Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Is this what you want to fight the election on?

This post is addressed in particular to those readers of Next Left who are in the Labour party.

Over at OurKingdom, Guy Aitchison has posted again on the news that Labour is considering making the retention of DNA samples 'an issue' for the election. The latest twist in the tale is that Alan Johnson is reputedly scuppering a compromise with the Conservatives on this issue in order to make it something that Labour can campaign on. The Tories are to be branded as the party that is friendly to burglars.

In a matter of weeks the Labour party leadership will be expecting party members to get out there and make the case for a Labour government on the doorstep. How many in the party agree with the government on DNA sampling and the 'Tories are friends of burglars' line?

Let's remind ourselves what is being proposed. Back in 1995 the police set up a national DNA database. Anyone who was arrested was liable to have a DNA sample taken. This was then put on the database. When a crime is committed, and there is DNA evidence, the police can check it against the database.

The European Court ruled in 2008 that the practice of holding indefinitely samples taken from those not convicted of a crime is in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights (specifically in violation of Article 8 which upholds the citizen's right to 'a private life').

The government responded, somewhat reluctantly and hesitatingly, by proposing to modify the original policy. Under what we may call the Johnson proposal, those arrested but not convicted of a crime will have their samples removed from the national database - but only after six years.

The Johnson proposal has the advantage that, in one respect, it may make it easier for the police to solve crimes. And this, of course, is the basis of the charge that opponents of the proposal are thereby 'friendly' to criminals.

But there are at least two strong - and, I think, conclusive - reasons to oppose the proposal other than sympathy for criminals: that it is disproportionate and that it is potentially counter-productive.

Let's take disproportionality first. If all we cared about was increasing how many crimes the police solve, then installing police surveillance equipment in every home would be an absolute humdinger of a policy idea. But obviously there would be the question of whether the gain in terms of crime detection is justified given the cost to privacy and the way the policy would change the relationship between the citizen and the state.

To put the point at its mildest, there is a reasonable case that the Johnson proposal is disproportionate. Given other changes in the law, and changes in police culture over the past decade or so, it is now quite remarkably easy for all sorts of people to get arrested. Indeed, there is even some concern that police may arrest people in order to get them on the database.

Under the Johnson proposal, as I understand it, the samples of anyone arrested would be liable to stay on the database for six years. And what message does that convey other than: we've arrested you once, so even though you have not been convicted of a crime, you are suspect? I do not want the state's relationship to its citizens to be corrupted in this very basic way, and that is why I think the proposal is disproportionate.

Precisely because of the message the policy sends to people, moreover, it could well be counter-productive. If people feel they are being labelled as suspects by the police, even when they are not criminals, then this might make them less willing to cooperate with the police. The police are no longer an extension of 'us', the law-abiding majority, but become an alien power whom many of us fear and resent. But if the police get less cooperation with the public, won't they solve fewer crimes?

So will you feel able to say, on the doorstep, that the Tories are the burglar's friend?


Anthony Barnett said...

Moderately put. There are at least two other points. First, the DNA database becomes a form of criminal record, accessed formally or informally by agencies. I.e. if you want a job in, lets say, in local government it is accepted that they can ask and discover of you have a criminal record. But what if you are on the DNA database? Second, there is the tabloid-style encouragement of fear that demands a 'strong state'. This is a right-wing culture.

Roger Thornhill said...

Two points

1. DNA is not like fingerprint. Madeline McCann's DNA was found in the back of her parent's hire car. Likely it had fallen from possessions. A lower profile, easier to fit-up suspect could be in big trouble. The Labour video has DNA taken from chewing gum placed outside a house that was burgled. I know this is simplistic for dramatic effect, but it does show how DNA is not cast iron proof. It will increase the chances of being "guilty until proven innocent", the defendant having to prove why something is not the case. Imagine if a victim had ridden on a tube near you. What are the chances your hair or other DNA could have got onto their clothes or possessions? Did you just sneeze your way into a jail term and loss of your livelihood or worse? DNA has uses, but it needs to be handled with care, remembering that the Law is there to protect the innocent from the State as much as from other individuals.

2. @Anthony Barnett: "This is right-wing culture". No, it is Authoritarian/Statist culture and one that the Labour Party, Social Democracy and Socialism have embraced more and more. This is why all three main parties are happy to interfere more and more in our lives. Shame on them.

Stuart White said...

Anthony: I had to work hard to get that moderation in there!

Roger: I don't think this specific kind of statism is built into the DNA of social democracy or socialism. However, I do think part of the problem is the displacement of social democratic energy. Social democracy's insight is about the need to use the state to tame the market and capital in various ways. As social democrats have retreated on that kind of interventionism, I think there has been a parallel tendency to look for other uses of the state to 'do good'.

Oh, and of course there is the electoral politics....

Doubting Richard said...

Simple A-level statistics completely destroys the government's argument, at least if justice means anything. In fact any competent statistician will tell you that an enlarged database is less useful in obtaining justice than a small, exclusive database of serious criminals.

The reasons are a bit beyond the scope of a blog comment, but I shall try to demonstrate the most worrying with an analogy. There are 25 men on a typical football pitch (22 players and 3 officials). There is about a 50% chance that two share a birthday. This is because with increasing numbers of data points coincidences increase rapidly. Therefore the very usefulness of DNA, rarity of false matches, not only fades but begins to beget injustice, as courts accept deeply-flawed statistical evidence (expert witnesses are notoriously poor at stats, ask poor Sally Clark). The DNA database is not the answer.