May 7, 2009 / 10:13 AM / 10 years ago

Britain under fire over DNA database plans

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The British government, regularly accused of keeping its citizens under excessive surveillance, has now come under fire over its national DNA database of arrested people.

Civil liberties groups and opposition parties accused ministers on Thursday of not going far enough to scale back the database in response to a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights last year.

The court ruled that the current UK policy of storing indefinitely the genetic fingerprint of everyone who is arrested is unlawful.

The Home Office (interior ministry) has set out new rules for the retention of records in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Its public consultation document — “Keeping the right people on the DNA database” — aims to trim up to 850,000 profiles from a total of 4.5 million records, officials estimate.

But under the plans, the DNA records of those who are not convicted will be deleted after a period of up to 12 years, and that, say critics, is far too long.

The proposals are at odds with the rules in Scotland where most DNA records are deleted after three years unless there is a conviction.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said the database played a vital role in helping to ensure that criminals were kept behind bars.

“These new proposals will ensure that the right people are on it, as well as considering where people should come off,” she said.

“We will ensure that the most serious offenders are added to the database no matter when or where they were convicted,” she added.

Judges in Strasbourg last year ruled that the blanket policy of retaining DNA from people arrested but not convicted risked prejudicing the innocent and was harmful to children.

In response, the Home Office immediately removed from the database the DNA of those under 10 years old and is proposing to remove DNA profiles of children convicted of less serious crimes once they turn 18.

DNA records of those arrested but not convicted will be deleted after six years, or 12 years if they have been arrested for a serious, violent or sexual offence.

Opposition parties and rights groups attacked the proposals, saying not enough is being done to ensure the records of innocent people are removed.

Conservative shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: “The government just doesn’t get this. People in Britain should be innocent until proven guilty.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne also criticized the measures.

“Today’s announcement is nowhere near good enough. Jacqui Smith must not be allowed to get away with anything short of immediately removing all innocent people from the database, except those accused of a violent or sexual offence,” he said.

“It is staggering that as many as one in five people on the database has no criminal record,” he added.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said: “This well-spun proposal proves that the Home Secretary has yet to learn about the presumption of innocence and value of personal privacy in Britain.

“Wholly innocent people — including children — will have their most intimate details stockpiled for years on a database that will remain massively out of step with the rest of the world.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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