A senior judge sparked a heated row on the use of genetics to fight crime yesterday after suggesting that the DNA of the entire UK population should be held on the national database.

Lord Justice Sedley said the current system, where DNA profiles are only taken from criminal suspects and crime scenes, was "indefensible".

His comments prompted outrage from civil liberties groups who claimed such an idea was a "chilling proposal".

And the Prime Minister's spokesman was also forced to deny there were any plans to bring in a universal database.

Sir Stephen Sedley, one of England's most experienced Appeal Court judges, said: "Where we are at the moment is indefensible.

"We have a situation where if you happen to have been in the hands of the police, then your DNA is on permanent record. If you haven't, it isn't... that's broadly the picture."

He said disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities get on to the database where there is ethnic profiling going on.

And added: "It also means that a great many people who are walking the streets, and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free".

The judge suggested everybody's DNA should be on file "for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention".

He also proposed that DNA data from visitors to the UK should also be stored.

Although the implications of a universal database were "very serious", he said it would be "manageable" and ultimately a fairer system.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said the Government was "broadly sympathetic" to what the judge had said.

But said: "There is no Government plan to go to a compulsory database now or in the foreseeable future."

The UK's 12-year-old DNA database currently has four million profiles and is the largest of any country, growing by 30,000 samples a month.

Current thresholds allow only for samples to be taken from individuals arrested for a "recordable" offence, usually a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Anyone picked up for a non-recordable offence cannot have a sample taken without their consent.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said a database with DNA from convicted sexual and violent offenders was a "perfectly sensible crime-fighting measure".

But she added: "A database of every man, woman and child in the country is a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse."

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas also expressed doubt about the merits of a universal database.

He said: "There are significant risks associated with creating a universal database. It would be highly intrusive, and the more information collected about us, the greater the risk of false matches and other mistakes.

"The potential for technical and human error leading to serious consequences cannot be underestimated."

Last month, the Human Genetics Commission (HGC), the Government's advisory body on new developments in human genetics, launched a Citizens' Inquiry into the use of DNA and genetic information to fight crime.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the HGC's chairwoman, said: "The police in England and Wales have powers, unrivalled internationally, to take a DNA sample from any arrested individual.

"We want to ensure that the public voice is heard on issues that people think are relevant."

Shadow home secretary David Davis called again for a Parliamentary debate on the issue.

He said: "The erratic nature of this database means that some criminals have escaped having their DNA recorded whilst a third of those people on the database - over a million people - have never been convicted."