Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

U-turn again

Why the government’s plans to scrap the retention of the DNA of rape suspects must be stopped

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Since this government came to power there has been an ever-increasing number of U-turns. Generally committed off the back of appallingly short-sighted ideas and policies that hadn’t been thought through or consulted upon, the most notable of these is the recent climbdown on changes to sentencing policy for convicted rapists, the watering down of the NHS reforms and moves to sell of the national forests.

While these climbdowns are embarrassing for the government, they may all of them improve life for British people, in many of these cases British women as a result. The coalition patently don’t understand women, and the needs of women in the 21st century.

One of the first coalition policies to be announced in 2010 was a plan to grant anonymity to men accused of committing rape. This had not been a policy in either the Tory of Liberal Democrat manifesto, and yet appeared to be cooked up by the cabal of eight white men who drew up the coalition agreement. Mercifully, with a lot of lobbying from women MPs and women’s organisations the plans were dropped. Women do not seem to be safe however, as, month after month, new proposals are introduced which threaten to turn back the clock on women’s rights, and even our safety, with alarming consequences.

The latest announcement is that the government will force police to stop holding the DNA of those arrested for rape, but not charged. The naive presumption, one assumes, is that the government believes if you are not charged you are therefore not guilty. However, Ed Miliband highlighted at PMQs this week, that of the 5,000 every year who are arrested but not charged, many of them go on to reoffend, only being caught because their DNA is stored on the national database. Given the disgracefully low rape attrition and conviction rates in this country, nothing must be done that limits or decreases the numbers of men being convicted and sent to prison. The government’s policy would do precisely that.

Rape Crisis and other groups have stated just how vital the database is in catching criminals. For a party once renowned as the party of law and order, the Conservatives appear nowadays to be the party of let-them-off-the-hook, whilst the Liberal Democrats prioritise fretting over CCTV cameras and ID cards to convicting criminals and making the world a safer place for women.

At some point in the adult lives of British women, 23 per cent of us will suffer some form of sexual assault. The prime minister’s obvious disdain for women who suffer rape and sexual assault was evident, as he refused even to answer Ed Miliband’s second question on this issue, turning the answer into an attack on the shadow cabinet. It is interesting to observe, when the prime minister talks about the military, or as in the case of yesterday’s PMQs, children with epilepsy, he adopts a marked sombre and respectful tone. Not so the case when talking about an issue that will turn back the clock on justice for women victims. Cameron didn’t once look contrite or even as if he would investigate the issue seriously.

It is up to Labour now to exert as much pressure as it did on the issue of sentencing policy, and force a U-turn on the proposal to destroy the DNA of those arrested for rape. The DNA database is popular with the public, Labour in opposition are retaining our policy of being tough on law and order; but our priority must be increasing the numbers of those convicted of rape. We have to stop the government in their tracks, and be the party that puts women first.


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Helen Gibson

is a member of Lewisham Deptford constituency Labour party


  • As someone who has been falsely accused of rape, can you please explain to me why I and those I care about must continue to be punished? I did nothing wrong, yet my life was and is severely disrupted and I continue to be ashamed of the accusation (hence why I wish to remain anonymous). I’m terrified that if someone hears it, they will believe it. There’s always that suspicion that there is no smoke without fire!!! I think it is dreadful that a lot of women are the subject of sexual assault but that does not mean that most men are sexual predators. Yet society treats us as though we are and no one is looking out for me in the Labour party. Until we are charged and found guilty, we are not guilty. Society should treat us as innocent until proven guilty and not continue to persecute us. The tragic fact is that the nature of the crime means that it will always be difficult to prove. DNA evidence is a major breakthrough. But continuing to hold it on the suspicion that you might offend in the future when you have done nothing wrong is not the way to go about addressing the prosecution of a very difficult crime to prove. Instead, more must be done to encourage women to come forward as soon as the crime has been committed so that such DNA can be captured as soon as possible. If they don’t (because they are too traumatised perhaps), we should not be punishing innocent men for these women’s trauma. Labour would do well to remember that men make up just as significant a number of the electorate as women and right now, Labour seems to be painting all men as sick predators.

  • One of the basic principles we hold in this country is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, we are discussing holding the DNA of innocent people on file. If you aren’t charged, it means the police do not have enough evidence to prove you are guilty. Proof must be required before labelling an individual a threat. Any retention of DNA of the innocent must be done on a consensual basis. We have to strike a balance between civil liberties and crime prevention. An extreme example: the implantation of GPS microchips in each individual would also improve conviction rates, however we would regard that as an unacceptable invasion of privacy (I hope!). The debate isn’t about who cares more about women, that’s an unfair reduction of the issue. The debate is about whether the State holding records of DNA without express consent from the individual is a reasonable measure in the fight against sex crimes.

  • (1) Will Ms Gibson admit that she is in favour of the DNA of everybody regardless of status being held by the police, on the principle that one is guilty untill proven innocent (a thesis I should wish to hear her discuss, with reasons)? (2) Why does she assume that all,. or even an overwhelming majority, of rapes are committed against women? Can she give evidence for this assumption? Can she also justify her apparent assumption that male victims of rape find it easier to come forward that female victims?

  • “The naive presumption, one assumes, is that the government believes if you are not charged you are therefore not guilty.” Errrrr. WTF. The totalitarian impulse of the Labour Party still beats strong in this one. The Dark Side is still here.

  • “The naive presumption, one assumes, is that the government believes if you are not charged you are therefore not guilty” This is no naive presumption – it is a fundamental principle of our law – and this is at the heart of the problem here. It’s also the reason why I’m surprised at the U-turn on protecting the anonymity of those accused of rape – Rape is such an abominable crime, that even to be accused of it, and later proved innocent provides a tremendous stigma on the person accused – and similarly victims of rape frequently feel stigmatised just because they are victims. The case for anonymity is a different one from just about any crime I can think about – and I feel that a general rule of anonymity for both accused perpetrators and alleged victims would command widespread public support. I’m surprised the Tories have dropped this – the speed and number of their U-turns is beginning to outstrip my ability to keep up. It does seem clear though that there are many ways around this problem of DNA sampling and retaining. On many many occasions, for relatively trivial offences, people are given a formal caution by police – on the understanding that they have admitted that they carried out an offence. Although technically they are guilty of no crime, their caution IS recorded, and will show up on future enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks. It would seem a relatively simple matter to issue an accused rapist with a “Statement of Reasonable Suspicion” (don’t look it up – I just invented it !) – which allowed the police to keep a record and a DNA sample. Of course they would not have to submit to this – but would face in return the prospect of challenging this Reasonable Suspicion in court (which is where we’d run into difficulty – as it would need to be anonymous). Sorry if I’m writing as quickly as I’m thinking this through – there would be issues – but I think it’s achievable whilst respecting the presumption of innocence. A big problem is that the use of steps which would seriously reduce crime (as Janvier points out) – such as the introduction of a compulsory National Identity card – have clearly been rejected both by the government and by the general public – and this makes some of these problems more difficult to address

  • These comments are confusing the fundamentally important principle of innocent until proven guilty. Retention of DNA does not presume guilt on the part of anyone; whose DNA is kept is not a matter of public record and so no one can be impugned in any way. Rather it has proved itself to already be an effective way of catching criminals who otherwise would have escapted capture, and this applies beyond just the crime of rape, whose conviction rate is far too low. This is a means of improving that rate without going any further. WilliamCobbett’s questions are ridiculous. The author says nothing to suggest there should be a national database of everybody, and nor is she being sexist in assuming most rapes are committed against women. That is because it is true and any consultation of crime records will tell you that. I have great sympathy for Anon but I don’t think this criminalises men.

  • the Conservatice once the party of law and order, and by them getting rid Of Innocent people’s DNA it makes them not pro law and order? We have to stop the government in their tracks, and be the party that puts women first. By keeping innocent peope’s DNA so they are held in the same category of people who have done wrong, How is this pro women

  • “…that of the 5,000 every year who are arrested but not charged, many of them go on to reoffend…” Not true. What Mr Milliband said, before you applied the Chinese Whispers to it, was the true-ish, but shamefully misleading: “Around 5,000 people each year are arrested on suspicion of rape and not charged. In certain cases these individuals have gone on to commit further offences and be convicted as a result of the DNA that is held on the National Database” points out that the real figure for arrests is substantially less than 5,000 but still in the thousands. True-ish. “In certain cases” means there are a handful of identifiable cases. There are no full figures, and no ground to say that there are “many”. Nor does Milliband make the outrageous, repugnant imputation that you are making by using the word “reoffend” – that someone who has been arrested and released who is later convicted of a different offence should be deemed to have been guilty of the earlier accusation. “Further offences” is poisonously ambiguous, but it doesn’t quite say that.

  • Well so long as they keep the womens who has been proved to made a mistake or lied , or used the threat for money, then if you get a chap who is guilt or Innocent and his DNA is held then the women should be kept as well

  • “Retention of DNA does not presume guilt on the part of anyone” Of course it does. The DNA Database is a criminal database. When it was set up in 1994 it was set up as a database of DNA profiles of those *CONVICTED* of serious sexual and violent crimes. It is quite disingenuous to pretend that that is untrue. While we are at it, should we also place the innocent on the Sex Offenders Register? It makes as much sense as having the innocent on the DNA Criminal Database.

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