Many years ago, when I studied Administrative Law at university, our lecturer would preface every single discussion of any court case involving Mr Justice Sedley (as he then was) with the words that the learned judge was a ’staunch defender of human rights’. It was therefore with mild alarm that I read this morning that the selfsame judge has suggested we should all be put on a DNA database.
His reasoning? That the database is unfair in the way it currently operates. Guilty folk are registered on it, as are innocent people who have come into some contact with the police, perhaps due to having been arrested but released without charge.
The problem, as the Lord Justice Sedley sees it, is that these innocent folk are being tarred with the same brush as the guilty folk. So in order to redress this, every other innocent soul in the land should be added to the database to dilute the stigma of the database.
(As a cheeky aside, this reminds me of a passage in the Bible, broadly stating that: ‘God has concluded the whole world to be sinners, so that he can have mercy on everyone’. When it comes to such wide-sweeping action, I suppose we can trust only God to act in this way, as His ultimate aim, according to that Bible passage, is to show us all mercy. But can we trust the Government?)
By suggesting such an expansion of the database, Lord Justice Sedley has started from the premise that the database is unavoidable: it cannot be done away with, so let’s make the best of a bad situation. But what about arguing the case that, if there is to be a database at all, only the guilty should remain on it? Leaving aside human rights considerations, is it not easier to strike a few innocent names off a database, than to expand the database by adding millions more names to it?
At the lowest level, my interpretation of what Lord Justice Sedley seems to be saying is this: if some innocent people are going to suffer, then let us all suffer along with them. This strikes me as defeatist. Would it not be easier to come up with ways to fix the database?
But we cannot really leave aside the human rights implications of this, and I think the good old judge knows that. So why did he make the suggestion in the first place? Was it to highlight the absurdity of the database? If so, he reckoned without the deviousness of our politicians, who will no doubt seize upon his comments as justification for any further expansion of the database. Already, we have Tony McNulty, the Minister of State for Security, Counter-terrorism, Crime and Policing, saying that he is ‘broadly sympathetic’ to Sedley’s idea. You can just imagine the scene in a few years’ time when this matter is being debated in Parliament. Some Labour minister will justify extending the database on the basis that it was suggested by a ‘leading judge with an excellent track record as a staunch defender of human rights’. Thanks a lot, Lord Justice Sedley. We are dealing with a Government hellbent on extracting from us our civil liberties, and you turn up to make the job easier for them.
I couldn’t help noticing the irony of Tony McNulty saying of Sedley’s suggestion: ‘I think he does underestimate the practicalities, logistics and civil liberties and ethics issues surrounding it.’ Things have come to a pretty pass when a member of this illiberal Government would presume, albeit disingenuously, to speak on civil liberties to a ’staunch defender of human rights’.