they are making judgments about the guilt or innocence of individuals.

It is not that we do not support the Government's intentions or fail to understand their reasons for widening the DNA database. The problem is that we have not yet reached the stage at which these provisions should be smuggled on to the statute book.

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