Wednesday, August 20, 2003

More on the DNA database

For those who read my blog on the Scottish Police Federation's outcry against requiring recruits to submit DNA samples for the national database, don't get me wrong. I do think DNA fingerprinting is a useful tool and I do not object to DNA testing of suspects during the investigation of crime, especially serious crime.

What I object to is the permanent storing, without consent, of DNA samples collected from suspects and volunteers regardless of whether they get convicted of a crime or not. This amounts to placing members of the general public under permanent suspicion regardless of whether they have a criminal record or not. And, as the Scottish Police Federation realise, those who have their DNA samples on the database are at risk of being framed for crime by those who'd abuse the system. The SPF's objections when the police are demanded to give DNA samples, provide a stark contrast to the normally enthusiastic pronouncements of police spokesmen when the general public are demanded to give such samples.

Also, if samples can be permanently retained once given, regardless of whether a suspect or volunteer has been convicted or gives consent, this provides an incentive for the police and the authorities who maintain the database to get samples from people purely in order to have them on the database, and thus to arrest and charge people of a crime simply to get their DNA sample or to intimidate people into giving "voluntary" DNA samples. Those who think I'm being paranoid should take a look at this article from a local Sunderland newspaper:

Hundreds of men living on Seaham's Westlea estate are to be tested after DNA, believed to be that of the attacker, was recovered from the crime scene. Police say they will "look closely" at anyone who refuses to take the DNA test.


The screening will take us a major step nearer to finding the person responsible," said Det Chief Insp Brian Tait, leading the investigation. He added: "Everyone who takes part will do so as a volunteer, but we would certainly look closely at the reasons offered by any individual who refused to help".

Thus refusing to take the supposedly voluntary DNA test will ensure the police "look closely" at you. In this atmosphere, it appears that every man in a certain age group must give a test (and thus be permanently on the database) or be treated as highly suspicious at best, despite the fact they claim to be searching for an attacker with certain characteristics:

The man being hunted is thin, about six feet tall and was wearing a dark mask, dark top with hood and slightly lighter coloured trousers.

As a result, a large chunk of the male population of Seaham's Westlea estate are about to have their DNA on the database permanently, and under some pressure, despite having committed no crime, and not being convicted or even being charged with a crime.

Of course, the police are investigating serious crime here -- the rapes of 2 elderly women. Of course if they have good reason to suspect someone of committing the crime they should be able to do a DNA test as part of the investigation. But what is actually happening, I grant most probably through the best intentions of the police to solve this crime, is that a large number of men will be tested and their DNA permanently stored, even though they had nothing to do with the crime.

The sad thing is that the actual culprit now has a strong incentive to leave the area to avoid this publicised exercise in DNA collecting. Of course there's no guarantee that if DNA samples had to be destroyed if the subject is released without charge or is acquitted, the police wouldn't do a blanket testing like this. However the incentive to do so is greater with the permanent storage of even voluntary samples, and it appears that the police are pressurising every man they ask in this "voluntary" exercise to give a sample or else. And for those who want everyone's DNA on the database these sorts of exercises provide a means of achieving this goal incrementally by stealth, as well as softening people up for the time when they make it compulsory.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Scottish police "outrage" over demand for their DNA

The Scotland on Sunday newspaper reports that plans to require all new recruits to hand over DNA samples for a national database have led to a rebellion amongst Scottish police officers. This is in stark contrast to the enthusiasm usually shown by police spokesmen (e.g. see comments towards the end of this article) for plans to collect and retain the DNA samples of the general public without requiring us to be charged or convicted of an offence.

Surely the Scottish Police Federation has nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear from this? At least that's the usual line taken when such measures are proposed for the public, but the slogan "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" is a slogan for fools. It assumes the innocent have nothing to hide, and implicitly assumes the authorities can always be trusted.

The Scotland on Sunday article does point out various dangers of having all recruits donate samples to this database, but surely these dangers equally apply to collecting and retaining samples from the public?

NB according to the article, since last summer new recruits south of the border already have to hand over DNA samples.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Police incompetence leads to proposal for new law (revisited)

A point I should have made about the situation regarding the "comedy terrorist" has been made very eloquently by the White Rose blog in this article.

As an exercise for the reader to illustrate the point about the number of laws being created by UK govts, I invite them to total up the number of clauses in all the Acts of Parliament created since 1997 by the Parliament in Westminster. You can find all Acts of Parliament passed since 1998 online here. Now ask yourself how many of those clauses you were aware of prior to the exercise, how many you can memorise in one go and, for those willing to spend a ridiculous amount of time on it, how many you can actually understand without reference to earlier laws...

And now ponder the consequences of the idea that ignorance of the law is no defence in criminal trials...

NB for a simpler exercise one might take particular note of the number of bills related to criminal justice, terrorism and policing have been passed since 1997, but then how do you know that other bills haven't created offences you need to be aware of?

Police incompetence leads to proposal for new law...

According to this report from the BBC Aaron Barschak, the self styled "comedy terrorist", set off 6 alarms and was pictured on several CCTV cameras prior to gate crashing Prince William's recent birthday party.

In other words, the police were hopelessly incompetent at stopping an uninvited guest from gatecrashing a royal party. The report recommends a new offence be created to cover situations such as this.

Severe incompetence by the police will become a criminal offence. Nope, sorry, scratch that, I tried to make a logical deduction as to what offence could possibly prevent Barschak or a real terrorist from doing what Barschak did or worse. Actually, the new offence will be trespassing on royal or govt property. What good will this do if the police remain so incompetent?

Alternatively, if the police get their bottoms in gear and provide proper protection, why on earth would such a law make a difference?

Is it just me or is this proposed law mere window dressing?

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Prizes for everyone?

Apparently A-level pass rates are now at 95.4% in England and 96.4% in Wales. When will the govt admit that A-levels might just have become a tad easier than a decade or two ago? When the pass rate reaches 100%?

Manipulating inflation.

Today, The Guardian reports that the Chancellor's recent decision to adopt the measure of inflation used in the Eurozone is causing the Bank of England some problems. For example:

As Mr King said, when the switchover occurs in November's pre-Budget report, the Bank will have to explain to the public why inflation, which was above target and falling, is now below target and rising. Threadneedle Street may be forced to print two versions of the inflation forecast, one based on the new measure and one on the old.

All this raises an interesting question. How on earth do we know what the real rate of inflation is?

The Eurozone measure is lower, according to the report, apparently because it excludes housing costs. The retail price index the BoE currently uses also excludes, e.g. wages and stock market prices. In other words neither measure involves a complete survey of prices and both miss out significant factors.

The problem here is that inflation involves a general rise in the prices of goods and services caused when the amount of the currency concerned increases relative to the amount of goods and services being traded. A partial measure of price rises will not produce an accurate picture -- prices of some products may rise whilst others fall. Indeed if the supply of currency remains static, then a price rise in one sector of the economy will be balanced by a fall in prices elsewhere. The govt statistics give a distorted picture of this. And isn't it convenient for the Chancellor that the adopting the new measure of inflation will suddenly see Britain meeting it's inflation targets again?

(See this document for a deeper discussion of inflation.)

Friday, August 08, 2003

ID cards: New Labour's poll tax?

Over recent weeks there have been several reports about the British govt's plans for a national identity card, e.g. this report in the Telegraph.

According to the Telegraph's report the ID card will cost £25 pounds and will be compulsory to own (I've seen other reports suggesting it would be £39 pounds). Quite why issuing 50 million pieces of plastic to everyone over 16 will help at all with fighting terrorism, crime, illegal immigration, health tourism or benefit fraud is something that no-one has managed to adequately explain to me. If our current forms of ID don't suffice for these purposes, then how are we to issue such cards in a manner that will make them any more reliable? After all in order to issue the card, the govt will need to ask for proof of ID and all we have is the current stuff. Thus even if the card is made more difficult to forge than any current form of ID, the documentation required to obtain it won't be.

However aside from whether the cards are of any real use or not, there are serious logistical problems to be overcome in the issuing of these cards and the maintenance of the database, and the govt has not had a good record on large-scale computer projects to date. To issue 50 million cards over 13 years (and that's just to cover the existing population over 16, never mind additions from births and immigration) will require an average of over 10500 cards to be issued each day, along with a database entry. Is the govt seriously saying it can make even remotely adequate checks on applicant's identities if they're planning to issue these cards at an average rate of 439 cards per hour?! Note this calculation assumes applications being processed for 24 hours a day, 7 days per week and 365 days per year for 13 years. And the govt's record on large scale computing projects is atrocious -- most of them fail, the few that don't run way over budget and suffer all sorts of problems before creaking into a semblance of workability. This project would dwarf them all.

Margaret Thatcher finally came a cropper over the famous "poll tax". These proposed cards would literally be another poll tax -- a tax on mere existence -- because it would be compulsory to own one and the govt plans to charge you £25 (or £39) for the privilege. I suggest that if the policy was seriously pursued it may even turn out to be a poll tax in the figurative sense of a disastrous and unpopular policy that deeply damages the govt of the day, forcing them to relent...


Welcome to James Hammerton's blog. At this blog you will mostly find commentary on politics, typically British politics and/or civil liberties.

I am particularly concerned at the erosion of civil liberties, which in Britain at least predates Sept 11th 2001 and which has accelerated markedly since then. Of course we should deal with the terrorists, but many measures seem to me of doubtful value (e.g. proposals for a national ID card and overly broad legal definitions of terrorism) for that purpose and designed simply to increase the power of the state over the individual.

In the absence of an archive of blogs from me to review, you can get a flavour of my take on these issues at my website, and via my essays at I also post regularly to uk.politics.misc.

Finally, I'll add that many things have taken my interest over the years so from time to time I may blog about something entirely unrelated to the above!