Criminal Justice and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hughes: I, too, appreciate the measured way in which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath put the case. Does the hon. Member for Reigate agree that, if we introduce the system, people might be much less willing to volunteer information on the grounds that they could lose their rights thereafter—for the rest of their lives? There could be adverse as well as favourable consequences.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is right, and he raises a legitimate cause for concern about people's willingness to help the police to eliminate suspects from their inquiries in order to narrow the focus of their investigations. Individuals may wonder whether to help the police. Usually, as citizens, they would want to do so. However, citizens might find themselves faced with a decision that may affect the rest of their lives. Volunteering DNA is effectively giving a blank cheque to the police. If other citizens' DNA has not been given and is not owned by the police, individuals who have volunteered it are at a disadvantage.

The Minister may argue that people will be protecting themselves from a future conviction when a criminal offence has been committed, but who knows what the future holds for any individual, so why should people expose themselves to that possibility? It is on that issue that the Government's approach to the balance between the individual and the state has gone wrong. Their approach will not benefit the wider public interest if it puts people off coming forward to help the police conduct inquiries in which many people have to eliminated from their suspicions.

Mr. Clarke: The discussion of the issues has been excellent, with all three speeches having been to the point. I want to deal with two subsidiary issues at the beginning. The point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about civil servants was unwarranted. The civil service monolith did not drive the Bill forward, with supine Ministers agreeing to a long-standing ambition to transform the law. As always, the civil servants provided excellent advice on the issues. The decision to proceed was taken by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and me in the usual processes of Government. The decision was political, not something on which Ministers caved in to pressure from civil servants who told us to act because not to do so would let down law enforcement for the future of civilisation.

The language about removal of liberties is unwarranted in relation to the issue. Imprisoning people and refusing to allow them to speak in public is qualitatively different from the police being able to retain people's fingerprints and samples. I know that liberty is on a spectrum, but to talk of removal of liberties is a rhetorical step too far.

It is important to stress the reasons why the Government have proposed the clause. As hon. Members have said, it will allow the retention of all fingerprints and samples taken on suspicion of involvement in a criminal offence and will enable them to be used for the prevention and detection of crime, the investigation of an offence and the conduct of a prosecution.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said in his introduction that the changes have been made as a result of the decisions of the criminal division of the Court of Appeal in R v. Weir and R v. B (Attorney-General's reference No. 3/199) May 2000. The cases raise the issue of whether the law relating to retention and use of DNA samples on acquittal should be changed. In the two cases, compelling DNA evidence that linked one suspect to a rape and the other to a murder could not be used, and neither suspect could be convicted. That was because, at the time that the matches were made, both defendants had been acquitted or a decision had been made not to proceed with the offences for which the DNA profiles were taken. Section 64 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 specifies that, when a person is not prosecuted or is acquitted of the offence, the sample must be destroyed and the information derived from it cannot be used.

The subsequent decision of the House of Lords overturned the ruling of the Court of Appeal. The House of Lords ruled that, when a DNA sample fell to be destroyed but had not been, although section 64 of PACE prohibited its use in the investigation of any other offence, it did not make evidence obtained as a failure to comply with that prohibition inadmissible, but left it to the discretion of the trial judge.

Although that ruling allows the courts discretion to use the information, it affects only cases in which samples, through chance and inefficiency, have not been destroyed. The Government's view is that such evidence should not be thrown away and that the police should be able to make proper use of valuable and objective evidence provided by fingerprints and DNA profiling.

Those court decisions led the Government to make the proposals that we are debating. I accept that that meant that there was less wide-scale public debate on the issues than there otherwise might have been. However, the court decisions left the status quo as unacceptable. People could be acquitted of serious offences as a result of almost a legal loophole, a series of legal judgments that put the police's procedures in doubt. It would have raised serious questions for the Government to have ignored it, and that would have left the Crown Prosecution Service unable to prosecute in offences of the type that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and I have cited. We could have been open to serious criticism had we not acted on the situation at the first opportunity. The point about debate has some merit, although we should remember that every piece of legislation ends up being debated in a cold, wet Committee Room on a Thursday so the rhetorical flourish was, perhaps, slightly overdone. We would have been rightly criticised for being delinquent had we not acted in those circumstances.

4.30 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I am listening carefully to the Minister, and I am glad that he is taking seriously the matters raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate. He has now come on to the point that the original Court of Appeal decision, which caused the Government to set out on this course, has been reversed in the House of Lords. Perhaps the Government welcomes that. However, if the Government were to rush to corrective legislation every time a criminal were acquitted because some piece of evidence could not be used, we would spend even more time legislating than we now do.

The Court of Appeal came to the conclusion that it did at that stage in that case because the judges believed that the unlawful retention of the samples was fatal. There have been other decisions where it was clear to all that the police had arrested the right person but that person could not be convicted because our law allows a person who may have committed an offence to go free when there have been mistakes by the police or irregularities in the prosecution process. That is an unfortunate consequence of having legal procedures.

Mr. Clarke: That brings me to the second general consequence of the process that I was going to mention, namely the tremendous power of the scientific techniques associated with DNA, which are transforming our ability to solve a wide variety of cases. It was impressively demonstrated to me shortly after I took office. I went to see the chief constable of Hampshire, who took me through some terrible crimes that had been committed, going back over 15 years. His force was steadily working through them, using the evidence of the time with the modern DNA data, and there have been other recent powerful and convincing examples. Because DNA is such an important part of modern policing technique, it is Government policy to encourage it; we have put a lot of money into it. We therefore felt that for there to be a legal question over the use and abuse of that process was very serious.

The hon. Member for Reigate mentioned another important case in illustrating the ability of the criminal justice system to judge scientific cases. I do not think that this was his point, but the conclusion that I draw from it is that we must strengthen the ability of the criminal justice system—both of juries and of the court itself—to use, understand, interpret and evaluate scientific evidence of this kind, rather than turn our backs on the scientific evidence process as a whole.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the issues around the court case. Does the Minister accept that, logically, it would have been equally possible for the Government—as a result of the court case that said that it was still permissible to use evidence that should not have been held—to conclude that evidence that should not have been held could not have been used? The Government had a choice of ways to resolve that difficult court case decision. They chose one, but could equally well have chosen the other. I have never understood the logic of saying that the DNA of a person who has had DNA taken and been acquitted should continue to be held, when that of people who have not gone through the process is not. What logical justification is there for that power and authority to apply to those people and not to anybody else?

Mr. Clarke: I shall come to the second point. On the first point, the Government's view is that—and the hon. Gentleman is right that we were faced with a choice—the evidence should not be thrown away and the police should be able to make proper use of the valuable and objective evidence provided by fingerprints and DNA profiling.

I acknowledge that a logical case, even a principled case, can be made for opposing clause 81, but I do not think the same of the amendments. I understand that, faced with the choice, the hon. Gentleman would prefer to go the way of the amendments. He would take the explicit risk that people might be found not guilty of the terrible offences that they had committed because we took note of his evaluation of the civil liberties issues. He wants to go one way; we want to go the other. A legitimate argument—and a vote—is to be had, here, on the Floor of the House or in the nation on that matter. The Government are going down that course because we believe that the power of technology is important and that we should not eschew the use of that evidence.

I come now to the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate. There are occasions when individuals give fingerprints or samples voluntarily—for example, for the purposes of elimination when they participate in a DNA intelligence or mass screen. The clause will permit the retention of fingerprints or samples if an individual gives consent in writing; but consent is entirely voluntary. I emphasise that it is for the individual to give consent. For the reasons stated by the hon. Gentleman, we do not want to discourage anyone from participating in a DNA intelligence screen or from giving fingerprints or samples for other elimination purposes. Consent is at the core; one can consent or not. Those who want to may do so. However, once consent has been given, it cannot be withdrawn. I give an absolute assurance that is it no part of the Government's proposal in any respect whatsoever to put pressure on people or to create uniformity in such a way that suggests that the people participating in those screens should consent. Consent is entirely voluntary and all our practices will reinforce that.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 8 March 2001