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Friday, October 07, 2011

The DNA of the coalition government

There are two issues with this morning's article in the Telegraph about the Government's plans to reform the way that DNA is stored by the Police. One relates to the age-old complaint about any government legislation, namely that discretionary powers are given to Ministers and questions as to how they plan to use them now or in the future. The second is a bit more fundamental.

The paper focusses on the report of the committee scrutinising the legislation which would give ministers a discretionary power to “rewrite” rules of entry at will. Ministers say they will use these powers to curb officials’ rights of entry. There are currently about 1,200 separate legal powers of entry, from serving from court warrants to protecting trademarks.

However, the committee have latched onto the fact that the opposite is also true. A Minister could if they so wanted actually use this power to extend officials’ ability to enter homes. The solution as ever is either to put the powers on the face of the bill, alter the powers or, more likely, insist that any regulations must have the prior approval of Parliament. This sort of stuff is meat and drink when it comes to scrutinising bills.

The second issue is a bit more worrying. It is that the restrictions do not go far enough. The Home Secretary says that plans to curb the state’s right to intrude in private lives would see the names of one million innocent people removed from the DNA database. Only adults convicted or cautioned would have their DNA stored indefinitely, while those charged but later cleared would have their profiles stored for up to five years.

However the committee are worried that this will create “a significant risk of incompatibility with the right to a private life’’. They say that the Bill will also “create a broad catch-all discretion for police to authorise the retention of material indefinitely for reasons of national security’’ and go on to caution: “We are concerned that the minister has not provided a justification of why this power is necessary and proportionate, particularly in light of specific measures targeted towards retention in relation to counter-terrorism and immigration. Without further justification or additional safeguards, these measures should be removed from the Bill.’’

Clearly, if such a provision is to be included in the Bill it needs to be justified. In my view there can be no good reason why the DNA of innocent people is retained by the Police and I would expect the new legislation to reflect that.


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