Heard in Parliament – first draft of ‘Study Tour’ Report

The DNA Project was in Parliament in the Old Assembly, Room V454 on the 7/9/2011 to listen to what the Portfolio Committee for Police had to say in discussing the draft report on their recent overseas DNA ‘study tour’ (as they like to call it) which took them to England and Canada, as well their recommendations emanating therefrom. The meeting was open to the public but the Chairperson forbade anyone but members of the Committee to have a physical copy of the Report which they were aiming to finalise. The final report will however be made available to the Public once adopted and The DNA Project will post the full report on its website as soon as this has been published.

DNA evidence can link cases to show there is a serial offender

DNA evidence can link cases to detect a serial offender

In the meantime, we are able to get a fair idea of their findings from their discussions as well as certain members opinions on aspects of the legislation. It was interesting to note that not all of the members of the Committee went to both countries – some went only to Canada, others only to England and others still, went to both countries. Furthermore, only 5 members of the committee, the chairperson and the parliamentary researcher and state attorney were present at the meeting this morning. Where were the others that went on the tour? No explanation was given.

Below you will find, in point form, some of the salient issues which were discussed vis-a-vis the tour, the groups of people who presented to them, as well as some of their views and possible recommendations:

  • The first part of the report includes a history of the progress of this Bill in South Africa as well as a comprehensive history of the use of DNA in SA.
  • According to the report, the Bill was split between Fingerprints and DNA due to, amongst other issues, the lack of a thorough implementation plan from the FSL (Forensic Science lab) in the initial stages of review.
  • A clear implementation plan must accompany the new DNA Bill which sets out how they intend to cope with the demand on capacity the DNA Bill will place on the FSL. The Committee would like to see what the ‘cost to the State’ will be in this regard.
  • Canada was apparently selected by the Committee to visit due to its similar constitutional basis to SA. It was noted that Canada follows what the Committee call a “Human Rights based approach’.
  • The issues for consideration will be, inter alia, the prevention of contamination; securing of the crime scene; who will be custodian of database; retention periods of DNA samples and profiles; secure storage of profiles and samples as well as the protection of privacy.
  • The Committee believe there is a risk that traditional methods of investigation will be abandoned in favour of technology. [Is this really a RISK? Technology is inevitable, embrace and learn!]
  • One member actually wanted to know whether the delegation who went on the study tour should be referred to with a capital D or lower d within the report! [No comment]
  • The Report highlighted the fact that in England and Wales the DNA Database is kept totally separate from the processing lab. In this regard the Committee want to revisit who is going to be custodian of the database. i.e. must it be separated from the police? [It seems that this may be what they are aiming for here…]
  • Genewatch (a UK NPO that monitors developments in genetic technology) was one of groups which presented to the Committee & they believe the presence of a profile on a database will lead to a person being treated as a criminal & is  therefore unfair.
  • The recommendations in the Committee’s report will serve as a guideline only during processing of the DNA Bill & will not bind the Committee
  • It was concerning that one member of the Committee stated that a DNA profile for criminal intelligence purposes which is on a database will allow the State to see if that person has a dreaded disease. This was fortunately challenged by another member who reminded her that the profile does not give away any genetic information other than gender. This was accepted and the first member changed her concern to the sample not the profile. [Many people don’t understand the difference between a DNA profile used for identification and genetic marker profiling which would be searching for those dreaded disease markers… so clearly some members still needs to be taught the difference between the two].
  • The issue of private labs assisting State labs was mentioned but not discussed and will be covered in more detail within the report when published. [I don’t think the Committee have a view on this, they were simply reporting on what they observed was the practice in these countries]
  • The Committee will Consider forming a strong oversight body or perhaps even several bodies to oversee certain aspects of the legislation such as implementation and privacy concerns.
  • The Committee want to consider what they called a ‘phased in’ approach for DNA legislation in SA.
  • The types of considerations for a phased approach will be issues such us: costing, training, IT solutions, categorizing different indices on the database as well as categorizing crime for the purpose of sample collection.

The parliamentary session ended two hours later and a final report will be issued next week.

We have yet to hear when they intend to begin the real work of actually reviewing the legislation following the adoption of the report, but we can only hope that their apparent recognition that we have an urgent requirement in SA to regulate DNA legislation, will compel this Committee to keep the ball rolling in the direction of finalising not just their report but the DNA Bill itself.

Vanessa Lynch leaving Parliament, Cape Town

Vanessa Lynch leaving Parliament, Cape Town

On the lighter side of things, I could not help but suppress a laugh when one of the Committee members stated that in England, following the ECHR ruling on the Marper case, the draft amendment for the UK DNA legislation has been in Parliament under review for “forever and ever”. As we know, the Marper ruling was finalised in the European Courts of Human Rights in December 2008  – this being the exact time our DNA Bill was first adopted by our Cabinet in SA…. Perhaps she missed the irony in her comment, but I certainly did not!

Vanessa Lynch, reporting from the Old Assembly, Parliament, Cape Town
7 September 2011

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