First day in Parliament: the DNA Bill

I am sitting in Room G26 in the National Assembly Building in Parliament whilst I am writing this entry. The Portfolio Committee on Police (PCP) is in front of me and they are the new “kids on the block” who have been tasked with being responsible for reviewing and hopefully, passing, the DNA Bill – their Chairperson is Mrs Lydia Sindisiwe Chikunga  (who introduces herself to us as “Sindi” and points out that she is a South African, albeit she has been told that she has a Malawian surname!).

Today’s presentation to the PCP was given by the Parliamentary Research Committee, namely Ms Sueanne Isaac, Ms Patricia Whittle and Mr Mpisi.

Ms Whittle started off proceedings with a summary of the Bill, highlighting various issues which the PCP should consider during this review process. She basically went through some of the issues raised in the last review process as well as highlighted some new issues which they should consider. Unfortunately she continued to confuse the difference between a DNA sample and a DNA profile, and failed to mention that the previous Portfolio Committee had already agreed with the Police that the sample will be destroyed once a suitable profile had been obtained from the sample.

Ms Isaac followed with her presentation and focused on the issues raised by Ms Whittle and provided a brief overview of DNA Databases and the way they are managed in the UK and USA. Some of her stats were inaccurate and outdated, but on the whole she tried to cover most bases, namely: the constitutional issues which will be raised by the Bill, the implementation of the Bill and the cost implications of implementing the Bill.

Mr Mpisi ended off the presentation by the Research Committee and highlighted the importance of the Bill in the country’s fight against crime. He spoke about the fact that the Bill seeks to enhance the investigative capacity of police to fight crime and the usefulness of DNA not only in its ability to exonerate the innocent but for prosecuting the guilty. Moreover, he highlighted the fact that the larger the DNA Database in SA,  the higher the probability of catching  criminals, and ultimately that it will provide crime deterrence.

Mr Mpisi then looked at the storage of samples, misuse of DNA and the location of Crime Labs in SA. He spoke about the importance of looking at utilising private labs to enhance the capacity of the State Labs. Well done Mr Mpisi for raising such a salient point! Not only that but he spoke about the issue of DNA Awareness Training (the PCP needs to know about our DNA Awareness Training DVD!)

The Secretary of the Previous Ad Hoc Portfolio Committee then presented the findings of the last Committee and the concerns raised by that  Committee. He highlighted the fact that time constraints prevented the previous Committee from completing their work. He stressed that more time should be given to public commentary as there were serious legal and ethical considerations that had been raised and needed to be considered in this Bill.

The Chairperson then ended the session by stating that she wants to finalise this Bill during this Parliamentary session. She invited clarity seeking questions as it is a very technical Bill. Questions and comments by the PCP included:

1. Why five years for retention – what is the significance of 5 years? what is the issue of privacy – what rights are going to be invaded?

2. This Bill presents three areas of concern – (1) security of the information; (2) capacity of the police and (3) the cost that will go with implementing the Bill.

3. This Bill must be opened to the public to debate on the issues of rights of privacy.

4. Previous experience with Police: when asked if they have money to implement an Act which will affect them and whether they have the capacity – and they say Yes: but they have been wrong. So – how do we ensure that this Bill will be properly budgeted. So we have to establish: do they have the capacity? do they have the money?

5. Issue of the Constitutionality of the Bill raised.

6. Why is the Police Committee dealing with the Bill and not Justice because there are so many issues of Constitutionality.

7. Will the Police have the Capacity to implement the Bill? And what is the rush to pass this Bill?

8. How is the DNA taken from people?

9. High rate of turnover of staff at the State Forensic Labs – have you established why? Is there a high turnover rate of staff in overseas State Labs?

10. Do other countries use both private and state labs to process DNA?

11. Concerns about allowing ‘any’ police being able to take a DNA sample – it is too open for corruption.

12. Are the challenges facing first world countries using DNA for crime detection the same as in developing countries?

13. Does the Human Tissue Act apply to this Act? Is it applicable?

The final words of the Chairperson: there is pressure to finalise this Bill, so yes, it must be finalised.

What struck me most today is the omission of what should have been done first and foremost: quite simply a brief presentation by a Forensic Scientist from the State Forensic Lab explaining to this Committee what DNA profiling is in a criminal context and how it is used in a National DNA Database for crime prevention, detection and deterrence. Without this basic knowledge, it makes it very difficult for this Committee to consider such a technical Bill without the basic understanding of the processes and science behind this Bill….

Tomorrow the PCP will hear from the State Forensic Lab how it aims to implement the Bill. Watch this space for details of their presentation.

Yours from Parliament,


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