Alan Johnson on DNA retention – a quick fisk

The Home Secretary Alan Johnson has today written a short defence of the practice of retaining innocent DNA on the national database for six years. You can read the article in full on the Guardian Comment is Free, but we thought we'd pick out a few choice cuts and show why his reasoning is faulty, unreferenced and internally inconsistent.

"The most recent research supports the case for the retention of DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted. It also shows that, after six years, the probability of re-arrest is no higher than for the rest of the population."

AlanJohnsonBlue It is a shame that the Home Secretary did not reference this research, because it would have certainly helped his argument. I am left to speculate that the research might be that conducted by the Jill Dando Institute, whose Director came forward last month to admit that the Government has pressured the Institute into a figure and ended up basing their DNA policy on incomplete research. 

This might also explain the inconsistency in his argument; because if the evidence suggests that after six years those people whose DNA is retained on the database are just as likely to commit a crime as those who are not, where are the benefits of retention?

"I reject the claim by the Human Genetics Commission yesterday that large numbers of people are being arrested simply to collect their DNA. There is no substantive evidence to suggest this is so."

Except, as we wrote yesterday, the claim was made by a former senior police officer and there are constant streams of stories peppering the newspapers of people being arrested for spurious crimes and having their DNA taken.

"this accepts that there should be retention where there is no charge, while ignoring the evidence that three (or even five) years is too short a period. The Scottish model is said to be a success, but by whose standards, and by what evidence?"

Yet again we are left wanting the research that shows that 3 or 5 years is too little (more to the point Scotland regularly delete DNA profiles if the subject is completely innocent) but these 'standards' are those of the European Court who, when ruling that the system in England and Wales was "blanket and indiscriminate" and "could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society", described the Scottish system as "fair and proportionate".

"It is not a clear-cut choice between liberty and security – between siding with the civil liberties lobby or the forces of law and order. The far less headline-friendly reality is the need to balance all these factors – protecting the public, but in a way that's proportionate to the threat. I believe that the government's proposals do precisely that"

The law and order defence continues to look shaky (as previously reported, between 2004/5 and 2006/7 the number of profiles added doubled while recorded detections fell by 20%). By contrast there are a number of stories of people being discriminated against for having their DNA on the database and several reports from the US highlighting the fallibility of DNA evidence. Then there is the equally concerning rates of data loss and the fears of what happens when the wrong people get their hands on our biometric details.

The Minister quotes several cases in which the DNA evidence was critical in securing convictions, but we all know that the police frequently solve crimes committed by people who have never given a sample. Yet again this is a policy driven by political expediency, research we can't read and the desire to be 'seen to be doing something' with little consideration of the wider consequences.

By Dylan Sharpe