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Mr. Straw: Does the Secretary of State accept that what we now know about fundamental flaws in the forensic testing of explosives is bound to weaken public confidence in the criminal justice system and that we may end up with the worst of all worlds--innocent people in prison and the guilty walking free? Given the seriousness of the situation, does he not understand that if he had come to the House of his own accord yesterday he would have earned credit for his approach? Instead, through his tawdry attempt yesterday to bypass the House, he has made a serious situation worse.

Was it not treating the House with contempt that journalists were told by the Secretary of State's office on Monday that an important announcement was imminent and that they were briefed at 3.15 pm yesterday while Members of Parliament were kept in the dark until the last possible moment? Contrary to the impression that he has just given that the flaws emerged as a result of a routine weekly test, will he acknowledge what is spelt out in paragraph 3.1 of the report: that nothing would have come to light but for the pure chance of an accident in the laboratory in which, unusually, a glass centrifuge tube broke?

Is the Secretary of State not aware that serious anxieties about quality control in forensic laboratories have been expressed time and again and that on every occasion to date, Ministers have shown breathtaking complacency in

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resisting proper independent scrutiny of their work? Why have Ministers so long refused to act on the views of the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is chaired by Lord Dainton, and on the specific recommendations of the royal commission on criminal justice that there should be established a forensic science advisory council to report to the Home Secretary on the performance, achievement and efficiency of those laboratories?

In particular, why did the Secretary of State ignore the strident warning by Lord Chief Justice Taylor in 1994 that the establishment of such a council was "urgently needed" and "overdue" in view of the increasingly competitive environment in which the laboratories have to operate? Given what we now know, was not the Lord Advocate, in responding for the Home Secretary in the other place in February, wholly ill-advised to claim that there was "no necessity" for improving the regulation of the laboratories? What does he say now to the calls from Lord Dainton and the Lord Chief Justice? Is not the Royal Society of Chemistry right that the case for the establishment of such a body is unanswerable? Is not the Secretary of State directly and personally responsible for the failure to act on the recommendations made to him?

On the report that the Secretary of State published yesterday, is it not extraordinary that

is not known with certainty, that no one has so far been able to say from where it was purchased--second-hand--and that no proper records were kept of its cleaning? Will he say how long Professor Caddy's inquiry is likely to take, whether he is satisfied that all possible cases where the tests could have been contaminated have been identified, and how many defendants may be involved? Will he also accept that the scope of the inquiry must be widened so that once Professor Caddy has completed the most urgent task of investigating the consequences of this contamination, a much more extensive review must be undertaken into the working practices of all forensic science and explosive laboratories?

Does not the way in which the Secretary of State has handled this grave matter expose a disastrous combination of arrogance and ineptitude, sadly all too typical of the Government, which will make it more difficult properly to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system?

Mr. Howard: As to the oral statement, the full facts and the action being taken were set out in my written answer yesterday to a parliamentary question, and the forensic explosives laboratory report on the instance was yesterday placed in the Library of House. Until we have Professor Caddy's report, I can give no further information and we move increasingly into the realms of speculation without the facts.

I have absolutely no intention of following the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) into the realm of speculation which was the basis of every question that he put to me. My concern is to give Parliament and the public the facts, not to second-guess the independent reviewer whom I have appointed. I have asked Professor Caddy to report as soon as he can consistent with a rigorous, thorough and comprehensive report.

I shall deal with one or two of the other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that it is not true that the press were briefed yesterday before the answer was

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made available to the House. My understanding is that the briefing commenced at 3.30 pm. That is the best of my understanding. That is what I have been told in answer to the questions which I have raised.

But the one thing above all which emerges from this regrettable incident and the way in which it has been handled by the hon. Gentleman and his cronies on the Opposition Front Bench is that they will stop at nothing to try to make political capital out of any incident. It is a disgraceful approach to serious matters of this kind and it will do the hon. Gentleman and his reputation no good whatever.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the prompt and thorough action that he has taken in this serious matter. Will he confirm that, of the dozen or so cases concerned where Semtex formed an important part of the evidence, the majority of those cases had evidence other than Semtex to be seriously considered and, therefore, it becomes less likely that in those cases the persons concerned will be released?

Finally, is it not preposterous for the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to suggest that had there been an independent forensic council it would have detected at Sevenoaks some contamination of a rubber bung at the bottom of a test tube upon which some of the equipment had rested? The whole thing is preposterous. The Opposition are trying to make a mountain out of a very small molehill and are discredited by the stupidity of their attempt.

Mr. Howard: I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will forgive me, but I do not propose to confirm the point that he put to me as to whether there was other evidence in the cases that we have so far identified as candidates for further investigation because I do not wish to engage in any speculation on any of those questions. I have asked Professor Caddy to look at them, but until we have his report the least said about any of the cases the better. I can confirm to my hon. and learned Friend that, so far as I can see at the moment, he is right in saying that the establishment of a forensic science advisory council would not have had the slightest bearing on this regrettable incident. But on that too, a final view must await Professor Caddy's report.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery): For how long was the Home Office aware of the information that was revealed yesterday before it was put in the public domain? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that in the Forensic Science Service, equipment is tested and quality-assured in a way which enables the records of all the equipment that is used for forensic testing to be traced? Will he further confirm that in the Forensic Science Service, no analytical results are relied upon unless blank tests have been carried out first? When outside laboratories are used--as was the case here--why are the Forensic Science Service's high standards of checking apparently not used? Will he assure the House that, in future, the Forensic Science Service will be able to set the standards used by outside laboratories before analytical results from those laboratories are used in evidence?

Mr. Howard: Let me first deal with the sequence of events. The preliminary results were reported to the Home Office by the forensic explosives laboratory on 19 April

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in a draft report. The final report was formally submitted to the Home Office on 25 April. I was fully briefed on the matter on 26 April, although I had been given a general oral account of the discovery on 22 April. In conjunction with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I then considered what action should be taken. It obviously takes a little time to decide upon the form of inquiry that is appropriate, and to identify and approach the person who is best qualified to carry it out. When that process was complete, I brought the matter to the House. I simply do not see how I could possibly have acted more expeditiously. I believe that I accounted to Parliament at the earliest possible moment.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) referred to the Forensic Science Service, but was not gracious enough to apologise to the service for his intemperate attack on it on the "PM" programme yesterday. He either had not read the written answer before he went on that programme--it was available for a full hour and a half before he made the broadcast--or, having read it, he had not understood it. The hon. and learned Gentleman is wont to make wild accusations without the slightest evidence to support them in a way which brings himself and his party into increasing disrepute. He should apologise to the Forensic Science Service at the earliest possible moment.

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