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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 18 October 2005

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Forensic Sciences

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Good morning, colleagues. If hon. Members have been watching the time on the monitors and think that I am a little late in getting up to speak, I should say that I take notice of the time on the large clock—the two clocks differ by about 30 seconds.

9.30 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about forensic science and the sciences. Much of the information that I have gleaned on the subject comes from the Science and Technology Committee report, "Forensic Science on Trial", of the previous Parliament. The Committee made a thorough study, which has helped, as has the support given by two externals, David Blakey, once Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary, and Professor David Barclay, formerly head of physical evidence at the National Crime and Operations Faculty, who know the score on forensic sciences from the inside.

People know about forensic science: there is a magic about it; it has become well known, locally and internationally; and it is applied in the legal environment. For example, we have read in today's papers about events in Australia, where a backpacker was killed and the authorities are trying to fix someone for it. DNA technology is playing a significant part in trying to tie up the legal situation there.

Natural and man-made disasters are familiar to us—the tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, Bali, the World Trade Centre, the London bombings, the investigation of mass graves and genocide. All forensic science techniques have been used to try to identify the victims, methods or perpetrators of such violence. Indeed, forensic science is sometimes used to find out whether there has been any crime at all.

The United Kingdom is, thank goodness, well up there with other countries and plays an international role in dealing with such events. We sent international experts, who were trained here, to help after the tsunami as part of an international effort by the international community. We remember the Harrods bomb, the King's Cross fire, the Mill Hill barracks bomb, the Clapham train crash, and the sinking of the Marchioness—the list goes on and on, and there is no likelihood that such events will cease. Forensic science will play an integral part in the work done after such events. It can help with investigations into crime, terrorism, drugs, firearms, paedophilia, sexual abuse, fraud and road crashes—the list goes on and on.

We must never forget that the most important events for many of our constituents are burglaries and car crimes, which are the events to which people are
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exposed. I remember the fingerprints being identified on a bottle of House of Commons whisky that was nabbed from my house. During a machete fight outside a local pub, four guys were grabbed, and some of the fingerprints on the bottle corresponded to those of the young men responsible. However, the courts could not pin the theft on them, because it was not certain who had taken the bottle—all four of them had had their hands on it at some time, so the theft could not be pinned on one of them, which led to a legal situation in which some smart lawyer got them all off. However, I know who they are, and I will be looking for them.

The UK has been at the forefront of developments, and the Forensic Science Service, which is an executive agency of the Home Office, is a major player. However, other forces are coming into play: forensic alliances involving the former Laboratory of the Government Chemist are being created; large scientific businesses with an interest in forensic science are being set up; and police forces are beginning to contract out their scientific needs. Universities can see the commercial possibilities and are offering forensic science training to police officers and others, which has led to some criticism.

We often see people on television in white decontamination coats who arrive at the scene of a crime within hours of its occurring or on the following day. They come from different organisations and collect information by using toxicology, analysing DNA from hairs and fibres and examining footwear, firearms, drugs and explosive materials. A huge number of techniques are involved in the service, and we must recognise that it provides information that guarantees that police policies are based on intelligence-led information, which is extremely important. There have been many cases— I shall talk about them later—in which information has had to be revoked as new technology comes to light, so the service provides essential information.

The report also goes into some detail about the future of the service, which was discussed in this very place a couple of years ago. Is there any intention to privatise the service, to develop a public-private partnership and to set up a Gov-co?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): At the start of the campaign about two years ago, my hon. Friend, like me and many other MPs, refused to be a silent witness to the privatisation of the service, which would have left it as the only privatised forensic science service in the world. We are relieved that the Government have given the service two years in which to demonstrate its success as a Gov-co. Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, that the Government are acting as both judge and jury in setting the criteria and assessing success before deciding whether to tramp further down the privatisation path?

Dr. Gibson : I would be concerned if that were the only input into the debate, but the debate is being expanded, and we shall hear more about that from the Minister. Other forensic services across the world and other institutions in this country are now taking that issue seriously. Partly because of the report and partly because of the parliamentary debates, forensic sciences have received a huge lift, but many of the bright people involved with the technologies are concerned, given
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what might happen to their service in future. The debate must be wide-ranging, and I hope that it will involve the public, too.

There is the "Silent Witness" programme and the Amanda Burton factor, and we cannot turn on our televisions these days without seeing a body being dragged from a river and people working out how that person was killed. It amazes me that people love such viewing—there is a fascination about what causes death. Forensic science makes great TV viewing and, indeed, great books—in the States, Patricia Cornwell has made a mint out of writing about pathology and looking at dead bodies.

There are great opportunities to interact with other countries in providing that service, given that many of the issues that I have discussed are international, that people move about and that such information needs to follow them about. Although that sounds good and interesting, there are also problems that have to be faced.

There is no doubt that DNA technology has been a tremendous boon for the service. Sir Alec Jeffreys, whom I know, gave evidence to the Committee. One day, he was doing a bit of basic research on DNA and found a variation between the DNA of different individuals. Suddenly, he discovered that each individual has a different pattern of DNA when it is broken up and run on particular gels. That serendipitous discovery shows us the value of basic research, and we never know what value such basic research might have in the applied sector.

The national DNA database has been set up, and it is undoubtedly the best in the world. There are plans to expand it and to interact it with databases in other parts of the world, but its success raises many ethical problems and its discriminatory functions have been attacked. Who keeps the DNA? Why do they keep it in relation to innocent people or those against whom charges have been dropped? DNA may be kept for certain reasons, and I am sure that the Minister will mention cases in which it has been valuable to do so.

Many people worry about samples being kept in cases involving the innocent. In fact, Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who made the discovery, has argued that samples should be taken from the whole population, which would cut out the argument about discrimination. That matter must be fully debated, and the public must be involved. What do they think about their DNA being held for future interest? Who has access to the data? What is the role of the police and how do they get hold of the data? Such issues will be raised later today in the identity cards debate.

Many of the ethical problems are serious and require a full debate. For example, someone might want to obtain DNA information on the health potential of an individual concerning the age at which they will develop a serious illness. If that individual is innocent and their DNA has been kept, who would want to know such information? An insurance company would certainly like to know, and an employer might want to know, too, so dangers exist.

The other issue that has emerged in the debate on holding all the DNA information on our national database is that the correlation between DNA and a
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person may not be straightforward. Familial similarities may occur, and I am sure that the Minister will mention cases in which a crime was committed not by the suspect, but by somebody with similar DNA, such as a brother or sister. There are arguments for holding on to information for familial reasons, but many people find them disturbing, so the matter must be debated and limits must be set.

DNA technology is developing all the time. For example, Sir Alec Jeffreys told the Committee that 16 markers are required to set up an individual's profile. Years ago, when things started off, six markers were used. Now 10 markers are used, but Sir Alec Jeffreys thinks that 16 markers provide a better correlation and ensure that people are not identified by accident. If there are 16 markers rather than 10, misidentification is less likely—for example, British people involved in identifying tsunami victims have confirmed that 16 markers were used in that work.

The other question is whether we should revisit cases in which people have already been convicted. The Birmingham Six were associated with the events in Birmingham not through DNA, but through chemicals, which could have come from a playing card. They got off after 16 years in prison, and the feeling was that that conviction was wrongful and unsafe. If using 16 markers is better than using 10, should we re-examine such cases to ensure that we have got things right or should we stick with what we have got? Such examples suggest that we should re-examine cases, if we feel that the technology has improved.

I will mention the training of people who enter the service. The courses at universities and colleges are popular—there are 400 degree courses at 57 universities. People can do football technology and forensic computing, which fascinates me, although I do not know what a graduate could do with it—they might end up as England manager, if they do not watch out. Many of the courses have not been accredited and the question whether some of them are of value has been raised. The courses are certainly extremely popular thanks to books, Amanda Burton, "Silent Witness" and other programmes, and there is a great fascination with the subject.

We have not really examined how many jobs there are and how many people will be employed in the profession after completing courses. I am talking about the usefulness of the courses from the employment point of view, although that is not to say that they are not valuable for other activities in society. On direct employment, however, various people told the Committee that there are not that many jobs for the hundreds of students on the courses.

The Committee was also told something extremely interesting: what is really wanted is people who can do basic chemistry, physics and mathematics—later, I shall explain why understanding statistics is extremely important when giving evidence to the courts. A lot of the courses require basic chemistry, physics and maths, and we should not allow our young people and those working part-time to escape the rigorous training that is necessary to enable the service to be used properly.

The irony is that one day we were told that the chemistry department was closing at Exeter and that physics departments were closing elsewhere, and the
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next day the police told us that they want people to do such courses. There is a lack of interaction, and a serious discussion must take place between the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills to see whether they can marry the courses with existing interests and future employment prospects.

New technologies relating to DNA at the molecular level will be developed, and lab-on-chip technology will also be introduced. Lab-on-chip technology will mean that a scientist does not have to take a sample at the scene of the crime and return to the lab to work on it, which raises all sorts of problems associated with contamination. Instead, scientists will be able to experiment at the scene of the crime.

Scientists will be able to get answers on where a crime happened with particular types of computer programmes. For example, Beagle—we have not seen it for a while; it ended up somewhere last Christmas—had that kind of technology. The technology exists and, with resources and help, it might be taken into the forensic science arena.

I want to consider the real problem that exists when forensic science evidence is used in the courts. There have been some high-publicity cases recently, such as those of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, who were accused of murdering their children. Members will know that an eminent expert gave evidence in the Cannings case and talked about statistics, which were later overruled. There is a question about the word "expert". Yes, he was an expert in his particular field, but he did not get the statistics right. Another expert exposed that and, of course, the original statistics were overruled. That raises the questions how we use information and how we use the experts who come into court to provide it.

At the Angela Cannings hearing, the judge said:

How the evidence is presented and how the experts are chosen are important, and a serious list must be drawn up. The matter involves more than looking for the cheapest person, the most expensive person, the biggest name, somebody with a Nobel prize or somebody with a knighthood. A bias in our legal system means that those prosecuting see the tyre marks on the road and do the tests, which means that the defence legal team come in on the back foot and must assume that the data are okay. The defence must argue about the interpretation of the data, which often concerns how the data were collected.

We must get away from people with a certain charisma fascinating juries through their knowledge and excellence, which usually appertains to their qualifications—such situations must be seen to be believed. The Committee said that the best solution is, where possible, to have a pre-legal court hearing where the experts and the judge can establish where they agree and disagree and consider how important certain information is to the prosecution case. Sometimes, such information is key, and, as I have said in relation to the Cannings case, it is unsafe when a disagreement occurs. There are plenty of examples of scientific evidence creating problems, and we must find a better and fairer way to make the process work.
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Juries, too, are very interesting. To my knowledge, no jury has ever been consulted about how it found the scientific evidence—baffling, I imagine. Even experts sometimes cannot agree because they are expert in certain areas and not in others, so how can we expect a neutral jury to make a judgment? Before a case involving two experts comes before a jury, there should be a joint statement or an identification of the different views of the two experts. The matter should not come down to the charismatic effect of one expert over another in court.

Because we have an adversarial system, we expect lawyers to find the most charismatic character, if they want to win. Lawyers are not like scientists—they just want to win. Scientists also have a bias, but they think, "We know we're not 100 per cent. sure about things, but gosh, we're probably 99.9 per cent. sure." No one will ever get a lawyer to admit that. Lawyers are never wrong because they cannot appear to be wrong in the presentation of their evidence. They select the expert and the sort of evidence that is put forward, but a pre-trial meeting would ensure that that does not happen. We could try to eliminate such practices—nothing is perfect, but such a move would make it much more likely that crass mistakes will not be repeated.

As for lawyers and judges, we spoke to a judge who admitted that he knew nothing about DNA technology. He did not quite say that he believed someone because he liked the colour of their eyes, but it almost got that far. We cannot allow a system that lawyers and judges do not understand to continue. That does not mean that lawyers and judges cannot understand DNA technology, but we need an educational programme. I corresponded with someone the other day who told me that they had begun a course in Glamorgan to educate lawyers about the new technologies appearing in court, so such courses exist. We must get good evidence into the legal system to ensure that it is fair, which will help to ensure that we do not experience any more sad cases that the media pick up on so avidly in this country and abroad.

More and more technology will be used, and more and more evidence will be needed in considering crimes such as terrorism. Having visited the States, the Select Committee published a report about the sort of detection technology that should be used in our underground stations, and I do not just mean CCTV cameras. Obviously, there was resistance to CCTV cameras, but they were very useful during the investigation into recent events in London.

We have reached a watershed with the service, because we do not know how it will be structured or funded or how it will interact with the international situation, so perhaps the Minister will tell us a little more about those issues. We do not know how we can change the education system in universities and colleges to ensure that they are up for it and that people have the right sort of skills and information. We have a big opportunity to make the legal process appear a lot fairer to not only lawyers and judges—if they are honest about it—but the general public.

9.54 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, as I was in the previous Parliament, and it has considered
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forensic science in depth. Our investigation was prompted by the proposal that followed the McFarland review of the Forensic Science Service published in July 2003. The problem with the service can be summed up in one word: investment. The service needs a lot of investment to continue as it is and, more particularly, to fund new procedures and research—specifically blue-sky research.

There has been a considerable delay while the Government have been making up their mind about what to do about the FSS. The original intention of the McFarland review was to proceed to a Gov-co, the stage at which we shall arrive in December, and then to proceed to a full public-private partnership. Some of us are concerned about that for various reasons.

Blue-sky research, which takes place in the current FSS, would suffer badly if we moved further in the direction of what some of us regard as privatisation. Once we embark on that route, there must be a profit-making service not only to reinvest some of the profits, but, if there are eventually shareholders, to satisfy shareholders' demands.

I am concerned about access to the FSS—which, after all, is one of the best services in the world—for the 43 police forces throughout Great Britain. I have spent some time in forensic science laboratories across Lambeth bridge, at the FSS in Euxton, near Chorley, and at Bradford Park, Greater Manchester. Some police forces have their own forensic services—the Greater Manchester police force has one at Bradford Park—which might develop if the police find it more expensive to use the private sector.

I accept that there is a global demand for forensic science, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned some reasons for that—in particular, the identification of bodies in the tsunami and other recent disasters. He mentioned also the letter that we received recently from the Laboratory of the Government Chemist Group Holdings plc and the Forensic Alliance, which are two separate providers of forensic science services. I accept that they act as providers in different ways, but they shall come together as one body.

I am concerned that although the Government's requirement seems to be to drive down prices through more competitive forensic science services, such amalgamations will work in the opposite direction. A large number of providers must compete against one another to create competition in a service, and I do not think that that situation exists. I am concerned also by the step that we have taken towards privatising the FSS.

Police access to the service is important. The police told me, and I think they told the Science and Technology Committee in written evidence, that if costs rise, they shall be more selective about the number of cases and procedures they submit to forensic science for examination. If there is to be a satisfactory conclusion to a criminal case, the more forensic science evidence the better. One certainly cannot rely on one piece of forensic evidence. Such cases often come unstuck either in court or later, when a review of evidence leads to the release of the convicted person.
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David Taylor : My hon. Friend suggests that police services would be deterred from using the FSS if costs were to increase significantly. The Minister's predecessor suggested that £180 million would be needed to upgrade DNA investment. Does my hon. Friend agree that the private sector would charge higher rates for access to that capital and incorporate within that a profit element, and also that it is inevitable that the police and other bodies would have to pay significantly higher charges, which would deter them from using the services in this important area?

Dr. Iddon : That is precisely the concern that I am trying to express: costs for forensic science services will probably be driven up, which will deter the police from accessing certain aspects of those services.

I am a chemist by background, and I have trained a considerable number of scientists who have gone into the FSS. One finding of our investigation was that the service preferred specialist scientists to enter it—chemists, physicists, biologists or zoologists—rather than people from all the forensic science courses that are proliferating at present.

The Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies Alliance conducted a good investigation of higher education and forensic science, and published a report in 2004. I advise any young person who is considering enrolling on a forensic science course to take a look at that report because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has intimated, there is a great number of such courses and some seem absurd.

For example, Canterbury Christ Church university college has scores of courses; think of a language and it is possible to study forensic science with it. It is also possible to study forensic science with theology. I have in front of me sheets full of possible courses, and it makes me wonder whether all of them are necessary and what the demand is at the end of such courses for the students who graduate from them. Students enrolling on forensic science courses must think very carefully about the courses they are entering. We are concerned about the employability of people who graduate with degrees of the kind listed in the SEMTA report.

I have had some discussions with the head of the department that deals in forensic science at the university of Central Lancashire at Preston. He was so concerned about our concerns that he wrote to me. Those courses are fairly new, of course, and the first graduates are only now beginning to come on to the job market. If I remember the figure correctly, his university recently produced 86 graduates from its first output of students. I was sceptical initially, but I was pleased that most of that first output had gone on to do something else, although not necessarily forensic science. However, it is important to bear it in mind that that is one of the best forensic science courses.

Gratifyingly, many students from that university's first output went into the police force. It is good that policemen and women have an intimate knowledge of forensic science, and many more courses should be made available for police officers who do not have such knowledge, so that they can understand what the scene of crime officers have to do when they attend a crime scene.

I have been to crime scenes, and I have discussed the contamination of evidence with the police and with forensic science officers. It is easy to contaminate
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evidence at the scene of crime, and that is often done by police officers themselves, who do not really understand the requirements of the forensic scientist. Therefore, I am very pleased that the university of Central Lancashire—if not some other universities and colleges—is producing forensic science graduates who then enter the police force. That is a good and genuine advantage.

The university of Central Lancashire has also told me that the television representation of forensic science appeals to young people and motivates them to enrol on these courses. There is nothing wrong with that; those programmes are exciting them and encouraging them to study science, although I would not say in most cases that it is real science.

Interestingly, the SEMTA report analyses the balance between what I call real science—subjects such as chemistry, mathematics and statistics—and forensic science. The amount of, and balance, between forensic and real science in these courses differs, which is why I recommend that young people read the report before embarking on such courses.

Another advantage is that, when young people have been hooked by such a course and realise that they have a fascination for studying chemistry, physics or statistics, they often want to study one of the hard sciences further. The university of Central Lancashire told me that such courses have accelerated people on to chemistry courses, for example. Having attended one of those courses, people with a forensic science background with a BSc—or invariably an MSc or a PhD—in chemistry, physics, mathematics or statistics are entering the police force and becoming investigating officers, which is just unbelievable, as few people with such knowledge are members of the police force.

We identified the fact that a much closer liaison is necessary between universities and the Home Office. A lot of research is taking place at the universities that might ultimately be applicable in forensic science. When the Jeffreys laboratory at the university of Leicester was playing with DNA, I am sure that it did not see initially the forensic application. So, one of our report's recommendations was that it is important for our people at the Home Office to scan the horizon, talk closely to the universities throughout the year and keep in contact with them to see whether any new technologies and experimental techniques being developed there might be applicable in the FSS. Recent events in the world of terrorism have shown how much more critical such matters are becoming.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to the courts. We are worried about the judicial process, and our adversarial system of justice might not be the best in the world. Indeed, there has been some criticism of it. There is no doubt that, if the defence or the prosecution can afford to hire an experienced and extremely charismatic barrister, they will probably be at an advantage over the opposition if they cannot do the same. That is worrying.

The lack of knowledge throughout the judicial process about forensic science is also worrying. Juries have to consider an immense amount of forensic science during a court case, which might be one step too far. In serious fraud cases, the jury might often be held in court for months on end—sometimes years. Some such cases
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collapse, sometimes because members of the jury have to leave for one reason or another and sometimes, tragically, because a member of the jury has died. We are heading towards the point at which the amount of forensic science evidence might also cause cases to crack, either because they go on too long or because juries cannot reach a verdict because they do not understand the evidence. We have asked the Government to consider setting up judge-only trials in cases of complicated forensic evidence. Perhaps we have not yet reached that stage, but I am sure that we will within 10 years.

We also suggested that the Home Office set up a forum for science and the law, so that lawyers on the one side and scientists on the other, with the Home Office acting as the catalyst, can discuss matters of mutual interest. That would benefit the judicial process. Training for solicitors and lawyers at all levels, especially barristers, is essential. DNA evidence can be complicated in itself, and not many lawyers fully understand the complex DNA evidence that is submitted in some forensic science cases.

A company in my constituency, Zentek Forensics, has entered the area of forensic digital evidence. The digital world is complicated and many criminals are entering it, but this aspect goes further in that many schools are allowing information to be downloaded illegally and many teachers, even head teachers, might not be aware of it. Forensic investigation of what students are doing digitally in schools puts those schools at risk of being sued, but illegal downloading of music on to MP3s and of more seedy information from the internet is an increasing problem that we must consider.

Some expert witnesses go into court for the first time with no training in court procedures. A skilled barrister, despite the honesty and straightforwardness of the expert witness, can often taint such a witness's evidence because that person lacks understanding of court procedures. That worries me. We should offer courses in court procedures and the presentation of evidence in court to all new expert witnesses who might be called upon to give evidence in an important hearing.

Forensic science is important. It attracts the public, particularly young people, to study it at university and I am pleased that the Science and Technology Committee has presented its report to the Government, although we are not happy about some of the Government's replies and we may call the Minister to talk to us further about forensic science. I ask her to tread carefully and ensure that we preserve what is one of the best forensic science services in the world. It must remain just that.

10.11 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate and on the way in which he introduced the subject. He was Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee on which I served and I recall asking repeatedly for a study on forensic science, which took place only after I left the Committee, to my great sadness. Nevertheless, with the exception of one recommendation, the report is extremely good. I shall come to the exception later because it is an issue with which I fundamentally disagree. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for his comments.
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Forensic science is extremely important. Its importance is increasingly relevant, not just because of its coverage on television, which the hon. Member for Norwich, North mentioned, but because it is becoming crucial to the prevention, detection and prosecution of crime. All three elements are fundamental.

Our previous debates on the subject have tended to concentrate on the structure of the FSS. I shall not repeat the arguments other than to say that I am extremely dubious about the wisdom of anything approaching privatisation of probably the best forensic science service in the world and that the Government's halfway house is perhaps more satisfactory than the total privatisation that was envisaged at one stage. However, I fear that the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that the Government are effectively acting as judge and jury in assessing the success or otherwise of the structures that they have put in place as major shareholders and major customers of the service could affect the financial performance of the FSS and thereby manipulate the outcome of that assessment.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North spoke about a number of different areas and I want to mirror his presentation in some ways. He referred to database issues, including the DNA database. He struck exactly the right chord in recognising the fundamental ethical problem with the current practice of retaining DNA samples from those who are acquitted or, indeed, not even charged with a crime, but merely investigated. A partial database leads to one group of the population who do not have a criminal record and for whom there is no reason for further investigation being available for a DNA match, while the rest of the population is not.

Although we accept that DNA matching is largely reliable, false matches are possible. Therefore, it seems that the only ethical position is for everybody in the population to contribute to the DNA database, or for no one to contribute to it—certainly no one who has not been found guilty of an offence. It would be much more satisfactory if we had that debate openly with the public and decided on the best way to proceed. I do not believe that the present position is sustainable.

Dr. Gibson : What is the hon. Gentleman's view about a situation in which a person gets off a first charge but the DNA is kept and subsequently matches in another crime? Does that justify retention?

Mr. Heath : It does not justify the current system. It justifies holding DNA samples for the whole population, if that is how we want to operate our judicial system. That is the debate that we must have. Either we can match anybody, or we can match nobody, but to select a sample on the basis that they were once investigated and found not to be guilty of a crime, whether through the court system or later stages of the investigation, is unsatisfactory.

Dr. Iddon : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is another problem with databases? If we were to move to the Gov-co and particularly the PPP position, the security of access to, and ownership of, databases would
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become a real problem. We must consider ownership. My preferred option would be for ownership to stay in the state system.

Mr. Heath : That is absolutely critical. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He makes a point that I have made in previous debates on the subject. Such a problem would arise, and it would be wrong for commercial interests to be able to buy in to the national DNA database, whether it is partial or complete.

On education, I suppose that one can welcome the proliferation of university courses, to the extent that they are increasing the number of people who study sciences at university empirically, but to a large extent they have replaced the pure sciences—the hard sciences—as the preferred option for many students. I am not convinced that that is necessarily a good thing. We need far more people studying chemistry, physics and mathematics as pure sciences. Also, I worry that people may be entering courses on a false prospect of jobs that simply are not available.

Having said that, I entirely agree and strongly support the Committee's view that such courses should be more readily available, perhaps on a part-time or sandwich course basis, to people in the police service who need to understand and to use the technologies that are available through forensic science—they are now meat and drink to every detective—and also to scene of crime officers, who need to know what they should not disturb and what they should look for on arrival at the scene of a crime. Otherwise, they are in grave risk of contaminating material that may be of crucial value later.

Legal practitioners also need such expertise, which they have not yet evinced. In the commercial courts, there is a high level of technological awareness. Those who practise in such courts often find that they have to get their head around complex science or technology issues by virtue of the work that they do. The criminal Bar has not yet addressed this matter in the same way. Access to appropriate courses to bring people up to date with the latest developments in technology and to make them aware at least of the vocabulary used by experts in the sector is important. Such access would also be important for the judiciary.

We are extremely good at research and development in this country, but we also have a lot to learn, particularly on crime prevention. I remember the visit, as will the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North, to the Lawrence Livermore laboratories and the amount of money that the Americans throw at crime prevention techniques. There is an association with the prevention of terrorism. That suggests that we lag far behind.

I do not suggest that we can match the Americans, or that we need to replicate American research. However, I hope that technology transfer between the United States, laboratories in other countries and our services is at a high level, so that we can profit from advances and share what we have developed.

I must add a word of caution. This is a fast-advancing area of work. Technologies are being brought on to the market for which Governments are principal customers. There is a risk of some of the dangers that there have
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been in defence procurement coming into Home Office procurement. We must carefully examine movements of personnel between government in its widest sense, including the police service, and the companies involved in the research. For example, it would not be appropriate for a former Home Secretary to join a company that was a principal supplier of forensic science technology within months of leaving office and perhaps return to Government at a later stage in an associated Department. We must be extremely careful about that sort of thing. We must have a transparent system.

Finally, I will deal with the area of expert witnesses, which is an important one and which the Select Committee has brought up. In some areas, we still have a dearth of properly qualified expert witnesses. That has a knock-on effect on court procedure, because a limited pool to draw from is vulnerable to the fashion that afflicts some areas of technology on occasions. That means that all the witnesses are drawing the same conclusions, which might be false, on the basis of a commonly held theory, rather than looking at things ab origine in order to make a proper assessment of the value of the evidence. For instance, there is particular lack in the area of paediatric pathologists. We should actively seek to train people in that specialty.

Where I disagree with the Select Committee and with the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is on complex trials and the removal of trial by jury. I cannot believe that colleagues are encouraging the Home Office to take another area of the courts system away from trial by jury. It does not normally need much encouragement to follow that line. I will make it plain: if courts do not understand the evidence that is before them, that is a failure of the lawyers in the room and not a failure of the jury system. It is clear that we must have lawyers who are capable of presenting complex evidence in a form that can be understood by the jury.

Let us consider complex fraud. I do not want to rehearse the arguments, but it is not the jury that has caused the difficulties in the management of such cases but the fact that the judge and the lawyers have not got their act together to present the case appropriately.

I was pleased by the Government's response to the Select Committee about the removal of trial by jury:

I have heard about there being "no plans" to change policies before; it is like the Ministry of Defence investing in a facility and the next day it is gone. It worries me that the Home Office may still have designs on this area, and I am sad to hear colleagues supporting that. However, I agree with them that we need much more pre-trial assessment before the judge of conflicting professional evidence, and a clear assessment of what is agreed ground that can be put before the court in the appropriate way. I also agree that, where the judge needs it, he should have readily available an expert assessor of his own in the form of an amicus curiae, who can sift the evidence and assess the relative strengths of the arguments presented by expert witnesses on either side of the case.

I also support the suggestion that a scientific review committee should be set up within the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It is sensible and I hope that in due course it will commend itself to the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
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One final area of court procedure that was not mentioned in the report is the coroners' courts, and the increasing need not only for complex forensic science support for those courts but for that to be timely—and sometimes in large quantities—when dealing with disasters, both natural and man-made. I hope that forensic science will not be forgotten in the review and restructuring of coroners' courts.

This is a fast-developing and important sector, and one thing it is lacking is any understanding from those who are not scientists of the complexity of what things such as probabilities and the structures of science mean. If the legal profession and the police did a better job of making themselves aware both of what is available and how it can be used, and of what such things mean in terms of their probative value, we would have a service of which we can be justly proud.

10.27 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak from the Opposition Benches on this subject. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is extremely well educated and learned, told me I would find the debate boring, but not a bit of it. I suspect that I am the only person present without a single science qualification to my name, but, on the other hand, I have some practical experience of forensic science in the field, which I might touch on if time permits me to do so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North on securing the debate, although I feel slightly out of place among three former or serving members of the Science and Technology Committee. I have looked at the report, although perhaps not in as much depth as I should. It is interesting and important. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made the point that this is a fast-developing field, and the ignorance among people such as me is truly worrying.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North talked similarly about evolving technology. That, too, is worrying, given the debates that will take place this afternoon on the DNA database and the identity card issue. That fills me with horror, although I agree that if we are to have any sort of DNA database—partial or whole—its security is crucial. Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made some clear and prescient points about the need for education at all levels, providing university places to correctly qualified people in the first place, police recruitment programmes to move people from such courses into the police, and training for judges, juries and expert witnesses.

I find this matter hugely interesting, particularly because I have seen the difficulties that well qualified and extremely experienced scene of crime officers face when millions of ignorant Army boots have stamped over scenes of crime—allegedly in the pursuit of terrorists, but probably in pursuit of souvenirs if truth be told—thereby ruining scientific follow-up and any ability of the police to do their job properly. Most importantly, the ability to prosecute terrorists is also ruined. I suggest that education should extend not only to police officers and the like, but, due to their increasing involvement, to the officers and soldiers of the armed forces. They need to understand the implications of such matters, and I shall touch on that in a moment.
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The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made some excellent points, particularly about judge-only trials. I absolutely accept the point put by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East—as this field evolves, so it will become much more difficult for a Joe Ordinary such as me to understand what is going on—but I would find it extraordinarily difficult to support any further restriction of jury trial in this country.

Speaking as someone who has stood in front of a court and been tried without a jury present, I found the process deeply distasteful and worrying, and I see no reason why it should be extended. I bow with all due humility to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East when he says that that process may evolve, but I hope it will not. I hope that the Government will resist it. I make the point clearly to the Minister that the official Opposition would argue against that tooth and nail.

I shall conclude, if I may, with a little homily. The largest bomb ever to be exploded in Northern Ireland, to the best of my knowledge, consisted of 3,500 lbs of mixed commercial and home-made explosive. It was packed into a white Hiace van and exploded during the middle of 1991 with deafening and highly damaging consequences. It caused no casualties—one or two people might have been injured, but no one was killed—and the target was the Northern Ireland forensic science laboratory.

Why is that important? NIFSL, which was the precursor to Forensic Science Northern Ireland, was making huge inroads in the investigation of terrorist paramilitaries on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. I watched that service develop during a couple of decades serving in Northern Ireland. It started as a series of huts at police headquarters at Knock and in the late 1980s it moved into a custom-built area, which, in theory at least, was secure from terrorism and was nicely compacted—later on, in more ways than one—so that people from different departments could have access to evidence as necessary.

We saw evidence disappear into the black maw of NIFSL, where who knows what happened to it, only for it to reappear years later to become crucial in nailing a terrorist and sending him down for a very long time. That is why NIFSL was attacked.

That attack was extremely successful and it destroyed a huge amount of evidence, making the legal process incredibly difficult. Most importantly, the intelligence used in making that attack came from inside the laboratory itself. It had been infiltrated—I do not know how—and detailed reconnaissance was carried out by the terrorists before they struck. They did so extremely successfully.

Why am I going on about this at length? This is a developing field and terrorism will be a huge scourge upon this country. We saw evidence of that on 7 and 21 July, and it is my view that there is plenty more where that came from. I have seen societies come close to being ruined by terrorism. We need to ensure that any means we have of combating it are protected from the word go and properly funded, and due security must be borne in mind throughout.

Although aspects of the Forensic Science Service could be considered for a public-private partnership, the Minister should bear in mind the experiences of NIFSL.
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She must understand that due to the deeply sensitive material with which these laboratories will have to deal—whether it is related to terrorism, organised crime or other crimes—above and beyond everything else, security must be the priority. Without that, we stand the chance of exactly the same happening in this country as happened in Ulster.

This has been an extraordinarily useful debate and I am so sorry that more hon. Members were not present to hear what has been said about this interesting field. I must tell the Minister that I admire the work that the Forensic Science Service has done. It is hugely useful, but it must be properly funded and protected.

10.35 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart) : I do not know whether having a GCSE in biology puts me ahead or behind the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), but I am certainly among the least qualified speakers in this debate. I am from the substitutes' bench, too: the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), is the Minister with responsibility for this subject, but he is tied up with the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill at the moment, and with the identity cards debate later today, so I am stepping up.

I am privileged to be in this company. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has championed science throughout his time in the House. I have often admired his contributions, which demonstrate the importance of ensuring that the scientific illiteracy to which the hon. Member for Newark and I have confessed is not an excuse for a lack of thoughtful, careful policy making and legislation that includes science and draws on the insights of the scientific community. If the Government were to fail to do that, we would fail in our intention of making the best policy. Furthermore, my hon. Friend makes that point more clearly than any other hon. Member, although he is run a close second by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). However, I am more familiar with their contributions than those of other hon. Members, because they are on the same Benches as me.

What I have found most interesting about this debate is that we have focused on that message, rather than on the administrative issues associated with the future of the Forensic Science Service, which have been at the centre of the controversies. We have focused on the specific way in which the Forensic Science Service can contribute to our police and our criminal justice system, and how it can be excellent. I am new to this discipline and the complex issues surrounding it, but the understanding and commitment demonstrated in this debate are good signs that the Government will be held effectively to account on how we deliver our planned changes to the FSS. We have an ongoing commitment to high-quality provision of forensic science. However, we will also make sure that there is continuity of service and ever-improving performance, which requires the collective effort of all criminal justice stakeholders, both now and in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said that his Committee might again call Ministers to give evidence. The Under-Secretary will give evidence
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to the Science and Technology Committee when it meets on 23 November, and I will ensure that this debate is drawn to his attention, because it is important that he is aware of the issues raised today. I think that those issues will inform how he addresses that hearing and ensure that he does so as well as possible.

The Government welcomed the Committee's report as helpful and constructive, and recognised the important contribution of forensic science in detecting crime. However, we must make sure that the FSS is at the cutting edge and that it has the best investment. The independent McFarland review concluded that the trading fund model would not allow the FSS to compete effectively in an increasingly dynamic forensic science market, to deliver its full potential or to remain at the leading edge of forensic science in the UK and internationally—this debate has made it clear that that is our shared ambition. It therefore recommended that, as a first step, the FSS should be transformed into a Government-owned company with the aim of evolution into a public-private partnership, which is our current position.

December 2005 has been identified as the target date for vesting as a Gov-co, and work is under way to make sure that the new organisation is set up with the appropriate powers, freedom, structures and resources to enable it to operate on a robust and sustainable basis at arm's length from the Home Office and to ensure that it completes the necessary business planning to enable success. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who has now left, referred to how the Home Office will evaluate that process and asked whether it would act as judge and jury. Our view is that, for a number of reasons, the Home Office is best placed to determine what is best for the Forensic Science Service.

Dr. Gibson : Will the Minister indicate whom in the private sector the Government are talking to or recommending that we should talk to?

Fiona Mactaggart : I cannot, without notice, name companies or individuals, but I shall ensure that the Under-Secretary can answer that question when he appears before the Select Committee.

What I was saying connects with the contribution by the hon. Member for Newark, which concerned the centrality of the Forensic Science Service to Government efforts to prevent terrorism and to deter and detect crime. The best placed bodies to assess how successful we have been and what is best for the service are the police, the wider criminal justice system and the Home Office, and we will need to work with the private sector to take account of current performance, technological developments and the impact of market forces. We are best placed to decide on the wider security issues.

It is critical that the Government should be as open as possible about the process. When I spoke to the Under-Secretary, what emerged was the most important message for me to communicate in this debate. He expected the debate to focus more on the structural issues, but he said that he is absolutely committed to being as open as possible about the criteria used to conduct the assessment of how we go forward,
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although obviously without revealing information that might be detrimental to the commercial operation of the Forensic Science Service.

Specific measures to assess the performance of the Gov-co are being developed as part of the ongoing business planning process. We have developed conditions precedent to any future move to PPP as part of ongoing planning for transformation. There is no intention to conceal any performance-related information, but it would not be reasonable to disclose commercially sensitive information that could undermine the ability of the organisation to operate effectively.

In line with the Committee's request and in the interests of transparency, careful consideration will be given to what information would be appropriate for the public domain, and I hope that that deals with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

There was another question about police access to the service, which is critical because, following the Gershon review, the police are already under pressure. We estimate that the changes we propose to the Forensic Science Service and the procurement issues being addressed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and the Home Office, will deliver reform that will give the police a strong first line of reference and better-standard tendering arrangements to allow them to ensure that they get what they need, which is the critical point, in a cost-effective way with high-quality standards. We are in a position to improve access, but we must consider what we are improving access to.

One issue under consideration is the national DNA database, which will not be transferred to the Gov-co and the public-private partnership and which will, rightly, be retained under strong central control. It is a national criminal justice asset, a world leader and one of the UK's key intelligence databases, and it is available to the police in their fight against crime.

Retaining samples is a practice that has been tested in the courts in Regina v. Chief Constable of South Yorkshire ex parte LS and Marper, which later made it possible to indict people whose samples were retained. The courts agreed with the present arrangements, by which the samples from people who have given consent in one investigation can be tested in another case. Why should we not move straight to universal testing? First, there is the issue of consent. Secondly, there is the question of the most cost-effective way in which to make the best progress on the database. The present arrangements, which are relatively cost-effective, provide a database that can be used to investigate later crimes.

The retention of the profiles of people who have been involved in a previous investigation creates a reasonable balance between requiring every citizen to provide DNA evidence and the previous arrangements in which people who turned out to have been involved in other crimes were detected through DNA samples retained following a previous investigation. The present arrangements work better than an arrangement by which all samples are destroyed after a particular investigation. Frankly, a
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person who does not commit a crime in the future has nothing to fear from the fact that their samples are retained.

Dr. Gibson : Will the Minister tell us or will she find out how many samples retained after wrongful arrest have paid off in terms of a second or third offence? Is the percentage large or small?

Fiona Mactaggart : I cannot offer my hon. Friend percentages, but because of retained DNA, there have been a significant number of successful prosecutions, including prosecutions for incidents that have resulted in death. Retention has played a significant role in the detection of crime.

The Home Office has been working with the major stakeholders, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities, the Human Genetics Commission and the custodian of the database to ensure that changes are carried out to improve the strength and transparency of oversight. The management of the national DNA database will be carried out by a dedicated unit initially in the Home Office, overseen by a tripartite board composed of the Home Office, ACPO and APA, with representatives permanently invited from the Human Genetics Commission. A dedicated ethics group is being developed to strengthen further independent oversight.

The operational delivery of database services—the loading of DNA profiles and the reporting of subsequent matches—will continue to be provided by the FSS in the first instance to ensure continuity of service to the police. The separation of operational delivery from the establishment and maintenance of standards will enable value for money to be maximised, while the control of oversight within the public sector will clearly be retained. Wider consultation will take place about the most effective long-term oversight of the national DNA database and other national forensic databases, which should enhance public confidence in the safeguards and ethical controls, which are being developed.

Education and training have formed one of the themes in the debate, and I recognise their importance in the forensic sciences. Higher education is not a Home Office responsibility, but the Forensic Science Society's accreditation scheme is seen as a positive step. Although the society's accreditation scheme remains to be established as the accepted industry standard, students attending such accredited courses are likely to be far better prepared to apply to forensic science employers and to attend a subsequent interview.

I was pleased to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East that graduates of some forensic science courses are going into the police service, and I share his confidence that that will turn out to be a positive development. Some of us were a little anxious about Mickey Mouse courses—perhaps that is not a ministerial expression, so let us say that anxieties were expressed—yet the courses provide a flow of graduates to the police service. I always look forward to more graduate recruitment to the police service so that we can get the high-quality police officers that we require.
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The Home Office has close links with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on this subject and has held meetings with other research councils to improve links to the research community. Such initiatives will enable some blue-sky horizon scanning, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has pointed out, is important. The Home Office chief scientific adviser agreed to raise with his equivalent in the Department for Education and Skills some of the issues relating to course standards, and that conversation will continue.

We accept that blue-sky research is extremely limited at present. Only 2 per cent. of FSS turnover goes to research and development, and blue-sky work is only a small part of that. In a commercial market, the commercial imperative will create pressure to increase blue-sky research, and we look forward to that.

Mr. Heath : Will the Minister give way?

Fiona Mactaggart : I wish to deal with forensic evidence in courts. I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about it, but, if he interrupts me, he risks not hearing that part of my contribution. As he is not persisting, I shall continue.

The report made several key recommendations that are aimed at improving the handling of expert evidence in court and maximising the contribution of forensic science to criminal justice. I understand that there is particular concern about requiring expert witnesses to clarify areas of agreement and disagreement before a trial takes place. I assure hon. Members that good news is on the horizon. The Criminal Procedure Rule Committee yesterday sent out for consultation some draft rules that would address that concern, and there are other ways—apart from the draft rules which, of course, will take some time to bring into effect—to deal with some of the issues about using expert forensic witnesses.

Several other reforms that are already in place are relevant. The criminal procedure rules that were introduced in April already require parties to identify the issues as early as possible in a case, and certainly before a trial. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 lays new disclosure obligations on the defence—notably, to disclose the nature of the defence and the points on which the defence will take issue with the prosecution.

Robust judicial management of such new tools together with the roll-out of the effective trial management programme should already be helping with the refinement of expert evidence before trial, and, in some ways, we are seeing the results in fewer cracked trials. Although I am not responsible for the FSS, I am responsible for matters of criminal justice. There are many reasons why the number of cracked trials has decreased, and they relate to not only forensic science, but the effective trial management programme, which has become more powerful and which allows more judicial activism. I am confident that the anxieties raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East about jury trials, which created a great flutter with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, will not need to be brought to the fore.

The proposal under the 2003 Act to allow, with the consent of the Lord Chief Justice, long and complex fraud cases to proceed to trial without a jury has
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exercised judicial concern and independent investigation of our legal system for decades. Independent reports that were absolutely committed to the jury system—for example, the Auld report—suggested that in such narrow circumstances there is an overwhelming case for considering proceeding to trial without a jury. That is what the Government intend to do, but this is not the first step. Our efforts to enable juries to understand some of the issues in complex fraud trials have not worked, but we intend to help juries with forensic science through better trial management procedures.

At present, I am not keen to take up the invitation offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, and I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is reassured. He should be reassured and, frankly, I believe that he was intentionally making mischief. However, he did not do so during the rest of the debate, and nor did any other hon. Members.

We have properly focused on the important issues: the need to ensure that forensic science is given due prominence in the fight against crime and the need to ensure that we continue to be a world leader in the development and delivery of forensic science.

I have not dealt with one point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East about the planned merger of the two existing independent companies and whether that will substantially reduce competition. I think that it will increase the cost of entry to the market, which is an important issue, but having a sizeable competitor might improve the quality of service in the new independent Gov-co. One problem in any market with one whale and two or three minnows is that the whale dictates the market, which has happened in other areas. Creating an alternative with more substantial clout can create more competitive pressure. It is not certain that that is the case, but we should not assume that the merger will automatically reduce competition, because in some ways it might increase it.

We are fully committed to ensuring that forensic science is given due prominence in the fight against crime, and our actions to establish a Gov-co will ensure that the Forensic Science Service continues to compete successfully in a dynamic market while protecting the public interest and delivering major benefits to the criminal justice system. Our forensic science services are among the best in the world and we depend on them to keep us safe and to detect crime. I look forward to that continuing.

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