DNA Database – A Controversial Behemoth

November 24th, 2009 by Anya Proops KC

The police DNA database for England and Wales is currently the largest DNA database in the world. It has in excess of 5 million profiles, including the profiles of many individuals who have been found to be innocent of any charges made against them. The rapid development of this vast database has inevitably fuelled debates about the rise of the Surveillance ‘Big Brother’ State. Most notably, concerns have been expressed that the database unjustifiably interferes with the individual’s right to privacy, particularly having regard to the retention of records relating to people who have not been convicted of any offence (there are at least 850,000 profiles of such persons on the DNA Database). Earlier this year, these concerns resulted in a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that the existing approach to the retention of DNA data relating to unconvicted individuals was unlawful (Marper v UK see also my earlier post on the Marper case). Concerns have also been expressed as to the disproportionate presence of individuals from ethnic minorities on the database, particularly young black men, and as to the resulting discriminatory potential which is effectively built into the system.

Two recent important developments suggest that the controversies surrounding the database are only likely to intensify in the coming months. First, the government has opted to use the Queen’s Speech to lay before Parliament a bill which contains a number of inevitably controversial provisions relating to the database (the Crime and Security Bill). Second, a government backed commission, the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) has today issued a report entitled Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?’ which criticises a number of aspects of the existing database system.

The following aspects of the Bill are particularly worthy of note:

·         The Bill contains provisions aimed at giving the police additional powers to take DNA samples from individuals who have been previously arrested for crimes but whose biometric has yet to be obtained. The effect of the provisions is that the police will be entitled to take biometric data from someone who may have been arrested some time ago and before the new provisions came into force (clause 2(1)). The provisions also afford the police new powers to take DNA samples from UK nationals or residents who have been convicted overseas of serious sexual and violent offences (clause 3(1)). These powers would equally apply to convictions occurring prior to the coming into force of the new provisions.


·         The bill also sets out a statutory framework for the retention and destruction of biometric material (including DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints) that has been taken from an individual as part of the investigation of a recordable offence (clause 14). These powers were consulted upon in the Keeping the Right People on the DNA Database paper published in May 2009. In effect, the provisions envisage a somewhat more nuanced approach to the retention of data with retention periods for the various categories of data depending on a number of factors including the age of the individual concerned, the seriousness of the offence or alleged offence, whether the individual has been convicted, and if so whether it is a first conviction. Most notably:


o   the fingerprints and DNA of adults who are arrested but unconvicted will prima facie be retained for a period of 6 years


o   the fingerprints and DNA of adults who are convicted will be retained indefinitely


o   lesser retention periods apply to persons under the ages of 18 and 16 and, in respect of such minors the gravity of the offence will be in issue


o   chief constables are however afforded a power to determine that any retention period may be extended by up to two years for reasons of national security


o   all DNA samples must be destroyed six months after being taken.


·         The Secretary of State will be afforded powers to make a statutory instrument prescribing the manner, timing and other procedures in respect of destroying relevant biometric material already in existence at the point the legislation comes into force. This will enable the Secretary of State to ensure that the retention and destruction regime set out in this Bill is applied to existing material (clause 19).


·         The National DNA Strategy Board which already exists to oversee the operation of the database will be put on a statutory footing (clause 20).

It remains uncertain whether any of these provisions will make it onto the statute books in advance of the forthcoming general election. However, it must be said that the growth in police powers which would be afforded under the Bill does not sit particularly comfortably with the serious concerns as to the existing system identified in the report from the HGC. Those concerns include, not least, concerns about the disproportionate representation of members of ethnic minorities; the retention of data relating to unconvicted persons for any period of time and, further, the problems of function creep.


This I can do at home

November 23rd, 2009 by Timothy Pitt-Payne QC

The last Queen’s speech before the election includes another proposal for databases about children; this time, in relation to children who are being home educated.

The background is that in January 2009 the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) commissioned Graham Badman to carry out a review of the current system for supporting and monitoring home education. The report (available here) was published in June 2009. Its first recommendation was that the DCSF should establish a national registration scheme, locally administered, for all children of statutory school age who are, or become, home educated.

On 11th June the Government launched a consultation about registration and monitoring proposals for home education. Unfortunately I cannot link to the consultation document itself, as it is currently unavailable on the DCSF website. The key proposals in the consultation document were these.

2.1 Register of home educated children
The review recommends that DCSF establishes a national registration scheme, locally administered, for all children of statutory school age who are, or become, electively home educated. The scheme described in the review is one where education and safeguarding issues are both considered as part of the registration process, with an initial statement of educational intent forming the basis for subsequent educational monitoring arrangements. The review response acknowledges that ultimately the scheme would need to be underpinned by guidance and training for local authority staff in order to work effectively. We accept that it will take time to put the full scheme in place particularly where more work is needed to provide more comprehensive guidance on the practical interpretation of ‘efficient’ and ‘suitable’.
2.2 Registration would be granted automatically unless there were safeguarding concerns (see next section): if at any time a LA became dissatisfied with the quality of home education provided to a child, it would – as now – serve a school attendance order.
2.3 We propose to legislate now for registration and monitoring arrangements that will focus on safeguarding but should also improve the quality of education. They will have the following features:
• Every home educated child of compulsory school age must be registered with the local authority in which the child is resident;
• Regulations will specify the information that parents must provide which is likely to be child’s name, date of birth, address, the same information for adults with parental responsibility; a statement of approach to education, and the location where education is conducted if not the home;
• Scope to extend the scheme to 18 in future;
• Regulations will specify how registration should take place;
• Any changes to registration details should be notified immediately;
• Registration must be renewed annually;
• It will be a criminal offence to fail to register or to provide inadequate or false information;
• Pupils should stay on the school roll for 20 days after a notification to home educate;
• The school must provide the local authority with a record of achievement to date and predicted future attainment;
• DCSF will take powers to issue statutory guidance relating to registration and monitoring.
2.4 Safeguarding
The review recommends that local authorities should have a discretion to refuse registration where there are safeguarding concerns. In addition, if safeguarding concerns are identified after home education has begun, the LA would have powers to revoke registration. Each case would need to be considered on its merits, balancing the rights of parents to home educate, and the rights of children to receive a suitable education in a safe environment.
2.5 Monitoring arrangements
Local authorities tell us that they need greater powers to ensure that home educated children are safe, well, and receiving a suitable education. The current arrangements allow parents to submit evidence that a ‘suitable education’ is being provided, which could be mainly written evidence. Local authorities have no powers to interview home educated children to establish that sample material provided is representative of their work, nor to establish that they are safe and well.
2.6 We believe that local authorities should interview children within 4 weeks of home education starting, after 6 months has elapsed, and thereafter at least annually to assess the quality of education provided and ensure that children are safe and well. The local authority should visit the premises where education is conducted, and question the child about the education provided, although at least 2 weeks notice should be given before the visit is conducted. The local authority should have the right to carry out the interview without a parent being present, if this is judged appropriate, or alternatively if the child is vulnerable or has particular communication needs, in the company of a trusted person who is not the home educator or parent/carer.

The consultation closed on 19th October, and as yet there has been no Government response to it.  The Queen’s Speech  nevertheless includes a proposal for a Children, Schools and Families Bill, one element of which is to be a new home educators’ registration system. For the full text of the proposed Bill, see here.  The provisions about home education are in Schedule 1 to the Bill, and consist of proposed amendments to the Education Act 1996.   New section 19A(1) of the 1996 Act will require each local authority to maintain a register of home-educated children. Regulations will make provision for how parents can apply to have their children included in the register. The local authority must refuse registration if they consider that it would be harmful to child’s welfare for the child to become, or remain, a home-educated child. It seems that if registration is refused, and the child is not sent to school, then the likely consequence will be a school attendance order: see the proposed amendments to section 437 of the 1996 Act. Under new section 19H of the 1996 Act, regulations can be made requiring other local authorities, and schools, to share information with a local authority for the purposes of that authority’s home education functions.


There are four points to make about this. One is that the proposed registers are, in substance, a mechanism for parents to seek advance permission from their local authority before home schooling their children. Failure to register will not in itself be a criminal offence, but may lead to a school attendance order; and failure to comply with that order may be a criminal offence. Secondly, exactly what information is to be included in each register is unclear, and will be set out in regulations; but it may well be that the registers will include information about each child’s prospective home education, as well as basic personal details such as name and address. Thirdly, it is unclear as yet who will have access to these registers, and for what purpose.  And fourthly, there are to be specific information-sharing provisions in connection with home education.



Home Office publishes response to its consultation on communications data

November 16th, 2009 by Robin Hopkins

The Home Office has published a summary of responses to its April 2009 consultation paper on ‘communications data’, i.e. information about a communication that does not include the content of the communication itself. At present, such data is owned by communications service providers and accessed by certain public authorities under disparate statutory powers for the purposes of combating, for example, fraud, terrorism and other serious crime. The government is considering an overhaul so as to bring all communication types (such as web chat) and all relevant service providers (some of whose contractual positions place them beyond the current statutory arrangements) within the system.


The attendant tension between individual liberty and public protection is reflected in the 221 responses to this consultation.


A substantial minority of respondents objected in principle to any ‘surveillance’ of communications. A majority (albeit a fairly narrow one) agreed that communications data served an important public purpose and that the government should therefore act to maintain the capability of public authorities to make use of this type of information.


As to what form this action should take, only one element of the government’s proposed approach was widely welcomed, namely its rejection of a central database for holding all data of this type. Reservations were otherwise expressed about technological feasibility, data security and the proportionality of public authorities’ use of communications data.


Nonetheless, such reservations were not deemed forceful or widespread enough to deter the government from its proposed course. A number of respondents’ suggestions have been rejected, including the specifying of categories of data which should not be retained, and the requirement for a magistrate’s authorisation before communications data can be accessed.

The government is also satisfied that the DPA 1998 and RIPA 2000 provide sufficient safeguards against abuse of such data. A legislative review is, however, proposed, to see if a single means of authorised access (through RIPA 2000) would be practicable. Fresh or consolidating legislation appears likely.


High Court Judgment on Inspection of Personal Data

May 29th, 2009 by Anya Proops KC

The High Court has recently handed down an interesting judgment on the extent to which redacted personal data contained in documents disclosed in the course of litigation was vulnerable to inspection. The judgment also highlights some of the limits which may be placed on parties seeking inspection of databases containing personal data. In Webster & Ors v Ridgeway Foundation School Governors [2009] EWHC 1140 (QB), the claimants had brought claims against the governors of a school on the basis that they had suffered racially motivated assaults on school property. They alleged that the governors had caused or contributed to the injury by negligently failing to maintain proper disciplinary standards or otherwise taking proper care with respect to pupil security, particularly by allowing racial tensions to develop. During the course of standard disclosure, the governors disclosed a log of investigations into racist incidents, bullying and aggression in the school. Moreover, one of their witness statements disclosed the existence of a computerized system used to record pupil behaviour. The governors allowed inspection of the disclosed documents but redacted the names of purported victims of racism, bullying and aggression. The claimants sought disclosure of the redacted names and, further, of the computerized system. They argued that they needed to access this information in order to assess whether there were other pupils who might be able to provide useful evidence and that they had a right to inspect that information given that its existence had been disclosed by the governors.

Nicol J refused the claimants’ application for inspection of the redacted information and the computerized system. He held that that the mere fact that a document had been disclosed did not mean that there was an automatic right of inspection in respect of all of the information it contained, not least this was because some of the information in the disclosed document may not be relevant to the matters in issue. On the facts of the instant case, Nicol J found that inspection of the redacted names could and should be refused on the basis that: (a) it would amount to an interference with the privacy rights of the individual children named in the documents; and (b) that interference was not necessary in the instant case as the claimants did not need to know the identities of the purported victims in order to have a fair trial or for the fair disposal of the litigation (Science Research Council v Nasse [1980] AC 1028 HL applied). With respect to the computerized system, Nicol J accepted that mention of a document in a witness statement could be equated with inclusion of a document in a disclosure list and, hence, prima facie it would give rise to an obligation to permit inspection. However, he also held that that general proposition was subject to the qualifications contained in CPR 31.3, which included the right to object to disclosure on grounds of proportionality. Nicol J went on to find that permitting inspection of the computerized database would be disproportionate, particularly because: (a) the governors would have to redact the entire database to ensure that any private information relating to individual pupils and, further, any irrelevant information was not disclosed, which was a very substantial task and (b) undertaking this task was disproportionate having regard to any possible benefit for the claimants and the issues in the case. 


DNA Database – The Age of Innocence

May 7th, 2009 by Anya Proops KC

The Government has today proposed new rules for the retention of DNA profiles and fingerprints on the police national DNA database.  The proposals, which are made in the context of a public consultation process (‘Keeping the Right People on the DNA Database’), come in the wake of the Marper judgment (4 December 2008). In Marper, the ECtHR held that a blanket policy under which fingerprints, cellular samples  and DNA profiles were indefinitely retained by the police constituted a disproportionate and, hence, unlawful interference with Article 8 rights to privacy. The new proposed rules aim to circumvent the problems posed by having a blanket indefinite retention policy by varying the length of time that data can be retained depending in the innocence of the suspect and the severity of the crime in respect of which they were arrested. Thus, the DNA profiles and fingerprints of individuals who are arrested but not convicted in respect of minor offences will be destroyed after a period of six years; individuals who are arrested but not convicted for more serious violent and sexual offences and terrorism-related offences will have to wait twelve years for their DNA profiles and fingerprints to be destroyed; individuals who are convicted of an imprisonable offence will have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained indefinitely. The proposals have received a rebarbative response from civil liberties campaigners, many of whom had expected the Government to destroy some 850,000 DNA profiles, fingerprints and samples in response to the Marper judgment. Of course, the question has to be posed whether it can ever be a proportionate interference with privacy rights to retain data in respect of individuals whose guilt was never established in respect of the offence for which they were arrested and who must, in the circumstances, be deemed innocent. The Government’s answer to this question appears to be that the interference is justified because: (a) criminology research suggests that, over time, the retained data can be used to convict those ostensibly innocent individuals of subsequent crimes; and (b) accordingly, retention of the data will constitute a vital weapon in the fight against crime. The presumption underlying this answer appears to be that, in a statistically significant number of cases, individuals who appear to be innocent in respect of one crime are in fact destined to go on to commit crimes in the future, such that it is legitimate for their data to be retained for a relatively substantial period of time (either six or twelve years). Whilst the more nuanced approach to the retention of DNA profiles may be relatively well placed to survive a legal challenge in the domestic courts (see further the House of Lords judgment in Marper [2004] UKHL 39, [2004] 1 WLR 2196), it remains to be seen whether the ECtHR would regard that approach as falling within the four corners of the justification defence under Article 8(2).


GCHQ Denies Snooping Project

May 5th, 2009 by Anya Proops KC

GCHQ, one of the three UK intelligence agencies, has issued a public statement in which it has specifically denied that it is developing technology which would enable it to access all internet traffic in the UK. The statement, which was made in response to weekend media reports on GCHQ’s Mastering the Internet Programme (MTI),  is unusual in that the agency does not usually comment on media stories.  The statement is plainly designed to reassure the public than the State is not secretly sanctioning the development of highly intrusive surveillance strategies. Its release follows in the wake of an announcement made by the Home Secretary on 27 April 2009 that the government had shelved plans to create a superdatabase that would centrally store all communications data in Britain (see the earlier post on the Super Database).