All 1 Lindsay Hoyle contributions to the Forensic Science Regulator Bill 2019-21

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Fri 25th Sep 2020
Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading

Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill

Lindsay Hoyle Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons
Friday 25th September 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I think my hon. Friend has missed his calling: his forensic examination of these documents is to be admired. During the course of the debate I will seek an answer to the question that he raises; I do not have it at the moment. In response to an earlier point that he raised, it is not just the police who are the users of forensic services; very often defence will use them. Having a consistent regulatory environment that is observed by all means that we will get greater consistency in courts, and therefore there will presumably be less time lost—and a saving—in trials that are broken, cracked or have to be delayed because of differences in forensic evidence.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Just to say the hon. Gentleman’s calling is Friday.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and I look forward to hearing the outcome of his further enquiries. His strategy seems to be to supress my scepticism by using charm and flattery, which I am sure are important weapons in his armoury.

I am conscious that lots of people want to participate in this debate. I hope we will be able to get on to some of the later debates on the Order Paper, so having expressed some of my scepticism, I will now sit down.

--- Later in debate ---
Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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Goodness me, we live and learn, and we learn a new thing every day. What a gory story. It is sad that we are leaving the European Union, because we had access to all those databases, including Europol’s. I think that is a cause for lament, but that is probably another debate for another day.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I think we will leave that one there.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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Unfortunately, the reality of Britain’s forensic services is far removed from the glamour of “NCIS”. Britain’s Sherlockian sleuths and Clouseauian crime detectives do exist in our police forces, and they do a sterling job, but they have been hampered and held back for years—for at least seven years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West said. There are three reasons for that.

First, cuts in police and research budgets have adversely affected spending on private forensics. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) attempted valiantly in the previous Parliament to raise that issue. Sadly, the election, which not all of us wanted, put paid to that. Whatever happened to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011? I think it is going soon. Anyway, as he pointed out, expenditure on private forensics has come down from £120 million in 2008 to £50 million at the moment. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee uncovered those figures last year.

Secondly, there is a lack of competitiveness. Even for fans of the free market, this is not a good way of running the system. The forensics marketplace is in a fragile state, because it is not purely one thing or the other. Thirdly, there is the laxity of the regulatory regime, despite the fact that there is a Forensic Science Regulator. The Bill seeks to address that by calling for a new Forensic Science Regulator, so that our justice system is better equipped to deal with modern crime.

When the regulator itself states that innocent people are repeatedly wrongly convicted and criminals are escaping the long arm of the law due to the failure of the forensic science system to meet basic standards, something has obviously gone very wrong. It is no exaggeration to say that it is positively criminal that the watchdog—currently incarnated as Dr Gillian Tully, who acknowledges this herself—is so toothless, so lacking in cojones, that it is purely advisory. It does not have legal powers to require private providers to meet standards, or to impose fines if they do not meet them.

How did we get here in the first place? It was actually under David Cameron, another PM who swiftly left the crime scene. Paul Roberts, a Nottingham University professor of jurisprudence who specialises in this field said in 2015:

“in a moment of penny-pinching madness that future governments may regard with incomprehension, the UK coalition government closed down the world-famous Forensic Science Service, arguing—quite improbably—that the private sector would fill the gap…this move to free-market forensics is not meeting the justice system’s need for high-quality scientific support and has put in jeopardy long-term forensic research, development and training.”

He laments the closure as part of what he calls a “landscape of ‘austerity justice’”.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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Although the hon. Lady is right that the Forensic Science Service was closed, and that part of the argument for its closure was the cost, because it was losing significant amounts of public money at the time, there had also been a series of forensic science failures resulting in high-profile abandoned trials, which meant that reform was felt necessary. It was not purely ideological; it was as much a practical and results-driven decision as anything.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Just for the record, the FSS provided a very good service. The labs at Chorley were fantastic.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Huq
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I am grateful to the Minister and to you, Mr Speaker, for pointing out what used to go on in the labs of Chorley—not the stuff that happened in Germany, obviously. [Interruption.] This is quite different to the German case.

I do not want to pick a fight with the Minister, because we all agree on this. That article was from 2015, and to be fair, some austerity justice cuts have since been reversed. Fees for employment tribunals have gone. Like the Labour party, the Government are under new leadership, so let us hope we can reverse all those things. We have been told repeatedly that austerity is over, so let us rectify the situation now.

Numerous authorities on the subject, including the National Audit Office and the Science and Technology Committees in this House and the other place, have concluded that our forensic system is close to broken, and that harms the criminal justice system as a whole. Putting the forensic science regulator on a statutory footing is a vital first step to saving the field. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West pointed out, it is not a panacea, but it is a good start.

Statutory enforcement powers are badly needed in the wake of the weak market that has emerged since the FSS was privatised in 2012. As has been pointed out, 90% of traditional forensic science is delivered by just three large providers, to the detriment of competition and market resilience. Even fans of the free market cannot like the way that is functioning. Large providers are exiting the market left, right and centre, creating system-wide capacity shortfalls and increased turnaround times. Simply put, there is not even a profit motive to uphold the standards of those companies, let alone a powerful watchdog. The rest of forensics is done in-house by police forces, which brings its own set of problems.

In the context of rapid technological change, police forces have reported difficulties in managing increasingly voluminous and unmanageable workloads, particularly in digital forensics. Local police forces cannot realistically be expected to deal with those new forms of crime, or deliver the same high-quality fingerprint evidence that the FSS once provided. They are forced to spin all those different plates at once, and juggle all those balls, some of which come crashing down.

Fewer than 10% of police forces have met basic quality standards for fingerprint evidence. Three years ago, all UK forces were ordered to ensure that their laboratories met international standards for analysing prints found at crime scenes, yet as of last year, only a handful had completed that. Police forces that have failed to obtain accreditation have to declare that in court, which prompts the concern that cases could fall apart because of unreliable evidence.

Police forces are in an impossible catch-22 bind. They can outsource forensics to private providers, which is costly and incurs spending beyond their means, or they can try to cobble something together themselves. With the latter option, police stakeholders are let off the hook in the absence of a regulator that can say, “No, think again.” Outsourcing digital work to unaccredited private labs that are subject to no regulatory oversight runs the risk of punishing police forces when their commercial partners botch things up. The much cited example of Randox Testing Services highlights that point. That private provider was suspended in 2018 after a number of motorists convicted of drug-driving offences were cleared after evidence of manipulation was found in Randox’s testing processes, and there are other examples of serious offences being quashed as a result of faulty data and contaminated evidence. The sector is badly crying out for quality control, rather than unsatisfactory quasi-casino capitalism that does not quite work, fused with police services that are unable to cope.

The public and private arms of the UK’s forensic services are at breaking point. That has led to a mass shortage of skills, particularly in digital forensics and toxicology. No wonder Dr Tully said in February that

“forensic science has been operating on a knife-edge for years”.

When we cut corners in legal matters of this type, it is the public who lose out. It is a false economy for which we all pay dearly. Reliable, high-quality, trusted evidence underpins our justice system in this country. It is simply wrong that victims of some of the most heinous crimes do not see perpetrators put behind bars where they belong, because the evidence was not handled properly. That “anything goes”, sloppy culture has to stop. We should be striving for excellence in every lab, whereas now we do not have a system fit for purpose. We should not be scrimping on justice and putting up with unreliable evidence, as that destroys public confidence in our entire legal system. Saying that the wheels of justice will probably turn is not good enough. We need certainty that justice will be served.

We have heard before that we have had enough of experts, but I am glad that that thinking has given way to following the science. As I say, there is a long list of expert opinion in favour of such legislation. The Minister said it was in his own manifesto—buried away somewhere—and it is good to hear heavyweight Government support for it. As well as reports from the two Select Committees, the FSR’s own annual report this year says that the quality and delivery of forensic science in England and Wales is “inadequate”. This raises alarm bells that crimes may go unsolved and that the number of miscarriages of justice may increase.

I know that, at this time in the cycle, we are all receiving emails from conspiracy theorist types denouncing the Coronavirus Act 2020 as interfering in all our lives. I am no fan of totalitarianism, but on this one, regulation can be a force for good. Clauses 2 to 4 would introduce a code of practice with safeguards and standards, which means protecting consumers and encouraging levelling up—to coin a phrase. That means companies on the wrong side of the regulations will simply go out of business. Clauses 5 to 8 would allow for investigations with a built-in appeals process. Clause 11 defines “forensic science activity” as the application of scientific methods for the purpose of detecting or investigating crime and preparing evidence in criminal procedures, but it is flexible enough that there is scope to expand to areas of civil law, if needed.

Forensic science plays a pivotal role in modern criminal proceedings, and there is an increasing reliance on it. Yet such evidence can be boon as well as bane, because it poses such multifarious challenges when it is unreliable or misleading. Biometrics are not covered by this Bill, although the word is in the title, but we do not want forensics always to be associated with miscarriages of justice, which is in danger of happening. Making provision for the appointment of a beefed-up Forensic Science Regulator, ensuring the regulation of forensic science outfits and requiring the Secretary of State to publish an annual strategy are eminently sensible things. I am delighted that this proposed legislation has so much support from so many powerful quarters, and I, too, commend the Bill to the House.