UK Liberty

Jill Saward is wrong about rape and the DNA database

Posted in DNA database, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on July 1, 2008

Jill Saward, candidate in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, writing in CIF:

Not all men are rapists or sexual predators. But with sexual violence affecting one in three women, the chances are that every man will know victims of sex attacks – even though they may not know it. Many victims feel so dehumanised by their experiences they are unable to tell even their closest friends or family.

Crimes of sexual violence are at epidemic levels

I think that bit is a reference to “of the 50,000 rapes thought to occur each year, between 75% and 95% are never reported” found in the article linked to in the second half of the sentence. I don’t want to diminish rape in any way – it’s simply that it is dishonest of people to reel off figures (50,000 rapes!) but failing to discuss how that figure is reached and what other figures there are (752 reported, 630 recorded in 2005) and so on.

It’s important to note that the conviction rate is falling, despite the number of convictions increasing – this is because the number of allegations is increasing at a greater pace.

– partly because it is a crime that is so easy to get away with.

This links to a CIF article by Julie Bindel, which discusses why so many alleged rapes – note that Bindel seems to believe the vast majority, if not all, of allegations are factual – don’t end up with someone being convicted: juries doubt women who admit they had been drinking (“alcohol is the new short skirt” is an allusion to Judge Pickles); the police sometimes wrongly record allegations; the CPS will only prosecute a case if it has a reasonable chance of conviction (“more likely than not”); some police officers don’t take allegations seriously enough; and so on. I might add that some suspects may well be innocent.

The police and health agencies have dramatically improved the way victims of sexual violence are treated; but it is still increasingly difficult to obtain the proof necessary to bring charges – let alone secure a conviction.

That’s a link to an article by Clare Dyer, the Guardian’s legal editor, which makes similar claims to Bindel, but there is more detail about attrition. More on that later.

So every tool in the fight against this heinous crime must be made available to the police.

One such tool is the national DNA database, which has proved invaluable in identifying those responsible for some of the vilest crimes imaginable. In 2001 the law changed to allow the database to retain records of people who, having been arrested merely on suspicion of committing an offence, had subsequently either not been charged or had been acquitted.

Those opposed to the DNA database argue that these records, together with the records of those convicted of non-sexual or non-violent crimes, should be removed from the system. It sounds a reasonable argument. Until you consider that there are rapists and murderers in prison today who have been convicted specifically because they were on the database.

That may be so, but we don’t know how many, as Genewatch explains:

Numerous Members of Parliament have sought information on the numbers of crimes that have been solved as a result of the retaining DNA profiles from innocent people on the National DNA Database. In each case, ministers have replied that this information is not available. [or they handwave!]

Only some DNA matches – known as DNA detections – involve sufficient evidence to prosecute someone for a crime. Recent figures show that the chances of detecting a crime using DNA have not increased over the last 5 years, despite a doubling in size of the DNA Database.


According to the Home Office, by the end of 2005, the database contained about 200,000 samples that would otherwise have been destroyed before the law was changed. Some 8,000 of these samples matched with DNA taken from crime scenes, involving nearly 14,000 offences, including murders and rapes.

Such ‘statistics’ are pretty meaningless (and dishonest). Genewatch again:

DNA matches are not solved crimes – many matches occur with victims and with passers-by, or are false matches.


It may not be an outcome David Davis wants, but the reality is that if the database operated only in the way he wants, these rapists and murderers would not be in prison but on the streets, free to strike again and destroy the lives of more victims.

Firstly I suggest Davis definitely does not want rapists and murderers on the streets – there is no ‘may not’ about it. Secondly Davis wants to keep the DNA of rapists and murderers on file. Thirdly we don’t know how many people have been “convicted specifically because they were on the database” – I’m assuming Saward is aware that DNA cannot solely be used to convict someone.

Back to Saward:

But Davis is right about the unfairness of the current system. You’re either a convicted criminal or you’re not. The current system creates a third group of people who, quite rightly, feel aggrieved that they are being treated with permanent suspicion. The way to right that wrong isn’t to remove them from the database, but to ensure that everybody else is included.

The national DNA database has been attacked as an abuse of our liberty. If it were expanded to include everybody in the country the only “liberty” at risk would be the liberty of those responsible for countless unsolved rapes and murders, who could find themselves behind bars.

She seems to be someone who is unaware of how databases can be misused, abused, and misunderstood. It’s that false canard: “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.

Of course we have something to fear – for instance, where someone who wasn’t present becomes a suspect because the process matches the DNA from the scene to his DNA – or even when someone becomes a suspect because the sample from the vaginal swab was mislabelled as being the sample from him!

So let’s not pretend, as Saward does, that these systems are perfect – disregarding civil liberties for one moment, the fact that there are errors seems to me to be the most important reason not to have a DNA database covering the entire population.

Now, I find it interesting that some people seize on technological ‘quick fixes’, such as the DNA database, for problems such as relatively low conviction rates in rape cases, because there is usually much more to such problems than a lack of technology, as Clare Dyer explained in her article. Also, these may be solved by relatively cheap and non-liberty infringing measures – training, changing the police culture, recording allegations more appropriately, etc.

What’s also interesting is that Saward hasn’t mentioned those factors at all.

Dyer wrote, for example, that,

Police are contributing to the “appalling” conviction rate in rape cases because officers too often fail to take alleged victims seriously enough and settle for mediocrity in their inquiries, the senior policeman responsible for raising standards in rape investigations has told the Guardian.

This is an important factor in rape cases, and it has nothing to do with DNA databases, does it?

In early 2007, the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate published a joint report, Without Consent (1.44Mb PDF 179 pages) on the investigation and prosecution of rape offences. Among the information there is some detail on attrition, which is increasing:

For those victims who do come forward, between a half and two-thirds of cases will not proceed beyond the investigation stage; victims declining to complete the initial process or withdrawing at a later stage account for a significant number of these cases. Where cases are referred to prosecutors for a charging decision, a proportion will not proceed. Of those cases that do reach court, between a third and a half of those involving adults will result in acquittals.

It has a lot more detail on the ‘whys’. Suffice to say, many if not all of these would be unaffected by a National DNA database. At best, DNA can only tell you a particular individual was present – it can’t tell you if a crime was in fact committed – and therefore the case will continue to rely on other evidence, and the victim not dropping out of the process.

Of course attrition isn’t the only problem, but nor is a truly national DNA database the only – or even a desirable – solution.

Again – I feel I have to make this clear – I do not intend to diminish rape at all. What I want is a reasoned approach to it, one based on evidence, not a technological quick fix that could even be counterproductive.


5 Responses

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  1. Gavin Drake said, on July 2, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Okay – you want statistics. According to the government, some 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 other sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries and 127 drugs offences have been detected through the result of “innocent” people’s DNA being retained on the DNA database.

    You say: “Firstly I suggest Davis definitely does not want rapists and murderers on the streets – there is no ‘may not’ about it.”

    The reality is that if David Davis had his way and “innocent” DNA records were not retained on the database, then the murderers, rapists and violent thugs now in prison for those crimes would be at liberty, free to strike again.

  2. ukliberty said, on July 2, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Gavin, not quite.

    Of the 200,300 or so profiles on the NDNAD that have been retained under the CJPA 2001 and would previously had to have been removed, approximately 8,500 profiles from some 6,290 individuals have been linked with crime scene sample profiles from some 4,000 offences. These offences include 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries and 127 of the supply of controlled drugs. (Source National DNA Database report 2005/06)

    DNA matches are not solved crimes.

    Please have a look at the Genewatch quotes again.

  3. Archivist said, on July 2, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    These discussions about the numbers of female victims always disregard the prevalence of false rape claims, unless it is to disingenuously assert they are a myth. Objectively verifiable data suggests that at least 9 percent and probably closer to half of all rape claims are false. Yet the crime of making a false rape report has become so embroiled in the feminist sexual assault milieu that it has been largely, and improperly, removed from the public discourse about rape. Sexual assault counselors often disingenuously refer to false accusations as a “myth.” Denigrating the experience of the falsely accused by dismissing their victimization as a myth is not merely dishonest but morally grotesque. My Web site is devoted to raising awareness about this epidemic of false claims:

  4. ukliberty said, on July 3, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Archivist, I alluded to false allegations in my article.

    I must say I looked at a few articles on your website and did not see any data supporting your claim that “at least 9 percent and probably closer to half of all rape claims are false”.

  5. […] Comments ukliberty on Jill Saward is wrong about rape and the DNA databaseArchivist on Jill Saward is wrong about rape and the DNA databaseukliberty on Jill Saward is […]

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