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

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Department: Home Office

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

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Excerpts
Monday 26th April 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Mair Portrait Lord Mair (CB) [V]
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My Lords, it was a privilege to have been a member of this House’s Science and Technology Select Committee under the expert and excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Patel. I congratulate him on his wise leadership.

Our report, published in May 2019, highlighted that this country was once regarded as world-leading in forensic science and seen as the international benchmark. But, regrettably, this is no longer the case—we are lagging behind other countries. This is principally because of an absence of high-level leadership, a lack of funding and an insufficient level of research and development. Our inquiry repeatedly heard that the forensic science system in England and Wales is not operating as it should; it is inadequate and in a state of crisis. We heard consistent evidence of the decline in forensic science, especially since the abolition of the highly respected Forensic Science Service in 2012.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, outlined some of the principal recommendations of our report. One was the creation of a forensics science board to take responsibility for forensic science in England and Wales. Another was the creation of a national institute for forensic science to set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development, and to co-ordinate and direct research and funding. The Government decided not to implement either of these key recommendations, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick. I will focus on two important areas affected by this decision: the market for provision of forensic services; and the research and development requirements, especially relating to digital forensic evidence.

On the market for provision of forensic services, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, rightly emphasised the urgency of giving the Forensic Science Regulator a number of statutory powers. The proposed establishment of the Office of the Forensic Science Regulator on a statutory basis is much welcomed. The noble Lord drew attention to our inquiry hearing evidence of a dysfunctional forensic science market. Our committee recommended that these statutory powers should include the means of regulating the market.

The effectiveness of forensic science for the criminal justice system depends critically on who provides it and how accessible it is. It must be good enough to be relied on by the courts, and it must be equally accessible to both the prosecution and the defence. Since the closure of the Government’s Forensic Science Service in 2012, some types of forensic science analysis are increasingly undertaken by police forces in-house, particularly disciplines such as fingerprint analysis and digital forensics. Our inquiry heard that the forensic marketplace accounts for about 20% of service provision for law enforcement in forensic services by value, with the remaining 80% of forensic science work undertaken by in-house employees of police forces.

There has been a large reduction in spending on forensic science services. We heard that the £120 million spent on forensic science in 2008 was down to about £50 million in 2018. Significant reduction in spending on commercial providers of forensic science has contributed substantially to market fragility. We were told by a number of witnesses that the state of the forensic science market in England and Wales is unsustainable and in need of urgent reform. A number of private forensic science providers had gone into administration or been suspended, leading to significant fluctuations in the market and consequent problems for the criminal justice system. Dr Gillian Tully, until recently the Forensic Science Regulator, stated in her 2019 annual report that more needed to be done to stabilise the procurement and provision of forensic science services by police forces.

Procurement of forensic services from private providers is largely run by the 43 police forces and their police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. A distinctive feature of the forensic science market is that, in any given region, the police forces are essentially the sole customer. We heard evidence that commoditised procurement processes had led to a 30-40% erosion in pricing over six to seven years. Suppliers of forensic services were being forced to compete so heavily on price because the contracts were so big and came around so infrequently. The result was prices being reduced to unsustainably low levels. We all know the dangers of this: the level of scientific skills offered by private providers of forensic services is inevitably compromised if they are being driven down to very low prices.

In their response to our report, the Government acknowledged that there is a strong relationship between price and quality. The key question, therefore, is how to rectify the current situation. Our committee heard how, as an alternative procurement model, some police forces are now using a managed service model. In this model, for a fixed price a large provider contracts to provide police forces with all the forensic science services they need long term, for up to 10 years.

Although this provides long-term stability for a large provider, it leaves little opportunity for the smaller specialist providers, many of which are uniquely able to offer scientific analysis in important niche disciplines. Evidence we heard indicated that some important specialisms are dying out because they are no longer sustainable. This is worrying.

Our report concluded that the current procurement models for forensic science services will need to change substantially in order to stabilise the market. The evidence pointed to the need for a body to oversee the market and ensure continuity of high-quality service provision. Without this the criminal justice system will continue to be severely compromised.

Our committee recommended that the Forensic Science Regulator should urgently review the structure of the market for forensic science, and also review the procurement process for commissioning private sector providers alongside provision by police forces. The primary aim should be to determine a procurement model that balances price, quality and market sustainability. It is particularly important to ensure a level playing field between private and public sector providers of forensic science services, maintaining the capabilities of small providers in niche disciplines. Can the Minister give an assurance that the Forensic Science Regulator will be given the necessary statutory powers to achieve this, overseeing and regulating the market effectively, thus ensuring its stability and its quality?

The second and final area on which I shall comment is research and development, especially in relation to new technologies and the increasing importance of digital forensic evidence. Digital evidence is now a key component in many criminal trials. Digital forensic capabilities must therefore be available to both the prosecution and the defence. Our committee heard that around 80% of all crime cases have a digital element, whether it be CCTV, mobile phones and social media data, or cyberattacks. Interrogating and analysing digital evidence is becoming increasingly time consuming. The evidence was clear that very considerable investment was needed in the use of modern technology to handle, search and analyse digital content.

Digital forensics is a rapidly expanding field. Its increasing importance is clearly recognised in the comprehensive Digital Forensic Science Strategy published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council in 2020. The value of artificial intelligence and machine learning to the criminal justice system cannot be overestimated. A modern mobile phone could have 1 terabyte of data on it, equivalent to many thousands of documents. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have vital roles to play in facial and speech recognition, and in identifying patterns of behaviour. There are enormous opportunities to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to streamline the handling, searching and analysis of digital forensic evidence. However, there are complexities, because human biases might be replicated by machine learning systems. This requires more research, particularly in the context of evidence for criminal trials.

A further pressing complexity is the rapid rise of deepfake technology. It is now possible to create digitally altered videos or soundtracks that make someone appear to have done or said something that they have not done or said. Deepfake videos and soundtracks are becoming easier to make and are dangerously difficult to identify as fakes. We are entering a world where it is no longer possible to believe all digital information. It is these very complexities that point to the urgent need for research in digital forensics.

Our report recommended that UKRI, working with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, should urgently and substantially increase the amount of funding allocated to forensic science, for both technological advances and foundational research. We emphasised the need to focus on digital forensic science evidence and the opportunities for understanding and developing further capabilities in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Can the Minister confirm that the Government recognise this vital need and will act accordingly?

In summary, there can be no question that proper delivery of justice depends on the integrity and accuracy of forensic science evidence, and the trust that society has in it. There are urgent changes needed to the system of procuring forensic science services to address market fragility, ensure stability and maintain high quality. There is also a need for more funding to be allocated to research and development in forensic science, especially in the rapidly changing area of digital forensics.

My final point is—

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Palmer of Childs Hill) (LD)
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I am sorry, I have to suspend the committee for five minutes for voting.

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Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Palmer of Childs Hill) (LD)
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We resume proceedings, and I am delighted to ask the noble Lord, Lord Mair, if he would benefit us by repeating the last couple of sentences or so of his remarks. Is the noble Lord, Lord Mair, there?

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Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Science and Technology Committee for its work in producing this excellent report, its chair, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his masterly exposition of what the report is all about and, of course, the committee’s staff who have been so incredibly helpful in briefing Peers ahead of this debate.

I will now exhibit my worst character defect, according to some of my friends, and say that I was not a member of the Science and Technology Committee, but I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority for the 12 years of its existence from 2000 onwards. As soon as the idea of privatising the national Forensic Science Service was floated, I made a speech in which I said, “This is a mistake and it will cause all sorts of problems”. Well, I told you so—rather I told them so. I was very unhappy when it finally went ahead.

The worrying thing that underpins all this, across the forensic sector, committee and the Government, is the acceptance that miscarriages of justice have occurred as a result of the failures, changes and inconsistencies in the way that forensic science is conducted. That innocent people may have been found guilty and guilty people may have been found innocent should worry everyone in this country because it undermines the whole justice system and the rule of law. I am yet to see any serious reflection from the Government on the implications of this or any attempt to ensure that these injustices are remedied.

I will come back to this issue, and I would like the Minister to explain what conversations the Government have had with the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor to trawl through these past cases and ensure that any forensic errors are put right and that anyone wrongly convicted has their conviction overturned. This work should be conducted using government funds and should not be constrained by the availability of individuals’ funds or legal aid.

The Government’s response to the report, specifically on legal aid, sadly expresses that they are

“not aware of legally aided defendants being denied access to forensic testing and expert advice for funding reasons.”

Will the Minister expand on the basis of that assertion? Is it founded on ignorance or have they gone out of their way to seek examples of legal aid limits getting in the way of justice? I ask this because some Peers had an email from a forensics organisation that mostly does legal aid criminal defence work. It says that, while the three main laboratories that work with the police have had significant increases in funding recently, there has not been a corresponding increase in funding for the defence. It says that it has tried to engage with the Government about legal aid funding, but to no avail, for example, on the arbitrary limit on travel time of four hours. This does not tally with the Government’s claim that people are being denied access to the forensic science that they need to prove their innocence.

To conclude, I believe that it is impossible to separate forensic science from the wider undermining of criminal justice funding that has occurred during 11 years of Conservative cuts. At the beginning, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said that somebody gave evidence that a national crisis brought us to this point, but it was not; political decisions by the Conservative Government made it clear that we would take this route. The Government have treated people’s innocence as an unaffordable and optional luxury, rather than the underpinning of the fabric of society’s trust in the justice system. When people realise that innocent people can go to jail and guilty people can go free because of failures in the system that the Government have allowed to happen, the whole system is doomed.

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Palmer of Childs Hill) (LD)
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My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, has withdrawn, so, I now call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.