Police demand DNA samples from gay men

Men convicted of victimless homosexual offences three decades ago are threatened with arrest if they refuse to provide samples for the national DNA database.

Manchester, London, Northumbria and West Midlands police are visiting the homes of men convicted of consenting same-sex behaviour and demanding they provide DNA samples. The convictions date back three decades and were under the homophobic "gross indecency" law that has since been abolished.

According to reports I have received from the victims, police officers turned up unannounced on their doorsteps. They were handed letters requiring them to give DNA samples to be stored on a police data base alongside the DNA of murders, rapists and child sex abusers.

The men were warned that failure to comply could render them liable to arrest.

This DNA sweep is supposedly part of the government’s crackdown on serious violent and sexual offenders, using powers under the Crime and Security Act 2010. These powers were intended to ensure that everyone who is deemed to pose a threat to the public has their DNA matched against the DNA from unsolved crimes and has it stored on the national DNA database to check against future crimes. 

Police have apparently lumped gross indecency - the victimless offence that was used to jail Oscar Wilde in 1895 - with violent sexual assaults and child molestation. This law was only repealed in 2003.

The DNA collection is code-named "Operation Nutmeg". It is sanctioned by the government and the Association of Chief Police Officers. This makes it likely that similar DNA dragnets are happening in other parts of Britain. We don’t know about them yet, because the victims have not alerted anyone. 

Men convicted of the now repealed consensual offence of gross indecency are, in effect, being rebranded as serious criminals and treated on a par with vicious, violent sex fiends.

They are being forced to go through the trauma of police abuse all over again.

The letters and threats left one gay man in Northumbria severely traumatised. He was arrested and convicted at the age of 17 for a consenting offence. Now, nearly 30 years later, he’s being forced to relive his past homophobic persecution by the police. He was the victim of bigoted policing in the 1980s. Once again he’s being equated with serious sex criminals who are a menace to the public.

He wants to remain anonymous because he fears repercussions. He told me:

“I am now 45 years old with my own business. I have been in a relationship for over 10 years. Dragging all this up from my past has made me depressed. I now can't sleep or eat since it happened. I feel like stopping it. I am sick of it. I’ve been suicidal.”

He is not the only victim to come forward.

Another man, Stephen Close, who now lives in Salford, was arrested and jailed for "gross indecency" in 1983, when he was 20. He was in the army at the time and was abused by military police and subjected to violent assaults. He eventually confessed to having sex with a fellow squaddie.

Although homosexuality was partly decriminalised for civilians in 1967, it remained an imprisonable military offence until 1994. Close was jailed for six months and discharged from the army with disgrace.

Greater Manchester police claim his offence falls within the list of sex crimes that require DNA samples to be taken.

Close said:

“How long must I endure this burden? Will I ever be able to lead a normal life without worrying whether my past will come back to haunt me?” 

The letter to Close from Greater Manchester Police states:

“Through investigation of police records you have been identified as a person who has a previous conviction, which falls into one of the above categories; and from whom we now wish to obtain a DNA sample....

“The sample once taken will be processed and place on the National DNA Database, where it will be retained and may be subject to speculative searching either immediately or in the future.

“You will be asked to consent to provide a sample. If you do not consent at this stage I require you to attend a police station within 7 days. The time and date of your attendance can be discussed with the person delivering this letter.

“At the police station the sample may be taken with the authority of a police officer of the appropriate rank. If you fail to attend the police station as required you may be liable to arrest.”

Since these DNA trawls have been exposed, Manchester and Northumbria police have claimed the men were only targeted because they have other convictions, in addition to gross indecency. But it is hard to believe that Close’s conviction for a minor theft, for example, makes him a threat to the public.  Moreover, the victim in the West Midlands is adamant that gross indecency is his only conviction.

The Home Office now appears to be suggesting that the three police services have gone too far. A spokesperson said:

“Forces seeking DNA samples from people convicted solely of consensual acts which are no longer criminal is (sic) going against both the intention of the legislation and the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) guidance.”

To resolve the matter, perhaps the Home Secretary and the respective Chief Constables should announce a halt to this homophobic DNA harvesting and write personal letters of apology to the men affected? The DNA samples already collected should be destroyed.

Inadvertent cock-up or homophobic conspiracy? You decide.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation

The convictions were under a "gross indecency" law that has now been abolished. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.