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 This law was only repealed in 2003.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Men convicted of the now repealed consensual offence of gross indecency are, in effect, being rebranded as serious criminals and treated on a par with vicious, violent sex fiends.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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.