Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 13:21 UK

DNA founder criticises database

DNA strand
Thousands of DNA samples from innocent people are currently retained

The inventor of the genetic technology behind the national DNA database says it risks losing support because it holds the records of innocent people.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys told the BBC's World at One programme that the database's expansion left some people unfairly branded as criminals.

His work led to the creation of the DNA database, which holds records of almost all those arrested - convicted or not.

The Home Office says it is reforming the database after a European ruling.

The DNA profiles of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are kept on the database, regardless of whether they are charged or convicted. At present there are about 4.5m profiles on the database.

But in 2008 the European Court of Human Rights heavily criticised the database for storing the profiles of innocent people.

The retention constituted a disproportionate interference with the applicants' right to respect for private life and could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society
European Court of Human Rights

The judgement said that holding these records "could not be regarded as necessary in a democratic society". The Home Office has yet to announce how it will comply with the ruling but is talking to opposition parties in an attempt to build a consensus.

But Sir Alec, who developed his techniques at the University of Leicester, told the BBC Radio Four's World at One programme that the database had gone beyond its original and justifiable remit.

"My concern is that the way the database is now being populated by increasingly innocent people - and getting hard numbers on this is difficult.

"I've seen figures as high as 800,000 entirely innocent people on that database. My concerns, which were very much reflected in a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, is that this is a real violation of an individual's privacy."

Sir Alec said he agreed with the court's assessment that this level of retention was "blanket and indiscriminate".

"There's a real risk of stigmatisation, particularly ethnic minorities are being over-represented, along with juveniles," he said.

Unconfirmed reports have suggested the Home Office will try to comply with the ruling by retaining the DNA samples while deleting the profiles of people who were not convicted.

The court's ruling said however that the problem lay with holding both the DNA and the profile of people who had not been convicted.

"The obvious question is what they would do with those DNA or cellular samples that they are going to retain in the future?" said Sir Alec.

"You have to weight the rights of a potentially small number of criminal investigations that would be solved by retaining this very large number of innocent profiles, against the real distress it causes to these innocent people.

"I've met some of them - many are unhappy. They see themselves branded as criminals in the future".

A spokesman for the Home Office said the government would comply fully with the judgement at the earliest opportunity.

"We are currently in ongoing discussions with opposition parties on the most appropriate way forward and we will publish these shortly," said the spokesman.

"In addition, the contents of the regulations will be subject to a full public consultation, the findings will then be put before parliament for debate and approval."

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