1 Lord Krebs debates involving the Home Office

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

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Monday 26th April 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, although I was not a member of the Select Committee at the time of this inquiry, I now have the privilege of serving under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Patel, so I can say with confidence that he will have led it in a most effective and courteous way. I thank him for his superb introduction, and him and his fellow committee members for their excellent report.

I will talk about research and development in forensic science, a theme that has been touched on by other contributors, including the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, my noble friend Lord Mair and the noble Lord, Lord Winston. The committee’s report describes three important facets of the scientific basis of forensics: identifying the sources of a material or mark, for example a chemical trace; the activity levels of a material, for instance how long it might remain as a trace; and the biases in human judgment in interpreting the evidence. The report also highlights the increasing importance of digital forensics, as has already been referred to by my noble friend Lord Mair and the noble Lord, Lord Winston.

This country has a distinguished history in forensic science. This includes the development in the 1830s by James Marsh of the Marsh test for arsenic poisoning; the use of fingerprints, developed by Sir William Herschel and Francis Galton in the late 19th century; and, of course, the discovery of hypervariable mini-satellite sequences—DNA fingerprinting—by Sir Alec Jeffreys, that was first used to successfully solve a double murder case in 1986. We also pioneered forensic science in the world of fiction. Arguably the most famous fictional detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, was a master of forensic science and wrote several monographs on the subject. Furthermore, he was ahead of his time. He used fingerprint evidence in The Sign of Four, which was written 11 years before this technique was finally adopted by Scotland Yard in 1901.

Moving back from fiction to fact, it may be helpful to anchor my comments on the need for more research on forensic science with a real example. The Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh have published an excellent set of primers on forensic science in practice, including one on forensic gait analysis, briefly alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Winston. The question is: can you identify a person by the way they walk, for instance as captured on CCTV footage? Although forensic gait analysis is used in courts, the primer notes:

“The scientific evidence supporting forensic gait analysis, as currently practised, is … extremely limited.”

The report goes on to say that there is “no evidence” to show that gait is unique to an individual, no credible database for assessing the frequency of abnormal gait, no published estimates of the error rates in identifying individuals by gait, and no standardised methodologies for analysis and comparison of gaits. In one small published study of the accuracy of gait identification, the failure rate among experts was a staggering 29%. In short, if gait analysis is to continue to be used in courts, more research is urgently needed. That is just one illustrative example.

In this context it is particularly concerning to read the analysis published in 2019 by Professor Ruth Morgan of UCL, who, as the Grand Committee has heard, was the specialist adviser to the committee. She reported that during the 10 years to 2019, the research councils, now under the umbrella of UKRI, invested a paltry £5.6 million per year in forensic science, which she estimates to be about 0.1% of the total budget for the research councils over this period. Furthermore, it appears that this investment is declining, from a peak of £13.5 million in 2013 to only £1.1 million in 2018. As Professor Morgan points out, less than half this spend is on dedicated forensic science research, as opposed to other research that might have implications for forensic science. It is also focused on short-term challenges, rather than on research that would build the foundations for the next generation of new forensic techniques: so-called foundational research.

One may well ask whether £5.6 million a year is a big or a small sum of money, bearing in mind the breadth of themes that it covers, including digital and cyber science, analytical chemistry, molecular genetics, imaging, psychology, statistics and linguistics. Well, one way to consider whether £5.6 million a year is a small or big sum is to put it in the context of the overall cost of crime in this country, estimated by the Home Office to be in the region of £59 billion per year. Perhaps another illustration of the relative size of £5.6 million per year spent on research is to note that, according to a 2015 estimate, Transport for London spends roughly twice this amount each year dealing with graffiti. In short, £5.6 million seems a very small number.

This small and apparently declining investment in forensic science by UKRI must also be viewed in the context of the marketisation of forensic services, already referred to by my noble friends Lord Patel and Lord Mair, and by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach. According to Professor Morgan’s analysis, this marketisation has had a cascade of negative consequences for forensic research. It has resulted in restrictions on dissemination of new tools because companies view their discoveries as commercial and confidential, a dramatic decline in the size of the market, with a reduction of more than 60% in spend on forensic science services, and a lack of investment by the private sector in research.

It is against this background that the Select Committee made two recommendations relating to research and development. First, it recommended the creation of a national institute for forensic science within the UKRI family to set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development and to co-ordinate and direct research funding. In their reply, the Government said:

“We will carefully consider the business case for a National Institute”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and my noble friend Lord Mair interpreted this as a polite form of rejection of the idea.

Secondly, the committee recommended:

“Current levels of investment in forensic science research are inadequate and do not appear to reflect value to the criminal justice system. We believe that the Home Office has abdicated its responsibility for research in forensic science. We recommend that UK Research and Innovation urgently and substantially increase the amount of dedicated funding allocated to forensic science for both technological advances and foundational research, with a particular focus on digital forensic science evidence and the opportunities to develop further capabilities in artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

In their reply to this recommendation, the Government said that they would

“ensure that policing and the CJS benefit from advances in science and technology by developing and implementing new forensic techniques more coherently.”

They added:

“The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are focussed on developing an even stronger working relationship with UKRI as we work with them and other strategic partners to develop and set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development.”

The Government’s response, however, makes no reference to either foundational research or evaluative interpretation.

In closing, will the Minister update us on her response to these two recommendations? Have the Government concluded their careful consideration of the case for a national institute for forensic science and, if so, what did they decide? Has there been an increase in the amount of public funding of forensic science research and has this included more funding for foundational research, as recommended by the Select Committee in its excellent report?