All 1 Baroness Williams of Trafford contributions to the Forensic Science Regulator Bill 2019-21

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Fri 19th Mar 2021

Forensic Science Regulator Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Forensic Science Regulator Bill

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for bringing forward this Bill and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for acknowledging our efforts in that regard. I also acknowledge his point about sufficient resourcing. I understand that the regulator’s office will receive £220,000 per year, with any top-ups coming out of Home Office budgets. He and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, also made the point about how much further we could go. That is right, but the Bill is a good step forward and very much meets the golden rule of Private Members’ Bills, which is to keep them simple.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, asked why it has taken so long. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, it was first pledged by the Government in 2016. It had a few rocky experiences and, ultimately, is now back as a Private Member’s Bill. I think it was the Private Member’s Bill in the 2017-19 Session that failed, but I am very glad that it is back here with us today.

As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, forensic science is one of policing’s most important tools for investigating crime. The prosecution of, for example, county lines crime and violent crimes such as knife crime heavily relies on good-quality forensics, including digital forensics and DNA. It helps us to avoid exoneration of the guilty and, of course, miscarriage of justice to the innocent. To go straight to the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, upholding quality standards in forensic science is therefore vital to confidence in those criminal justice outcomes.

On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, confidence in the application of the underlying science depends on providers’ adherence to the regulator’s codes of practice, whether they are employed directly by police forces or privately contracted. The Government have therefore committed to putting the regulator on a statutory footing. We want the regulator to act when it has reason to believe that forensic science activities create a substantial risk to the course of justice.

The Bill establishes the regulator as a statutory officeholder. With statutory powers, the regulator would, as a last resort, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, be able to issue compliance notices against forensic providers who are failing to meet the required quality standards, and thus protect the criminal justice system. The Bill requires the regulator to publish and keep under review a code of practice covering forensic science activities in England and Wales. The code does not have to provide for every forensic science activity and may make different provisions for different types of activity—for example, depending on whether the process is being performed at a crime scene or in a laboratory.

The Bill also confers on the regulator the power to investigate a forensic science activity to which the regulator’s code of practice applies, if the regulator believes that the activity is being carried out in a way that risks adversely affecting an investigation or impeding or prejudicing the course of justice in England and Wales. It further provides that the regulator may bring injunction proceedings to compel a person to comply with a requirement to provide information or documents under the Bill.

The power to investigate is crucial to the regulator’s ability effectively to enforce quality standards and adherence to a statutory code of practice. Without this power, the regulator would not be able to identify instances of bad practice or to work with forensic providers to put things right. If the regulator believes that an activity to which the code of practice applies is being carried out in a way that risks adversely affecting an investigation, or impeding or prejudicing the course of justice in England and Wales, it can give the person performing the activity a compliance notice. If that person does not comply, the regulator may bring proceedings for an injunction to secure compliance. The Bill also makes provision for the regulator to prepare and publish guidance or reports on, and provide advice relating to, forensic science activities in England and Wales.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, talked about the decision to close the Forensic Science Service in 2012. It was closed because, by 2010, it was losing an estimated £2 million a month—and that was taxpayers’ money, of course. Although this was not the reason for its closure, there were many forensic science failings in the FSS, which led to multiple case reviews and retesting programmes. That picks up some of the points made by noble Lords. We do not intend to reopen the FSS. We also agree that a voluntary system is not working, hence the Bill before us.

I was asked about the future reform programme in forensic science. Last July, we presented to the Criminal Justice Board plans for reform to deliver strategic oversight and leadership for the future of forensics. Since then, we have set out four key pillars of the forensic science reform programme: police capability; regulation of provision; CJS capability; and research and development. This work is being progressed with the Ministry of Justice, the regulator’s office and other stakeholders.

On capabilities, we have invested £28.6 million to accelerate innovation and combat crime across England and Wales. The Forensic Capability Network is providing police forces with specialist support functions. A digital forensic science strategy was published last summer. A workforce strategy has also been developed; this will help to identify the direction of future workforce demands in forensic science.

The Home Office is leading on an objective to increase confidence in the science entering the CJS by supporting the Bill. We have ensured that clauses on data extraction are included through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; they will clarify the legal basis for data extraction from digital devices with the agreement of the user. Officials in the Ministry of Justice are working to increase the transparency around expert witnesses’ credentials and ensure that defendants have equal access to experts. We also aim to identify current and future research and development needs. We have already identified existing funding streams and gathered information on areas of research interest through engagement with stakeholders.

I am very grateful for the cross-party support in the House and the support of the National Police Chiefs’ Council for the Bill and these vital measures. Before I close, I want to pay tribute to Dr Gillian Tully, now the former regulator, for her invaluable work while in the role. It is my hope that her successor will be able to benefit from these powers and continue to drive up standards in forensic science in England and Wales.