The choice is whether to retain all DNA records of the guilty and innocent alike for 12 years as the Home Secretary has just announced for England, Wales and by default, Northern Ireland. Or to follow to Scotland, where:
..at present, anyone who has their DNA taken as part of a police inquiry in Scotland presently around 4,000 people-a-month automatically has it removed if they are not convicted. The only exceptions are for individuals who remain part of an ongoing police inquiry. However, in extreme circumstances, a person who has been charged with a violent or sexual offence but not found guilty can have their details held for up to three years, after which a sheriff has to rule if that time period can be extended.
How would the Northern Ireland Assembly decide if justice and policing were devolved already? Could an Alliance minister cut through all the predictable rows and coat-trailing and impose a policy? It seems a very tall order to me. Or might the DUP and Sinn Fein surprise and confound us all, and unite to help stamp out the residues of paramilitarism that still loom over the settlement? Making the choice over DNA retention would feature among quite a number of fascinating and tricky debates on the future of J&P, if only the Assembly would stop evading them..
Update Is Woodward whistling in the dark or is his optimism justified?On the English debate triggered by the Home Office decision, civil liberties campaigners like Shami Chakrabati of Liberty claim that the UK government has virtually shown two fingers to European Court of Human Rights in lumping the legally innocent and the guilty together. The lobby group UK Genewatch claims the government sneakily included NI in the measure through a loophole in the NI Act ( though it seems legally proper to me, in the absence of local control ). The value of near-blanket retention is disputed. Despite the huge growth in the database from 2m profiles seven years ago to 5.2 million today, the Tories claim the number of crimes directly detected through a DNA match has fallen. Intriguing to find that the Conservatives are the civil libertarians on this one – watch out for more of this as the general election draws ever nearer. On the other hand, a former magistrate who had his own bone to pick with the system, nevertheless writes in the Guardian:
I just don’t see how a DNA database could limit my liberties. It holds harmless information that could bring great benefit.. If a potential rapist knew that his DNA was on file, he would know arrest was a near-certainty. A genuinely powerful deterrent and, even if not, this would still remove many violent attackers from the streets long before they committed their second or third crime.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London