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Use of Voluntary Attendance a 'fundamental threat' to DNA database


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Biometrics Commissioner says VA is being used inappropriately for wide range of cases including rape.


Date - 7th July 2020
By - Gary Mason

Changes to the PACE Codes of Practice and an increasing use of the Voluntary Attendance (VA) arrangements mean that suspects connected with rape cases are not subject to routine searches of DNA and fingerprint databases.

The annual report of the Biometric Commissioner Paul Wiles says that since PACE Code G was changed in 2012 and following widely criticised changes to the bail arrangements, forces are reporting that around one third of suspects who are questioned are not arrested.

Suspects who are not arrested will be asked to attend voluntarily, usually outside of a custody suite.

He said that VA is being used for a wide variety of offences, including rape some of which may be inappropriate. “Without arresting the suspect biometrics cannot be taken at the outset and a speculative search of the subject’s biometrics cannot be made where in fact it may be appropriate or necessary as part of the investigation,” he said.

Although national guidance is now available that clarifies when it is appropriate and lawful to obtain biometrics from VAs there remains some confusion among forces, the report said.

NPCC national guidance now states that biometrics should be taken only if the VA is cautioned or charged at the time of their interview, or if they are subsequently issued with a notice of intended prosecution (frequently a postal charge).

But Mr Wiles described the guidance as lengthy and legalistic and “not as useful as it might have been.” There has also been a problem with the distribution of the guidance with many forces unaware of its existence or unable to locate it.

Some police forces currently have no process for identifying suspects from whom they may lawfully obtain biometrics.

Although many forces have started to send letters to VAs, together with the postal charge, asking them to attend for biometric capture results in  "a number of practical difficulties with ensuring that this actually takes place" and in some forces uptake is very low.

This has resulted in a general reduction in the taking of biometrics and additions to the national biometric databases for fingerprints and DNA.

The Commissioner warns: “The purpose of having national databases of both convicted offenders and unsolved crime scene stains against which a suspect’s biometrics may be speculatively searched will therefore decline in value. This is a fundamental threat to the police use of biometrics for investigative purposes.”

Whilst forces report that their move from arrest to VA was initially driven by the changes to Code G most also cite reasons that are related to increasing financial pressures including: rationalisation of custody estates, problems of geography and distance to a custody suite and the burden (both in terms of time and administration) of taking someone into custody.

Responding to the report’s findings Home Office Minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said that minsters were discussing with police leaders how the “unintended consequences” of the increasing use of Voluntary Attendance arrangements can be addressed.

She also noted Mr Wiles concerns that there was a need for more trials of new biometrics and data analytics used in policing such as Artificial Intelligence and Live Facial Recognition.

The Policing Minister has announced that funding will be made available for a Police Chief Scientific Adviser and investment in science, technology and research to support rigorous design and evaluation of trials.

Most other government departments have a chief scientific adviser attached to them but policing has been without one for some time. 

She said Government “is working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council to develop this role.”   

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Biometrics can be taken with VA and we routinely do this in BTP, always have when I've reported someone. 

DNA swab and the old ink pad fingerprint forms at our station which are sent off to the bureau for processing. 

The fingerprint aspect is slower sure but the DNA doesn't take any longer as that is sent off slow time from custody anyway. 

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