Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System (S&T Committee Report)

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Monday 26th April 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for securing this vital debate. I also thank the Science and Technology Committee for its very thorough inquiry into forensic science, and for its subsequent report. If I may, I will go through the tenets of the report and the questions arising from it today.

The report was clear—my noble friend Lord Lindsay spoke enthusiastically about this—that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice needed to provide joint leadership in forensic science, and that the governance needs to inspire effective collaboration and co-operation across operationally independent bodies. As a direct result of your Lordships’ report we created a steering group, jointly chaired by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. It soon became an official sub-group of the criminal justice board, reporting to the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary and the Attorney-General. The sub-group is delivering a vital reform programme, which I will come to later, but this spirit of co-operation has strengthened over the last two years. Its work is ongoing and it meets every six weeks.

To reiterate, this Government are committed to protecting the public and keeping our streets safe. Scientifically robust evidence is one of policing’s most important tools for investigating crime. The successful prosecution of county lines drugs gangs, sexual offences and violent crimes often depends on high-quality forensics, including digital forensics and DNA analysis. We should always remember the Stephen Lawrence case. It was only because British scientists were able to detect and analyse a drop of blood measuring less than 1mm in diameter that his family was finally able to achieve some measure of justice.

Despite everything said this afternoon, this country has some of the world’s best forensic scientists, both in public law enforcement and within the private sector. Every day, their expertise is deployed to solve crime and deliver justice. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about comparators with other countries, particularly across Europe. When compared to nine other networks of forensic science institute state labs across Europe, the turnaround time in England and Wales using comparable metrics is world-leading. The turnaround time for drugs casework in England and Wales is 21 days; elsewhere, it is 24 days. For DNA casework, in England and Wales it is 10 days; elsewhere it is 43 days. We really should commend our forensic scientists here in the UK on their ability to turn things round.

I also welcome the significant efforts made by those involved in this work to markedly improve turnaround times. As noble Lords have pointed out, however, forensic science has faced challenges in recent years, including constrained resources—as I think all noble Lords have said—and an exponential growth in the volume of new sources of evidence, such as digital material. To answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others we have taken steps to address this by investing over £28 million in 2020-21 in the Transforming Forensics programme and a further £25.6 million in 2021-22 to continue to strengthen forensics services for policing, including digital forensics, which the noble Lord, Lord Mair, spoke about. We helped to set up the police-led Forensic Capability Network and our investment in it is bringing some much-needed stability to the commercial market.

When it comes to quality, the former forensic science regulator worked closely with all partners to establish standards for the collection, analysis and presentation of evidence. These are established in the regulator’s codes of practice. Adherence to these codes, whether partners are employed by police forces or privately contracted, plays a key role in ensuring that the evidence used in investigations and presented to court can be relied on—which noble Lords have underlined this afternoon.

The former regulator rightly highlighted in her most recent, and final, annual report, as well as in discussion with my department, that the inability to enforce those standards has resulted in slower progress towards compliance with quality standards across the forensic community. I agree. That is why we fully supported legislation to give the regulator the power to enforce quality standards as a last resort, and to take action when it has reason to believe that substandard forensic science activities are creating a substantial risk to the course of justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, talked about the Randox case. Obviously, it is subject to an investigation at the moment so I will not talk about it. But the legislation we supported is a very specific improvement that I know the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the Committee, will agree with. I know that there are noble Lords and others who think that the legislation did not go far enough. We do not claim that giving the regulator these important statutory powers will, on their own, be enough to address all the issues currently facing the provision of forensic science—not at all. Nevertheless, it represents a significant milestone in the delivery of quality forensic services in England and Wales. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for successfully stewarding the Bill though the House.

To address the point the noble Lord, Lord Fox, made, there is of course more to do. That is why we are working with the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Forensic Science Regulator, policing, the Attorney-General’s office and other key stakeholders to deliver our forensic science reform programme. That programme was agreed by the Criminal Justice Board in July last year. It will make good on the commitments set out in the joint review of forensics provision implementation plan published in 2019, and will go some way to tackling the issues identified in the committee’s excellent report. The reform programme is organised around four pillars to deliver strategic oversight and leadership across the criminal justice system for the future of forensics.

The first pillar is police capabilities. In 2021-22 we are providing £25.6 million in funding to the police-led Transforming Forensics programme, as I said, so that it can continue to build the Forensic Capability Network to provide specialist support functions to forces such as increased capacity in digital forensics, particularly in child sexual exploitation investigations.

The second pillar is regulation of provision. I have already spoken about the Forensic Science Regulator Bill. We are also providing a clear legal framework for the extraction of information from digital devices belonging to victims and witnesses through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. We will provide guidance on the use of this power through a statutory code of practice. We will also consider the legal framework for suspects through the response to the Law Commission report on search warrants.

The third pillar is criminal justice system capabilities. The MoJ is working to increase the transparency of expert witness credentials and ensure that defendants have equal access to experts. To answer my noble friend Lord Griffiths’ question, the CPS and Judicial Office, together with other key stakeholders, are helping to oversee and deliver on this important strand through their membership of the forensics subgroup.

The fourth pillar is research and development. Home Office Science and the Forensic Capability Network are working together to identify current and future research needs and to design and implement a research and development model to meet the needs of the sector. Home Office Science has developed strategic mapping of potential funding routes for forensic science research and development. In addition, the Forensics Capability Network has developed working groups across the sector to inform the research strategy and development of capability road maps for forensic disciplines. Taken with the legislation to give the Forensic Science Regulator statutory powers, we think that this reform programme represents a joined-up and concerted effort to address the issues facing forensic science in England and Wales.

Those are, basically, the tenets of the report; I now turn to specific questions. If I do not get to any of the questions that noble Lords asked—there were quite a lot of very sensible questions—I will follow up in writing, as I usually do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about training, and I agree with her. But, of course, the police are operationally independent, and we cannot dictate on this as a Government. However, the statutory regulator can investigate labs, including police labs—which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, mentioned—that fall short of standards.

My noble friend Lord Lindsay asked about the accreditation of services; this is tied up with powers for the regulator. By having statutory investigatory powers, she will be able to take action against providers who fail to get accreditation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mair, asked about the procurement model. The forensics subgroup has representation from the Association of Forensic Science Providers and the commercial arm of policing’s Forensic Capability Network so that market issues and procurement are discussed.

On my noble friend Lord Griffiths’ question about police provision, again, they are operationally independent. It is for them and the PCCs to decide what is best, and they can best determine what is needed.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked about the national institute. I will write to provide a more fulsome response, if he is okay with that.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, made absolutely the right point about evidence being as accurate as possible—we do not have an effective criminal justice system if it is not. I think that giving the regulator statutory powers will drive up quality standards and help ensure the accuracy of evidence. The MoJ is leading on work to ensure that forensic science is properly presented in court. On the budget, we will work closely with the regulator’s office to ensure that it gets the resources it needs. We assess the stability of the market via the subgroup, and the Home Office and the MoJ are accountable for this. I will write on some of the other points that the noble Lord made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, alluded to the Forensic Science Service that closed in 2012. They did point out, of course, that it was losing £2 million a month of taxpayers’ money. While that is not a reason for its closure, there were repeated failings in addition that led to multiple case reviews and retesting programmes. The move has brought benefits. Commercial provision has had a significant positive impact on the delivery of forensic science, including increased resilience, faster turnaround times and reduced costs. I read the report thoroughly and I noted that the committee did recognise that a return to the FSS was not a desirable way forward, as my noble friend Lord Griffiths pointed out. We are now more joined-up than we were in 2019.

The noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Rosser, referred to budgets continuing to be under pressure while the demand for digital evidence and the complexity of its requirements continue to grow. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referenced the noble Baroness, Lady Young, talking about this at last month’s Second Reading of the Forensic Science Regulator Bill. Our forensic science reform programme recognises that the demand for digital evidence and the complexity of its requirements continue to grow. That is why I am pleased that the NPCC published its Digital Forensic Science Strategy last summer, and that we invested more than £28 million in 2020-21 in the transforming forensics programme, with a further £25.6 million to come.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, talked about the cost to defendants of getting a second opinion on forensic evidence being greater than the legal aid budget will fund, meaning that there is the potential for unsafe convictions as evidence cannot be effectively challenged in court. Legal aid regulations prescribe the maximum rates that are payable to forensic scientists and other experts, but these rates can be exceeded in exceptional circumstances. The Ministry of Justice is currently working to increase the transparency of expert witness credentials and ensure that defendants have equal access to experts.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, and I think another noble Lord on the committee talked about the regulator working 3.75 days a week. The regulator is currently defined as a part-time role, but we recognise that they will have a higher workload as a result of the legislation, and there will be additional recruitment to the regulator’s office to meet this need.

I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who raised concerns about unqualified individuals being able to pass themselves off as experts in court when their credentials may be in doubt. I agree with her concerns, and the powers contained in the Forensic Science Regulator Bill will enable the regulator to publish lists of those unsuitable to be instructed as experts.

There was a final question from the noble Lord, Lord Patel: where in the Government does accountability lie for the quality of provision of forensic science services to assist the justice system? It is a joint effort by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, but, in answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, about who the buck ultimately stops with, it stops with the Home Office: that is the straight answer to a straight question.

Before I finish, I will just thank Gillian Tully—other members of the committee have also done this—for her excellent work and dedication to the role. I hope that her replacement will be just as good as she was.

I thank the committee and I will follow up any questions I have not answered in writing.