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Westminster Hall

Thursday 20 April 2006

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Forensic Science

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 96, and the Government's response thereto, HC 427, the First Special Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005–06, HC 427.]

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

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): I call Dr. Gibson.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It is the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) who should speak first.

2.30 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Pope. None the less, I thank you for your inspirational chairmanship at the beginning of our sitting and welcome you to the Chair. I look forward to what should be an interesting debate on the issue of forensic science on trial.

I am delighted to open the debate on our predecessor Committee's report, which was published in March 2005. I pay tribute to the Committee, and it is good to see at least three of its members here today. The report is wide ranging and thought provoking and covers an area of science that has an increasing fascination for almost all parts of society.

The report was one of the first that I read when I became the Committee's Chairman after the last election, and it brought home to me the enormous contribution that science and technology make to fighting crime. It also emphasised the tremendous benefits to be gained from strengthening the relationship between practitioners in science and the law. Given it's importance and relevance, the Government's response was, to put it mildly, patchy. Indeed, despite being composed of newcomers to the subject, the new Committee was so disappointed by the Government's response to the recommendations on the use of scientific and expert evidence in courts that we decided to hold a follow-up sitting on it with Ministers in November 2005.

It took a little gentle persuasion to get the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Attorney-General and the Minister—although he was willing—to come along at the same time to talk to us. However, we were honoured to have the undivided attention of that august triumvirate and we were not disappointed, because our proceedings were very fruitful, and I thank the Minister and his colleagues for engaging so constructively in an absolutely superb sitting. I should also like to think that we did our bit for joined-up government by getting the three of them together to talk about forensic science—apparently for
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the first time. I have no doubt that they were all up last night preparing for this debate and discussing the merits of how to respond. It was great to see them.

My task today is to provide an overview of the key themes in the report, to give a brief update on relevant developments and to highlight some of the issues that remain to be addressed by the Government. I am sure that my colleagues on the former Committee and the present Committee will want to expand on the topics that I raise.

The first issue is the changing status of the Forensic Science Service. The Government's decision to develop the service into a Government-owned company, or a GovCo, with a possible progression to a public-private partnership thereafter, has been a source of great controversy. On the one hand, there is enormous and understandable concern about the implications of the possible privatisation of the country's leading provider of forensic science services. On the other hand, competitor providers, such as the Forensic Alliance and LGC, are frustrated at what they see as the lack of a level playing field as regards competition for forensic science services, particularly where police forces are involved.

The predecessor Committee took the Government to task over their handling of the transformation process, calling the presentation of the decision "misleading and confusing" and highlighting the need for greater transparency and accountability. It simply cannot be right for the Government to set the criteria by which the FSS GovCo will be assessed, then, as the sole shareholder, to assess whether those criteria have been met and then to influence the management of the FSS during the transition. That process must be wrong. We welcome the Minister's recent publication of the criteria used for that assessment, as requested in the report, but there is still room for greater independent oversight of the process.

The report was clear that the GovCo should not be set up to fail. It must be given the chance to succeed in its own right and must not be just a transitional step to a public-private partnership. I warmly welcome the Government's recent commitment not to make any firm decisions about the future of the FSS until summer 2007, but I urge them to extend that commitment, if at all possible. The FSS GovCo should be guaranteed a minimum two-year trial period in which to prove itself and to ensure that it has a realistic chance of success. The PPP should not be an inevitability, and I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance on that today.

I hope also that the Government will do the right thing by FSS staff, who have made a fantastic contribution to the fight against crime. Uncertainty about the organisation's future has hit staff hardest. The Minister gave us a confused picture of the provisions being made for the transferral of FSS staff pensions to the new scheme when the issue came before the Committee last year. As I think he will recall, he first promised the full continuation of the existing arrangements, but later withdrew that commitment. I hope that he has been clearer in his communications with the staff than he has been with us, and I look forward to a clear statement from him today about the pension arrangements for FSS staff who have transferred into the new GovCo. The Government must
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do their utmost to ensure that the FSS remains an attractive employer, because it is far too important a national asset to be allowed to fall into a state of decay.

The report also argued that the need for an independent regulator is becoming ever more critical at a time of transition in the forensic science market. The Committee recommended that the Government establish a forensic science advisory council to oversee the regulation of the forensic science market and to provide independent and impartial advice on forensic science. The Government accepted the broad thrust of that recommendation and promised to consider it in their review of the forensic science services market, but we got the impression that they were not keen on setting up a new body. I think that I speak for the past Committee and the present Committee when I urge the Government to take the issue seriously. We have already seen the merger of two major competitors to the FSS—Forensic Alliance and LGC—and further mergers or takeovers in the forensics market could lead the service into uncharted territory. It is essential that the Government have continued access to independent, impartial advice and that we maintain a strong forensic science base in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister give us an update on those issues?

On the challenging issue of the national DNA database, the latest figures indicate that in 2004–05 alone, 40,000 crimes were detected with the aid of DNA intelligence matches. DNA profiling is without doubt a key weapon in the police armoury against crime, but the national DNA database could be described as a double-edged sword. Recent figures published by the Home Office show that police in Britain hold significantly more DNA samples than police in any other country. There are more than 3 million samples on the national DNA database, accounting for more than 5 per cent. of the population. That compares with 1 per cent. in the United States and an average of 0.3 per cent. in other European Union countries.

Not surprisingly, there have been accusations from various quarters that profiling represents a dangerous erosion of civil liberties. We know that certain ethnic minorities are over-represented on the database; indeed, some 24 per cent. of people on it are non-white, even though only 8 per cent. of the population as a whole is black or Asian. A recent article in The Guardian suggested that the DNA of 37 per cent. of black men in the UK is now stored on the database, compared with 13 per cent. for Asian men and 9 per cent. for white men. Ministers cannot just repeat the mantra that innocent people have nothing to fear from the database, because evidence clearly shows that there is an ethnic bias in the profiles that are stored. We must counter the perception that the Government and the police are using stealth tactics to secure information without justification. Such perceptions provide a breeding ground for suspicion, and they create the potential for a backlash against the technology. Perhaps the Minister will explain what the Government have done to address the risk that is posed to public perceptions of the criminal justice system.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Was the hon. Gentleman as alarmed as I was to learn through a series of questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) that there are a
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number of minors on the DNA database? Although it may become proper practice to keep innocent people's information on the database, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that that practice ought to be determined by the House, rather than by just keeping on the database people who happened to be there and were then not removed?

Mr. Willis : I could not be more grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, as ever, is right on the ball. I was just coming to that point. He is quite right, because another major source of contention centres around the revelation that 24,000 profiles of 10 to 18-year-olds are stored on the database, despite them never having been cautioned for, charged with or convicted of any offence. Chief constables retain discretionary powers to order the removal of a profile from the database, and I welcome the decision by the Association of Chief Police Officers to issue guidance about when and how discretion should be exercised.

However, the Government need to consider the wider public concern about the storage of DNA profiles of innocent juveniles—the very point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I hope that the Minister will assure the House that he intends to rectify that unacceptable situation and will agree to issue clear guidance to chief constables about the retention of DNA profiles.

The proliferation of forensic science degree courses is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Committee's report. A recent visit to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service website, which I undertook this week, showed that for September, I could choose from 445 degree courses with forensic in their title. At London Metropolitan university, I could take forensic science with either sports science or consumer studies. Quite what one does with forensic science and consumer studies, I do not know.

Canterbury Christ Church university could offer me a degree in forensic investigation and tourism and leisure studies, or music with forensic investigation. I should not want to suggest, in the words of the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), when she had ministerial responsibilities for higher education, that they are all Mickey Mouse courses. But the massive expansion in forensic science and allied courses has taken place largely without quality control, and the value of some of those courses is, as employers would tell us, dubious to say the least.

The clear message that emerged from the evidence taken during the predecessor Committee's inquiry was that employers wanted students with a good grounding in basic science. They prefer to employ chemistry graduates over graduates of forensic science or its more exotic allied degrees. The message is not getting through to students, however. While the number of forensic science students has rocketed during the past five years, the number taking chemistry declined by 27 per cent. between 1994–95 to 2001–02, and by a further 7 per cent. between 2002–03 and 2003–04. It is a matter of huge concern to the Committee, which is about to publish a follow-up report on the strategic science provision in universities, analysing the refocusing of chemistry at the university of Sussex.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about bringing
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students into forensic sciences. My main concern is that there is little joined-up thinking between the encouragement given to students to go into the important field of forensic sciences and the lack of resources going into sciences in general and chemistry in particular. We heard a very poor message from the Government when they responded to the closure of the chemistry department at the university of Sussex and, before that, the closure of the chemistry department at the university of Exeter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that those give grave concern to everyone.

Mr. Willis : I entirely agree. When the predecessor Committee considered the provision of strategic science, it made it clear that unless there is a sufficient supply of chemistry, physics, maths and engineering graduates, the whole country will suffer. We have often had that discussion with the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury of Turville. It is not good enough to say that science is expanding, simply because a course has science in its title. It has to have a basis in basic science to underpin that.

The point that I am making, which the Committee also makes, is that it is great that Amanda Burton and "Silent Witness" have created a huge amount of interest in forensic science; but unless we underpin it with good, basic science, we shall miss out. The Department for Education and Skills and, indeed, the Higher Education Funding Council have a duty to ensure that forensic science courses are up to the mark. A forensic science course without a substantial chemistry component should be thrown out under the trade descriptions act. There cannot be good forensic science without chemistry.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said so far, but does not he agree that the problem with the Government is that they see higher education as a free market? If students want to study a course because they have seen something on television, or for any other reason, that is what universities will provide. The Government do not seem to have any interest in ensuring a flow of students through the courses that this country needs them to study. The Government's only hope is that the BBC or some other channel produce a programme called "Silent Chemist", or something, which is exciting and encourages people to study chemistry. There is no proper public policy or stewardship of public finances, and they are not looking after the future graduate needs of this country.

Mr. Willis : My hon. Friend tempts me into another area, and he knows that it would be wrong of me to start making party political statements. I am sure that the Minister would not appreciate my trespassing on that territory; however, my hon. Friend's point is well made. If chemistry and the other stem subjects are important to the nation, it is important that the Government have a proper strategy to ensure the supply of chemists, physicists, mathematicians and engineers through the system. Perhaps the Minister will respond with what the
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Government are doing to ensure that chemistry in particular continues to underpin good forensic science in this country.

Mr. Newmark : It would be most interesting to hear from the Minister the joined-up thinking between the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills. There seems to be no connection between the Home Office's forensic science needs and what the Department for Education and Skills proposes to do.

Mr. Willis : Again, the hon. Gentleman tries to tempt me into an area that I do not want to go into. There is a disconnection between a policy that says on the one hand that certain subjects are of strategic national and regional importance; and on the other, that we can have a market in higher education and a vice-chancellor can say, "It is better for us to have 300 English graduates than 20 or 30 chemistry graduates, because it is cheaper to run their courses." There must be something fundamentally wrong with that system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham) : There is nothing wrong with an English graduate.

Mr. Willis : And there is nothing wrong with a philosophy graduate either.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): That is a matter of debate.

Mr. Willis : The hon. Gentleman tempts me to go in another direction.

Finally, I shall turn my attention to the relationship between forensic science and the courts. There has been a huge increase in the use of forensic evidence. The Forensic Science Service alone dealt with 140,000 cases in 2004–05, and its staff appeared as expert witnesses in 2,500 of those cases. In most cases, forensic evidence is non-contentious, but several recent high-profile trials, including those of Sion Jenkins and Angela Cannings, have hinged on strongly contested evidence from so-called expert witnesses. Clearly, something is wrong with the system. Are juries, judges, lawyers and experts properly equipped to do what is asked of them in such complex cases? I am sure that other hon. Members will want to take up that important question, which needs to be answered by Parliament. Indeed, should there be an alternative to the adversarial system?

When the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, appeared before our Committee last November, he acknowledged that there was room for improvement, but he believed that the adversarial system provided the best safeguard against problems. However, the adversarial system is critically reliant on the ability of lawyers to test the evidence that is presented. Cases such as those of Sion Jenkins and Angela Cannings cast serious doubt on whether that is happening.

The father of DNA fingerprinting and veteran expert witness, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, told the Committee during its inquiry:

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He was pointing to the fact that the charisma or presentational skills of the expert, rather than the arguments that they present, is the key factor in influencing a jury.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service have also acknowledged the importance of securing the best expert witnesses, making no bones about cherry-picking experts who go down well in court. The Committee even heard that some experts refused to appear in opposition to other experts who were deemed to be particularly powerful in their ability to perform in court. It is astoundingly complacent of the Government to think that that situation is acceptable and leads to good justice.

To be fair, the Attorney-General's new guidance for expert witnesses and the increasing use of pre-trial meetings to identify areas of genuine disagreement between experts before the arguments are rehearsed in front of a jury is welcome, but it does not go far enough. Nor does it address the concerns of many expert witnesses who increasingly feel that it is they who are on trial.

I hope that the Minister will say what steps the Government have taken to restore expert witnesses' confidence in the courts system following the public vilification of Roy Meadow, and to remedy the shortage of expert witnesses willing to give evidence, particularly in the paediatric specialities. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) wishes to catch your eye on that issue, Mr. Pope.

I shall deal with the input of scientific evidence into the legal system. It is up to the judge to determine whether an expert witness is needed, whether an expert is suitably qualified to give evidence and whether an expert is straying outside their area of expertise under questioning in court. However, the Committee found that training given to judges on forensic evidence was sporadic and far from comprehensive. Furthermore, there is no compulsory training for lawyers in forensic techniques. It is therefore easy to see how serious mistakes can be made in dealing with expert evidence. Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys told the Committee of the tension created by the

Michael Fabricant : The hon. Gentleman mentions a witness who gave evidence to the Committee. Earlier, he mentioned that the Government ask what concerns innocent people should have if they are on the DNA database, yet the same witness pointed out that there can be inaccuracies, albeit that that is highly unlikely, with a 10-marker system. He recommended that there be a 16-marker system for DNA. Does that not demonstrate the hon. Gentleman's point? Lawyers and, indeed, politicians are often unable to take into account the probabilities or possibilities of evidence being accurate or inaccurate and the evidence or possibility of certain things happening or not happening. Those assessments are often not able to be calculated.

Mr. Willis : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he will elaborate on that point when he
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makes his contribution. There are two fundamental problems. The first relates to the evidence. Clearly, there will be different interpretations of the forensic evidence. Fingerprints are a classic example. Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys made that point, which is why there was a recommendation to go to significantly greater numbers of markers. Forensic evidence techniques are developing and becoming more sophisticated all the time. That is one area in which there can be a genuine division of opinion between expert witnesses.

The other point is about the ability of a judge and particularly of leading barristers to be able to interpret the expert evidence being given and to present it to a jury. That is the second area of concern on which we are trying to get the Government to act. Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys makes a serious and worrying accusation.

The Committee recommended creating a science and law forum to promote mutual understanding between scientists and lawyers and to enable scientists to have greater input into the legal process. We still await a response from the Government on that. The Minister promised to write after the evidence session in November, so we look forward to hearing his comments today.

The Committee was critical of the absence of an agreed protocol for deciding whether evidence generated using a particular scientific technique is scientifically valid. That is the point to which the hon. Member for Lichfield alluded. I ask the Minister whether it can be in the interests of justice that a judge, with no scientific training, has responsibility for deciding whether to admit complex scientific evidence. That is a real issue and I hope that when the Minister responds to the point, he will contemplate carefully what has been said. There is not a scientist in the land who would not, if he wanted legal advice, go to a good lawyer, but the reverse does not seem to be the case. Surely the UK should have a gatekeeping test for expert evidence to provide a more independent and scientifically based means of making such decisions. Perhaps the Minister will give us a definitive response today to that recommendation.

Even if the Committee's recommendations about the training of the judiciary and trial barristers were accepted, the question whether trial by jury is the best way to obtain justice in cases involving complex and contradictory forensic evidence must be addressed. Most of us consider trial by jury to be sacrosanct, and with good reason. However, key players in the system have started to question publicly the wisdom of current arrangements.

The chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Professor Graham Zellick, recently said of the complex and conflicting evidence given in shaken baby cases:

Where does it leave the average juror if a man of such prominence makes that statement? As Professor Zellick points out:

The Committee did not advocate following the route of complex fraud trials, but it recommended that the Home Office should undertake research to understand
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how juries respond to complex scientific evidence. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 forbids jury research, and the Government recently squandered an opportunity to amend that Act to make provision for jury research. Relying simply on hearsay to determine whether the system is working is not good enough. We need to understand how complex expert evidence impacts on a jury and to find the best ways to help juries to undertake their task.

It is surprising and regrettable that a Government who claim to be committed to evidence-based policy making have been so reluctant to gather data in that area. The Government need to have the courage to ask whether trial by jury is always the best means of securing justice. An exception is already made for lengthy and complex fraud cases because the burden on the jury is seen to be unreasonably great. Why should the same principle not apply to other complex cases? If the Government have set their mind against going in that direction, surely they must explore alternative measures to assist the jury in its task. Professor Zellick has argued that a judge supported by specialist assessors should hear the expert evidence and then direct the jury on its implications. Other possibilities include the use of specialist lawyers or judges.

This issue will not go away. Forensic science is not only here to stay, its capabilities will increase as it spreads into new, even more complex areas. The system already shows strain in cases where views of forensic and medical experts are pitted against each other, and things will only get worse. How confident is the Minister that the criminal justice system is equipped for the likely rise in the number and complexity of cases that rely on forensic evidence?

It would be wrong to be alarmist about the scale of the problem, especially as the Government's aversion to research in this area means that we do not have any reliable data on how widespread problems with expert evidence are. It was interesting that Lord Goldsmith's decision following the Cannings trial to review all infant death cases resulted in only three being referred to the Court of Appeal. That said, the cost even of isolated failures could be extremely high: the financial cost of retrials can be significant—it cost £10 million to retry Sion Jenkins—and the human cost can be immeasurable, but perhaps the most important cost is the damage to public confidence in our legal system.

The Home Secretary recently seemed to acknowledge disadvantages in the UK adversarial approach, as compared with the French inquisitorial-style system. I understand why the Government might not have the appetite for wholesale reform of the legal system, despite their enthusiasm for public sector reform, but they have a duty to take seriously the concerns that we raise.

I wish to thank my predecessors for drawing attention to such a critical issue through their report. I thank the Ministers who came before the Select Committee last November and acknowledged the role that it had played in catalysing dialogue between Departments. It is all too easy to underestimate the role that science plays in the criminal justice system, as was, perhaps, reflected in the non-existent profile of the Home Office chief scientific adviser during the Committee's inquiry. We hope that in future science and scientists will be able to take their rightful place in discussions. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
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3.2 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): First, may I make my apologies for having to leave before the sitting finishes? Ironically, I shall be comparing the role of Select Committees in this Parliament with their role in the Canadian Parliament, which draws on scientists and others, and in the United States, which has Congressmen and senators. The meeting is in Sussex, so I have to get down there to explain just how good this Select Committee is and has been.

This is another excellent report. It has fanned the flames, or lit the fire, on many issues. The Committee's position was established with the open access inquiry. I noted yesterday that the European Parliament said that we were spot-on in making all information accessible to people. That has put mud in the eye of Reed Elsevier and other publishers that believe that they are the only organisations that have the right to publish things.

The Committee has also done some sterling work on international development by showing the role of science and technology in the developing world. The Department for International Development discovered at a Committee sitting that the need for scientific advice was staring them in the face and appointed an adviser—that was probably the first such incident but hopefully not the last.

I wish to speak generally about forensic science, which involves many different individuals and agencies in research and development and in promoting understanding of the role of forensic science in the criminal justice system. Different agencies and people working together is probably the hardest act to follow—one has only to ask Sir Alex Ferguson about melding 11 supremely talented individuals into one unit. We should not be too unhappy with suggestions that that will not happen immediately and that it will take a great deal of work. That certainly is the case in this field.

Forensic science is an ever-expanding area, as we have just heard. Many private and public bodies interact with the political process: the Home Office and its Forensic Science Service, academics, research students, scientists, medics, social commentators trying to unravel the details of scientific investigations of crime, and educational and judicial practitioners. It is a busy, high-octane field and very difficult sometimes to unravel.

The report has made a dent in the situation and illustrates the problems, which are being spoken of in professional societies. Last summer, I journeyed to Lincoln to speak about the issue at a conference of forensic practitioners. The meeting took place on the day of the London bombings, and the people there knew immediately that it was not an electrical fault that caused the disastrous events that occurred one after the other. It was interesting that some of them disappeared because they had to help out with the analysis of the situation.

The report will be debated by practitioners at two other high-octane meetings, at which the Home Office will be represented. That is the level of seriousness with which the report is being taken, and the Committee—the previous one and this one—should be congratulated on its work.

Forensic science does more than provide science and technological evidence. I want to spend a few minutes on a high-profile case that was illustrated in The Guardian
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this week. We have heard how blood spattered on to clothes in the Jenkins case. The question was not just that blood came from an individual, and therefore the accused was guilty, but how it got there, and how it was identified at the scene of the crime whether it got there by, for example, exhalation. One must consider every aspect and not just make the obvious assumption. It is a difficult arena.

I know well the case of O. J. Simpson, the famous quarterback. Footprints and forensic and other evidence were against him, yet, in the eyes of many people who thought that he must be guilty, he managed to escape the system.

The case I want to illustrate is one that happened in Kilmarnock in my home country, Scotland. A police constable was accused of murdering a woman. Her fingerprint—I believe that it was a thumb print—matched a mark on a windowsill inside the house, according to the Scottish forensic fingerprint division. The PC, who was 35 at the time, protested her innocence. She said that she had never been in the house and worried that she might have been sleepwalking or that she had handled the wood that was used to make the windowsill. Through an internet site, she managed to contact two American experts who came to Scotland, looked at the two fingerprints and immediately said that they were not from the same person. One had been amplified, and there was a little correlation, but they were not the same. That PC's life has been destroyed, and now a famous QC in this country is calling for a public inquiry into the organisation in Scotland that carried out the test. Nobody suffered for it; no blame was attached. As we heard, the feeling of confidence, which is affected by high-profile cases, is important.

As I know from science and technological matters, one needs only one piece of bad evidence, or one media story, to destroy a whole field of study. A case such as that one could set back many years the studies that are being done in forensic science, which I shall discuss later.

Incidentally, the person who was subsequently charged and put inside also got off on the basis that, on second examination, the fingerprints were not exactly the same. That was another irony in the case.

The woman was given £750,000. The question must be asked whether she would have received compensation if the grounds for compensation were reviewed. I believe I understand, but I am not sure that the public do, whether offering evidence in an appeal that the fingerprints were not the same would allow compensation to be paid.

I use that case not as an example in the dramatic sense favoured by the media to illustrate that the system is rotten, but to get the message across that it is necessary to be absolutely impeccable. The practitioners who carry out the work must have confidence that they have the support of the system, and should not be pressurised for particular results at a particular time just to please someone in high places. People will know what I mean when I say that.

Scientific forensic evidence is not everything; the interpretation of it is another factor. When considering the probability of something happening, it is always possible to find two people who will argue about that
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probability. That is no exact science either. I have just been involved in a case of oesophageal cancer in Norfolk, in Norwich, and Sir Liam Donaldson tells me that the numbers are no good for the broad statistical analysis we have. We have to go to Imperial college, which will carry out a small-level statistical survey. It is quite a sophisticated process considering cadmium exuding from aeroplanes and how biological agents may traverse a county to cause oesophageal cancer. To find out that sort of epidemiological stuff means a lot of argument about probability and requires a lot of correlations. To me, such scientific and technological evidence never seems as pure as people often believe it to be.

There are serious implications for court cases. Questions about accreditation and quality assurance are mentioned in the report. If we are to raise public confidence, we must know that such processes are being considered. We must remember, too, that a Select Committee can do only a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time in a complex field and I am sure that it would not pretend to have all the answers.

It is important to build a reliable, independent service where people are not pressurised, but are credited, given time to look at things and unstressed. They must be able to gather evidence to make a fair assessment and judgment of what might have happened at the crime scene or wherever. In this country, my model is that of the Food Standards Agency. Yes, it is criticised a little, but its independence and ability to stand up, give evidence and say what it thinks independently without interference is extremely important. It might be a model for us to take into consideration.

I am also thinking of all the different experts, expertises and professionals involved in such analysis. For example, there is not just one type of chemist, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) knows—there are analytical chemists, physical chemists and synthetic chemists, all of whom can be involved in a particular crime scene analysis. Medical students, cell biologists and biochemists, such as Sir Alec Jeffreys, or companies that they own will be involved. Anyone who tries to get all those people to agree on anything deserves a Nobel prize in their own right. It may be necessary to talk to people at Porton Down, or experts in photonics integration—I shall not go into all the technical details. At Ipswich, they have photonics integration experts, as they do in Slough. I did not know this until recently, but they are involved indirectly in analyses of things at crime scenes.

Samples travel very slowly from here to there to be analysed, and we are moving fast as regards the practicalities of that situation. My gosh, DNA-based analysis has revolutionised how we deal with crime scenes and other things as well, such as paternity. It has been very important, but as someone who has been involved a little in DNA analysis in the running of gels, I know it is not 100 per cent. pure art either. It is possible to deploy techniques once, twice, thrice or four times and get different answers each time. In identification situations, people are identified according to three or four bands and sometimes those bands are spurious, but sometimes they are not. The analysis has to be repeated and must be carried out by people who are not continually pressurised to get the result someone might be seeking at that moment.
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We are moving to a situation where analysis can be carried out at the site of the crime itself through the use of a chip, sample extraction, amplifying segments and concentration in order to separate the fragments. It is possible to get an answer within about half an hour.

Dr. Iddon : Does my hon. Friend agree that instant on-site analysis has one benefit? At the moment the defence may try to imply that evidence has been contaminated on removal from the scene because it has gone through the hands of various people into the laboratory, or perhaps between laboratories. The same accusations cannot be made of analysis made instantly on the site.

Dr. Gibson : I accept that point and thank my hon. Friend for it. We are not saying that such contamination is deliberate; accidental contamination can take place. I remember that it was necessary to carry out some of these techniques in a microbiology-free atmosphere because one's own DNA could get into the sample and interfere with it without one knowing. A person could simply touch something and a bit of DNA could move out of their body into the sample, messing the whole thing up.

We are talking about an example of multidisciplinary research at its best. Funnily enough, crime has broken the back of the insularity we see in universities. I am not too worried about the million courses that there are in universities because I do not mind if law students are taught a bit of biology. I do not mind if chemists, biologists and law students go through similar courses in different departments. Breaking down the departmental insularity—the ghettoism—in universities is extremely important. Reading between the lines of the Chancellor's recent Budget, I believe he recognised that it is important to do that by making research councils merge and amalgamate their programmes' work. We need to forget about the old words we were brought up with and remember that science has moved on.

The poor judicial system will have to make judgments on the basis of all the complex interactions that are going on, with a widening repertoire of evidence coming in. I rue the day when court cases consist of scientists slugging it out. I have been at too many academic conferences where scientists love slugging it out—no two people will ever agree with each other. There must be some parameters to determine how much evidence is needed, how much has been repeated and how many laboratories we have to interact with in order to get the evidence. There is a lot to be done in that area.

We have a new policing system. We have intelligence-led policing, forensic awareness training programmes, crime scene examiners and all the new legislation, including the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Identity Cards Bill and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. There is also the compensatory scheme that I mentioned, all of which are part and parcel of the application of forensic science in order to get a better understanding of what goes on in particular circumstances.

We need a collective economic assessment of the value of some of these technologies and what we get out of them. There is to be a new level 2 of the national DNA database, which we have heard about. There are going
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to be new fingerprint identification systems. I always prefer footprints and the patterns on those to fingerprints, but their use has not been extended to the extent it has in the New Zealand system, for example. Lots of new technologies are coming through. There will be more higher education courses and forensic science will move from DNA technology to RNA technology and protein technology. Then we will really get into it.

3.19 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.34 pm

On resuming—

Dr. Gibson : I shall bring my remarks to a hasty end in the next few minutes. There is a complex interrelationship between science and technology, and public policy, policing, investigatory practice, the arena of the courtroom and so on. It is essential that forensic science develops in that social environment, but I am not sure that we have yet addressed that problem as much as we ought to have. The authority of the science must be associated with the organisational identities of the different bodies in our country and the social imperatives in our culture. Forensic science will need a wider correlation with political, economic, social, technological and legal events.

We need a deeper analysis of the role of the Home Office, ACPO and the Forensic Science Service, where we identified different patterns of management. We need to get those bodies working together on a broader basis. If we are to get the high profile that we want from the report in the criminal justice system and if forensic science is to play its part, I have a feeling that we are going to need a much stronger and longer inquiry, to bring together all the problems that have been identified in one place. The bodies involved in that might want to consider how they handle such interactions. I do not think for a minute that the Committee said that it had all the answers or that it knew what structures should develop. It is for the practitioners to address those issues.

Forensic science will obviously play an increasing role in crime detection, with all the new technologies and discoveries that are coming along. It will be much more important, so we shall have to take it much more seriously and get those interactions going. For example, we could start with the current concern in society about the ethics of scientific research and accountability. By that I do not just mean animal experiments, but the issue of the ethical interaction of society with scientific and technological discoveries. That is a new field that we have not yet hit, and professional groups make a mistake if they do not recognise that public concern about the ethical and moral questions is part and parcel of those interactions and of understanding the role that forensic science is going to play.

We could make a good start by thinking about that and getting some ethicists. One can find medical ethicists on every street corner these days—the fastest-growing profession in Britain. There is big money involved. A quarter of a million? That is nothing to the medical ethicists—they start at £500,000 these days to tell people
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how they should think about morality, philosophy and so on. That is an important job to turn to, should a Member lose their seat. [Interruption.] Sorry, did the Minister wish to take the job?

There will be huge debates about ethics. The core structures in universities will need to be handled, which will require vice-chancellors to get moving and to think how multidisciplinary interaction could take place. I do not decry Amanda Burton. I do not decry some interaction between departments with the word "forensic" in the title, but it has to be meaningful. Such interaction need not always be vocational, but it will have to be considered in those terms as well just because there are not that many jobs around—there are perhaps more forensic practitioners than we need in our society. There is a huge problem.

I finish with what I think is a deeply interesting point, which is international collaboration. For example, the other night, I saw something about how substances would be detected in the underground in Washington and New York, which one of our reports said that we knew. That has been developed over there, so that a terrorist attack involving sarin, of the sort that happened in Tokyo, could be tackled in those major cities, yet London Underground refused to handle that new technology. That is part and parcel of science and technology inputting into the changes in our society and of recognising that it has a part to play. That is where interaction—in the Home Office, between Departments and among different scientifically trained people, thinkers, commentators and ethicists—could help to make the enterprise a jewel in this country and benefit not only crime detection but our anti-terrorism policy and the prevention of such incidents.

Now is an exciting time to be a forensic scientist. I hope that this Parliament will continue the fight to ensure that they are listened to, that more of them are trained, that we give them the opportunity to develop and that they are not hidden away in funny departments, but come out and become the Amanda Burtons of the future.

3.39 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I shall focus on three areas. My first concern is the move to a public-private partnership. Coming from an ex-businessman and a Conservative, that may be surprising, but I do not particularly want to see the privatisation of these services. In the words of the Science and Technology Committee, because of their record the Government do not "inspire confidence" in their ability to make a success of the Forensic Science Service as a PPP. We should also be sceptical about tinkering with an essential public service, which does much to underpin our criminal justice system. That reason, as much as the first, is one of my primary objections to privatisation of the service.

The second area is science as a marketplace. I remain unconvinced that there is a viable market for forensic science services or that the benefits outweigh the costs to the public. That is because of the need for regulation, the need to ensure low cost, the need for access to services,
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the need to ensure consistent service—and the risk of failure, which was alluded to earlier.

My third concern is that of education and training, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). The Committee estimated that more than 400 courses on forensic sciences are run by 57 universities. The Committee recommended that action be taken to improve standards of training and to establish links between forensic science and chemistry departments. The Government have not done enough to ensure that that is happening, a connection that I mentioned earlier. We still hear of the closure of chemistry departments, which has been the subject of debate many times over the past few months.

The first issue is tackling public-private partnerships. The McFarland review reached the conclusion that

I have several objections to that conclusion. The first is the belief that the Forensic Science Service should, as a matter of principle, remain in the public sector and be subject to full parliamentary oversight. The second is the possibility of failure. In light of the Government's poor track record in managing PPP projects, it is an unacceptable risk to an essential service that underpins much of the criminal justice system.

The Minister said during a follow-up sitting that

I hope that he will keep to his word. He echoed the Government's response to the Committee's report, which stated that

However, as our report identified, there have been no straight answers and no consistent policy since the McFarland review in 2003.

The review suggested the radical measure of a transfer of forensic science services to the private sector, yet the future of the FSS is still in limbo. I am still sceptical of the Government's commitment to the GovCo, given the relatively limited time that it has had to prove itself. Our report also recommended that the Government make public the specific criteria that will be used to evaluate the success of the GovCo and the need for progression to PPP. I welcome the Government's response that

However, I ask the Minister to bring us all up to date on the criteria that will be used and on the progress of the assessment in general.

Leaving aside for a moment the Government's misleading and confusing presentation on the decision to move from a GovCo to PPP, we remain sceptical of the rationale for the move itself. It is not known whether the provision of forensic science will benefit from a
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competitive market. The Minister was hardly any more reassuring when, giving evidence, he said:

It does not sound like a marketplace to me.

The fact remains that opinion on the subject is sharply divided, and that there is little or no evidence in favour of the move beyond the general principle that competition in the marketplace is beneficial. However, we must continue to ask whether the provision of forensic science services falls firmly in the category of a natural monopoly. Furthermore, even if it can be shown that services will benefit from competition, will the benefits be outweighed by the need for heavy and invasive regulation of an essential public service? A degree of price control will be required to ensure that users like the police have ready, reliable and affordable access to services. Is that compatible with a competitive market?

The Government's response stated:

It is not clear whether that analysis will have finished, or even have commenced, by December 2006, which is the date for commencing further discussion on the proposed transfer to a full PPP. The Government's strategy in that respect is unsound in principle; from their track record on PPP, it is likely to be unsound in practice.

Finally, I turn to education and training. The Government have not given enough credence to the Committee's recommendations on the provision of forensic science education and training. We estimated that more than 400 courses are offered by 57 universities, and we highlighted our concern about their standards and the lack of remedial action from the Government. We said:

One of our most important recommendations was that

However, the Government still decline to take the lead. Their response was not only anodyne, but abdicated responsibility for the maintenance of high-quality forensic science training and more generally for the promotion of science education. In other words, the Government have simply passed the buck to the Royal Society of Chemistry by saying that it should

The Government have pledged to contact the royal society, but meanwhile award-winning chemistry departments like the one at Sussex university are still being forced to close.

I was also concerned that, given the increasingly important role of forensic science to the criminal justice system, there is no compulsory training. The Judicial Studies Board and the Bar Council are left to arrange training on an ad hoc basis. That seems to be another
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abdication of responsibility by the Government. I was unconvinced by Lord Goldsmith's reply—the Attorney-General—when giving evidence that

We ought by now to know the outcome of those discussions. More important, they should not be discussions: the Government should be taking a clear lead on the level of forensic science training required by the legal profession. It is clear to me that there is no lead at all, much less a clear one. I look forward to the Minister's response.

3.49 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I have a feeling of déjà vu, because my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) secured a debate on forensic science on 18 October last year, in which I made a contribution. However, more Members will be able to take part in this afternoon's debate. I am pleased to see so many Members in the Chamber, and will try not to repeat my previous contribution.

I shall comment first on the proposal in the 2003 McFarland report that the Forensic Science Service should proceed through being a GovCo to become a Public-Private Partnership. According to the report, the PPP should be established 12 to 18 months after the GovCo. It seems that we are trying to create an artificial market, which will achieve nothing. I shall try to elaborate on that.

The Forensic Science Service Trading Fund (Revocation) Order 2005 was debated on 14 December. In a recent written statement, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), made it clear that

He went on to say that it would be converted into a PPP only if there were "convincing reasons" for that change. I welcomed that statement, because I would like the GovCo to be given the chance to settle down and prove itself before we rush into the next step proposed by the McFarland report.

The Government have rightly reasoned that the FSS needs massive investment to be able to compete in a market that is becoming more competitive—not only in this country, but throughout the world. It is a globally developing market. Britain's FSS is and always has been one of the finest in the world. I am sure that all Members present want to keep it that way. As a university chemistry teacher, I have an indirect interest in the forensic science services, because quite a number of my students have entered forensic science as a career.

As well as examining whether the Government's plans for the FSS are appropriate, the Science and Technology Committee examined the supply of graduates and the presentation of forensic evidence in court. If I had to write the headlines regarding our Committee's inquiry, they would say that the police should have access to forensic science and not be inhibited by high prices, that the forensic science services should, as they do, prefer to recruit people from the physical sciences, particularly physics and
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chemistry, and that we need to pay far more attention to the way in which all evidence, but especially forensic evidence, is presented by expert witnesses in court.

The Government recently published a written statement in which they set out the four sets of criteria that need to be met. The first is that the needs of the UK criminal justice service should be considered, which is pretty obvious. Secondly, the Government should seek assurance that a competitive marketplace will develop for forensic science services, about which I am concerned. I think that they might want more competition in order to drive down prices as a cost-saving measure. Obviously, things might not go that way; they might go the other way, with higher prices being introduced.

Thirdly, the FSS needs to improve its accommodation and provide state-of-the-art facilities for its work. As a chemist, I know that simply replacing one fume cupboard involves a massive cost for a service or university. To replace a whole suite of fume cupboards, which are necessary in the forensic science services, requires huge investment. Many of the FSS's buildings are out of date, and some might need to be rebuilt. I do not have enough information on that.

Fourthly, in coming to a decision on the FSS's conversion from GovCo to PPP, the Government will have to consider their needs as a shareholder. If money is lost, they will have a problem.

Obviously, I wish the FSS well, particularly in its GovCo capacity, but I urge the Minister to consider that short period of its conversion from GovCo to PPP. All of us who met FSS staff when the announcements were made following the McFarland report know that the morale of the service slumped at that time. A number of people left the service, and quite a number probably did not enter it because they wanted to enter a public service, and it was clear that it was not going to be a public service. The FSS was in a state of turmoil. Anyone who has worked in such an organisation knows that they take some time to recover. We are expecting not only that it will recover, but that FSS Ltd. should be successful as a half-privatised service. I ask the Minister to give it a little longer than 18 months to prove itself as a GovCo.

If the costs of forensic science services in a competitive environment in which there are few players are driven up rather than down, there is a danger that the police might not have as free an access to those services as they do now, and that fewer samples will be submitted for forensic investigation. That would be to the detriment of justice, but I am concerned that that might happen if prices go the wrong way.

What about the artificial market that I mentioned? Who are its competitors? When the announcement was first made, we had the Laboratory of the Government Chemist Group Holdings plc, but we must remember that the LGC has gone through the same process. It is now a private company, but it once had a strong public sector ethos. The only other major competitor when the announcement was made was Forensic Alliance, but it has now combined its forensic services with the LGC. Therefore, there is only one effective competitor in this country. That is artificial competition, which will not work.
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For there to be a free market and competition, there have to be many players in the market. A number of smaller companies are emerging in the marketplace, but they are niche companies. There is one such company in my constituency called Zentek Forensics Ltd., which specialises in a newly emerging area called digital forensics. I spoke to that company earlier today about competition and my belief that it is artificial. It said, "You are probably right Brian, because, as well as the main competitor, if you ignore one-man outfits, you can probably count the number of small companies trying to emerge into this market on one hand." Zentek told me that there are only five or six of them. That might be a low figure, but the number is certainly not much higher.

Zentek Forensics is trying to win contracts with police forces, which are put under more and more pressure as digital crime increases. One reason for that is because of initiatives such as Operation Ore, through which we are trying to pin down all the paedophiles in the world. We know that that is a complex racket, with people downloading nasty images of children from the internet. I have been to Europol in The Hague and seen the Europol side of Operation Ore. The operation is terribly complex: all the raids have to be made at the same time in the morning, otherwise the rest of the network is informed. Electricity to houses has to be switched off and computers have to be captured. It is very complex and involves police forces across Europe, certainly, and the rest of the world. The police cannot cope with the numbers of computers that they capture, the number of hard discs that have to be carefully analysed, and the amount of information that has to be provided for evidence in court.

Zentek Forensics has realised that that niche market is worth entering, and has done so. I am proud to announce—the Minister will be interested to know this—that it has just won a major contract with the Greater Manchester police, which is one of the largest police forces in the country, by open tender. However, it took that small, emerging enterprise, which employs only a handful of people, 14 months to win the tender, which was costly. It underwent a rigorous test of its work, procedures, staff and premises to make sure that such a small company was up to the job. Even its technical competence was tested by the Greater Manchester police in a written examination. Altogether, it took 14 months for that small enterprise to emerge into the so-called competitive forensic market.

I tell that story not only to show how hard it is to emerge in that artificial market that I described, but to point out that if Zentek Forensics Ltd wanted to bid for a contract with another major police force, such as West Midlands or Merseyside, and had to go through that procedure again, it would be bankrupted. The process has cost it a lot of money already. The market needs—if market it is—a regulator. Quality forensic services have to be provided, whoever provides them; we have to make sure that the evidence going to court is of the highest quality. In my estimation, if we are to have a free market in forensics, we need a regulator to make sure that all the things that we want happen.

As the Chairman of our Select Committee pointed out, one of our strong recommendations was to set up a forensic science advisory council, which would oversee the regulation of the science market. I strongly support that, as hon. Members may gather from what I have
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said. In view of my remarks, will my hon. Friend the Minister update us on the progress, as he sees it, from the FSS to GovCo, and particularly from GovCo to a public-private partnership?

Much has already been said about forensic science degree courses. Of course, it is the glamour of the subject that allows it to be displayed throughout the media—on television, on the radio and in novels by the thousand. It captures the imagination of millions of not only young people, but older people across the world. We all watch programmes such as "Silent Witness". My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, called the glamour of forensic science "the Amanda Burton factor", and he is right.

When we produced our report, we did not pay enough courtesy to a report published by the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, or SEMTA for short. It published its report entitled "Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004" for the Higher Education Funding Council and the learning and teaching support network for physical science. It was commissioned

if they studied forensic science at some universities. According to that report, when it was produced there were 50 degree programmes and more than 350 course combinations involving forensic science.

We heard from the Chairman of the Select Committee how rapidly the number of universities providing forensic science courses, and the number of course combinations, has increased. He was right to point out some of the ridiculous course combinations offered. Forensic science and music has not been mentioned; nor has religion and culture with forensic biology. It seems that any student can think of a course, turn to a document that lists courses, and just choose what turns them on.

Hard science departments continue to close, one of the latest being that in Sussex university. That, we are told, is due partly to a lack of students. However, we are told by the Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation that the overall number of students opting to study science is holding up. He is right, and that is due to the popularity of what we sometimes call sexy subjects, such as astronomy and forensic science. We could debate all day whether an over-production of forensic scientists is a good or bad thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, is not worried about that over-production.

Michael Fabricant : I was slightly astonished to hear the hon. Gentleman say that astronomy is a sexy subject. St. Andrews university and several others would say that astronomy was a serious subject, although I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Did he in fact mean astrology?

Dr. Iddon : No, no, I meant astronomy. The Select Committee discovered that the number of astronomy degree courses has grown astronomically, if I may use the word.

I do not want to dwell on this next point, because it is a debate for another day, but the Royal Society of Chemistry, of which I am a fellow—I admit that
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interest—has just looked into eight chemistry departments, including one that is world famous. The report does not name it, so I shall not do so, but anyone who knows anything about the subject can pick out which one it is if they read the report. The Royal Society of Chemistry concluded that not one of the departments, including one that gets loads of money from the dual funding system, is paying its way. The line is red at the bottom of the accounts for all eight departments.

The message to the Government is clear, and we will give it to them on another occasion: frankly, science departments are not funded as well as they should be. That is the second main reason why physics departments, as well as some other science departments, are closing. The issue is not just the shortage of students; it is that departments are not well enough funded, at a time when the Government are pouring money into science. It is ironic that the Government are committing more and more money to science, yet we are closing the research institutes of the research councils on the one hand, and science departments are being closed on the other. How can that be? I will continue to ask that question of our Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation.

Lee Chatfield is head of the department of forensic and investigative science at the university of Central Lancashire—it likes to be known as UCLAN—in Preston. He tells me that a number of the department's students are attracted to continuing their studies in a hard physical science after initially studying forensic science. Those are students who would not have done chemistry or physics or have been turned on to mathematics if they had not gone through a foundation course or a three-year BSc course in forensic science. That is a benefit arising from some, but not all, forensic science courses.

Incidentally, Lee Chatfield's first crop of graduates had no difficulty in getting jobs; they went into a number of disparate careers, but the interesting thing is that quite a number went into the police force. I have worked with the police and have seen Mr. Plod trample the evidence; it would be no bad thing if police understood how scene-of-crime officers have to collect the evidence from a crime scene, and so did not trample the evidence into the ground. Frankly, I am all in favour of more policemen and women having a knowledge of forensic science.

Here is some good news that I do not think has been widely broadcast yet. UCLAN has announced that it will reopen its degree course in chemistry in 2007, having closed it in 1999. That is the rebirth—the first one—of a chemistry department. Why is that happening? Because so many of the university's forensic science students realise that they are not going to work in forensic science laboratories unless they have some chemistry and physics knowledge, and unless they are numerate and can understand statistics. That is excellent news, and I am pleased to spread the word, although it has been announced publicly previously. UCLAN was the first university in the entire country to start a forensic science degree course in 2000. Full courses in forensic science are quite new, although modules in the subject, and MScs in forensic science—following a chemistry degree, for example—have been around since the 1990s.
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Let me mention briefly just some of the conclusions of the SEMTA report. The first is that forensic science courses attract a higher proportion of female students. That is no bad thing, because something that has been lacking in the hard sciences, as distinct from the life sciences, is sufficient numbers of women prepared to study physics, chemistry and mathematics. If they are proceeding into those subjects via forensic science, we ought to applaud that.

Nearly all the universities that run forensic science courses rank a chemistry A-level as a desirable entrance qualification. However, the sad thing is that two thirds of such courses take people who have no science A-level qualification. That is bad. Universities found their students lacking in practical skills and mathematical ability, another bad thing. Five of every six institutions agreed that, given the demand for them, there was an over-supply of forensic science graduates.

According to SEMTA, the most suitable occupations for forensic science graduates were analytical chemistry, laboratory analysis or police roles such as being a scene-of-crime or fingerprint officer. Although the major factor in developing forensic science courses was student interest, universities developed them to compensate for the falling demand for hard science courses, which students perceived as too demanding or not relevant to today's world; in my opinion, both perceptions are untrue.

Of all the course modules listed in the pamphlet, chemistry, biology and law were least popular, and scene-of-crime and practical work most popular. Forensic science employers have been involved in the design of some courses at some of the universities, but not all of them, unfortunately. They would like the courses to provide graduates with better presentational, computer and laboratory skills and some knowledge of biology and mathematics.

There appears to be a lack of consistency across forensic science degree courses; that point is important. Forensic science employers do not know what they will get from a given university and are calling for an accreditation system for forensic science degree courses. Such courses are young, as I have said, but such a system is long overdue. Forensic science graduates are not as attractive to other science employers, although a shortage of skills is encouraging them to recruit graduates from the forensic science market.

The SEMTA report made four recommendations: the instigation of a system of quality assurance to attest to course content and the outcomes of forensic science degree courses; an agreement on the establishment of a formal mechanism through which employers could discuss the content and outcomes of forensic science degree programmes; the establishment of world-class training programmes designed to deliver the full range of technical and/or laboratory skills required in employment in forensic science; and discussions on the nature of funding in higher education with a view to arriving at funding strategies to strengthen the science base by attracting more people to read science degrees—that is, all science degrees.

Finally, I turn to the judicial system. A number of high-profile cases have collapsed in recent years because the courts appear to have relied too much on the
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forensic evidence presented by so-called expert witnesses. There has been controversy about Sir Roy Meadow, whose evidence led to the conviction of Sally Clark; that case rumbles on. The cases of Sion Jenkins and Angela Cannings are still very much in the headlines. More recently, Ian Gay and his wife Angela have been released on bail, only to be told that they will be retried for the manslaughter, allegedly by an overdose of salt, of Christian Blewitt, whom they planned to adopt. The Damilola Taylor murder case has reopened, apparently because what might have been vital evidence was missed during a forensic investigation.

It appears to me that some court cases are won or lost on the basis of the evidence given in court by an expert witness. The prosecution will seek the best expert witness available; that often means, particularly given that the market is small, that the defence has to put up with somebody who is not of the same standard.

Dr. Evan Harris : I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I respect the points that he has made. However, he implied that Sir Roy Meadow's evidence led to Sally Clark's conviction and that the role of expert witnesses leads to miscarriages of justice. It should be noted that at the first appeal the conviction of Sally Clark was upheld, despite that evidence having been considered. The second appeal, which overthrew the conviction, rested almost entirely on the non-production of evidence from a Dr. Williams and was not related to the evidence of Sir Roy.

Dr. Iddon : I fully accept those points, and they are on the record.

I was interested to read in The Times of 7 March this year a letter written by Patrick Phillips QC:

A leading QC is concerned about how forensic evidence is presented in court and who presents it; Parliament should listen to such people, as well as to the conclusions of Committees such as ours. Most of the rest of the judicial process is under review; why cannot the way that evidence is presented in court also be reviewed?

Are judges and juries impressed by the reputation and qualifications—nay, even the charisma—of expert witnesses more than by the evidence that they present? I wonder. Do judges and juries or solicitors and barristers understand all the scientific evidence? Given the ever-accelerating pace of technology, has the time come to require training for all those involved in court practices, so that justice can be seen to be done in Britain and we can avoid the mistakes—there have been too many—that have already occurred?

Our report has attempted to answer some of those questions. We suggested that the prosecution and defence expert witnesses should always, not sometimes, meet out of court to decide on areas of agreement and disagreement. Those areas of disagreement, of course, would be debated in court, and I would fully support that.
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Like our Chairman, I feel that the Government should look at the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which prevents us from carrying out research on how juries reach their decisions and whether they understand the extent of the evidence—particularly the forensic science evidence. I urge the Minister to consider amending the 1981 Act so that we can do such research.

I realise that my point is extremely controversial and would have a lot of opposition. However, if we are to know whether justice is being carried out, we need to know whether juries are being led along the right route, whether the right evidence is before them and whether one man or woman guides the rest of the jury, as can often happen. We need to know what happens within those closed four walls.

4.18 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): On 17 February, I visited the scientific support unit of Northamptonshire police force. During the past year, I have had the privilege of completing a 22-day attachment with the force as part of the police parliamentary scheme. My day with the forensic science department was most illuminating. I thank Dr. John Bond, the scientific support manager, David Goodwin, the head of fingerprints, Peter Watson, the head of forensic investigation and Claire Rocks, the investigator to whom I was attached, for a most informative and illuminating day.

There are 50 forensic staff in the Northamptonshire police force. They operate on a budget of £2.5 million, and they pick up almost 50 per cent. of the relevant detections for those crimes most easily detected by forensic science. Without those people's good work there would be far more criminals at large in Northamptonshire, committing far more crimes than is currently the case.

The important point I want to contribute to this debate is that the Home Office's own data show that scientific support units are most effective when they are engaged in police forces of about 1,500 officers. My worry is that, despite all the improvements in the technical ability of forensic science in terms of fingerprinting and DNA sampling, if the intended police mergers go ahead, we could end up with fewer crimes being detected. The forces will be far larger, and therefore less effective in using fingerprint and DNA technology.

The Northamptonshire police scientific support unit was established as a result of the famous Touche Ross report of 1987, which sought to establish such units on the basis of county police forces; there was a move away from regional scientific support units. That is the opposite direction to that in which the proposed police mergers might take us. As a result of that earlier direction, fingerprint and DNA detection increased. The report's recommendation was effective—it worked.

As hon. Members know, the crime types where forensic science has the most detection potential are burglary dwellings and theft of motor vehicles. In the 12 months to the end of December 2005, in Northamptonshire, 48 per cent. of all burglary dwellings detections, 47 per cent. of all theft of motor vehicles detections and 30 per cent. of all thefts from motor
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vehicles detections were a direct result of fingerprint and DNA work by Northamptonshire police's scientific support unit.

That clearly demonstrates the success of, and need for, forensic science. The Home Office's own data show that, where the size of a police force is increased, the detection rates for forensic science decrease. We all know that most crime remains undetected. However, let us consider some figures relating to recorded residential burglary and theft of motor vehicles detected by DNA and fingerprinting in 2004–05. The best results in the country were achieved by forces of between 1,000 and 2,000 police officers, where some 10.5 per cent. of the overall crime in those categories was detected using DNA and fingerprinting. For the larger forces involving between 6,000 and 8,000 police officers, the figures decrease to about 3 per cent. My worry is that, if we have a similar debate in 10 years' time, the Home Office data, which we assume are right now, might show that we are detecting fewer crimes by forensic science.

I am horribly biased in my analysis because Northamptonshire police's scientific support unit is among the best in the country. It takes its work extremely seriously. Let us consider the percentage of domestic burglary crimes that were examined for fingerprints in 2005–06. Northamptonshire police and the British Transport police examined every such crime scene for fingerprints, whereas the national average was just 86 per cent. All four forces with which Northamptonshire's police force is proposed to be merged had a worse record than it did.

Let us consider the percentages of stolen vehicles examined for fingerprints and DNA by police forces in 2005–06. Northamptonshire's police managed a figure of 95 per cent., whereas the national average is 46 per cent. The four forces I mentioned again did worse. Let us consider the percentage of recorded burglary dwellings where the use of fingerprints led to the detection of a crime. The Northamptonshire force is in the upper quartile and its performance is well above the national average. Two of the forces with which it is to be merged are in the lower quartile, and so it continues.

My conclusion is that Northamptonshire's excellent scientific support unit, led by Dr. John Bond, is imperilled by the proposed police mergers. The Northamptonshire unit has also led the way in the technological development of fingerprint techniques. It played a full role in the first automated fingerprint identification system in the early 1990s. It has made full use of the first national automated fingerprint identification system, or NAFIS, and, most recently, its successor, Ident1. By this summer, Northamptonshire police will have the benefit of Livescan machines that will electronically record arrestees' fingerprints and automatically search them on the national database for proof of identity.

The National Fingerprint Board recently published data for the first quarter of this year which showed that in Northamptonshire the scientific support staff handle more cases per fingerprint expert than any other force in the country. In addition, they achieve many more identifications per fingerprint expert than the national average. The Northamptonshire force processes 120 crimes per fingerprint expert. The figures for all the
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forces with which it is proposed to merge are considerably worse. The figure for the Leicestershire force is 40, which is the second worst in the country.

The Northamptonshire force is also developing nano-technology, which is the focus of a research project that it is undertaking to enhance the techniques for revealing fingerprints. Nanotechnology is likely to be one of the biggest steps forward in fingerprint technology in the past 30 years. The Northamptonshire force was also behind the last major step forward: the use of superglue vapour. I do not imagine that many people in this Chamber inhale glue vapour. However, if vapour is produced from superglue, fingerprints can be made to appear from almost nowhere. That was discovered by Northamptonshire police.

Northamptonshire's unit recently teamed up with the scientific team at St. Andrews university. Its polymer optoelectronics group is world renowned in the development of nanoparticle semiconductors. Together they are developing new techniques to make fingerprints that cannot currently be detected available for identification. The work will have a tremendous impact on enhancing fingerprints and will therefore increase fingerprint detections. If it is successful in Northamptonshire, I have no doubt that it will be rolled out throughout the country.

The Northamptonshire force has led the way in respect of success with DNA. It has been involved in the national DNA database since April 1995, and in recent months the FSS has described Northamptonshire police's DNA performance as "simply spectacular" and "amazing". Northamptonshire's success rate in obtaining DNA profiles suitable for inclusion on the national database is far higher than that of the rest of the east midlands region, with which it is now proposed that it will merge—65 per cent. in Northamptonshire, compared with 57 per cent. in the east midlands. The national figure is merely 53 per cent.

In my brief contribution to this debate, I wanted not only to bring to the House's attention the success of Northamptonshire's scientific support unit and to thank its staff for the day I spent with them, but to give a serious warning that forensic science has been overlooked in the "Closing the Gap" report produced by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. That is a serious omission. If this all goes wrong, we could end up with fewer crimes being detected as a result of forensic science because of the police mergers that the Government propose.

4.31 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): May I say, Mr. Pope, what a pleasure it is to stand before you in your new august guise?

The Select Committee was stimulated in the first instance to look into forensic science by the Home Office proposals for partial privatisation. From the start, our investigation was truly fascinating because every time we turned over a stone any number of issues emerged. Many of them have been rehearsed this afternoon, and I will not repeat them all.

I shall begin by making a point that I do not think any hon. Members disagree with. The FSS is, and has been, one of the jewels in the Home Office crown, and we
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should think very carefully before changing it drastically, in case we damage it or reduce its future potential.

What is the imperative to go towards PPP? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) I have a feeling of déjà vu, because I remember what happened to air traffic control. The case of National Air Traffic Services provides a closely comparable example. Here we had an excellent service of unquestionable quality and skills that was starved of finance—artificially in respect of NATS, because the Government were taking the money, but they were just not reinvesting properly, so they created an investment backlog. That PPP was not a signal success.

I am sorry to say that in my wardrobe I have a rack of tee-shirts to do with various issues that say "I told you so." Sometimes, I get them out and wave them about, and I think this is one such occasion. We do not want to repeat the PPP mistake with the Forensic Science Service, provided that it can succeed as a GovCo. It is vital that it is given a fair crack at doing that. It will need capital, but irrespective of whether that capital comes from a private partner or judicious borrowing, it will still have to be serviced. What is it to be serviced with? It will be serviced out of turnover. Either way, the actual impact on the revenue and on the cost of forensic science services will be little different, except that there is a strong possibility that the price will be higher if there is a private partner with the need to give profits to its shareholders. That is more likely to increase the costs to the users of forensic science than it is to diminish them. There is short-termism here; I must say that I have never been a fan of PPP in any of its guises, and that is a feature of all of them. This short-termism is extremely unfortunate because in the long term the cost to the whole country is likely to be greater.

I feel slightly worried when Opposition Members say things that I actually agree with.

Mr. Newmark : Name names.

Dr. Turner : I was about to name the hon. Gentleman. He referred to forensic science as a natural monopoly. That is true—again, just like air traffic control. Forensic science is basically a natural monopoly, although perhaps with a few niche areas around it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has also seriously questioned the validity of the concept of a market in forensic science services.

At present, there seems to be something slightly naive—this came across in evidence—about the Home Office intention that somehow the new PPP would bring in a lot of foreign business because it had been turned into a PPP. I doubt that. It will attract foreign custom if it offers the high-quality forensics that people need, and if it uses cutting-edge techniques. In my view, being a PPP would not help that.

I am still very worried about the Government response to our clear recommendation that the transition to PPP should not be axiomatic. The GovCo should be given an adequate chance to demonstrate its viability, and the criteria should be transparent. I am glad that the criteria have been published, although I have not seen them yet, so I cannot comment on them.

Mr. Newmark : Does the hon. Gentleman share a concern of mine, which is that the Government will be both judge and jury? We should be concerned about
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their setting the criteria. They will set the criteria, and then they will make a judgment on whether the forensic service should move to being a PPP.

Dr. Turner : I thank the hon. Gentleman, because I was about to make that very point. I agree: the Home Office is setting itself up as judge and jury, and executioner, all at the same time, and that is unfortunate. I hope that there will be—as mentioned in the Government response—genuine scrutiny by the National Audit Office. It is essential that there is independent scrutiny of this process, and it must be transparent.

My heart sinks slightly when I come across the usual weasel words in publications such as the Government response to the Select Committee's report. It states:

That kind of phrase covers all manner of sins. It provides the excuse of not saying anything at all. That cannot be acceptable either. I am not in commerce myself, but other hon. Members present are, and I am sure they would agree that that is not a sound principle on which to operate. It is just a bit of a cover-up. I am not in any way blaming my hon. Friend the Minister, but it is a smokescreen behind which civil servants are happy to hide. There must be transparency in the judgment process. Even if the timetable were extended until the summer of next year, it would still be an unrealistically short period in which to judge the performance of a complex operation. It needs at least two years of annual operating and financial results.

Dr. Iddon : And some investment.

Dr. Turner : There needs to be an investment plan now, because without investment, the company would have no chance at all of delivering the goods. It would be like asking it to run the 100 m with a ball and chain around its legs. That would not do any of us any good, least of all forensic science and the criminal justice system. Adequate time must be given, and there must be an investment plan now, not later. We do not know what investment there will be.

Mr. Newmark : I am curious. If the service remains a GovCo, and it does not undergo transition to a full PPP, does the hon. Gentleman believe that a forensic science advisory council will still be necessary? Would he still want to follow up that recommendation from the Committee?

Dr. Turner : Yes. Even if we remain with a GovCo, we still have something of a market. Many other aspects—many of which have been aired this afternoon—require the attention of a regulator. Unlike the normal regulation of a market, there are serious issues of scientific quality in this area, and there is no arbiter or authority to keep a check on them. I would go further than the report, and suggest that one role of the regulator—the advisory council, which needs to be a highly qualified body—would be to maintain a high level of scientific quality throughout the criminal justice system. There is an important role for a regulator in any
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event. I hope it is clear that I do not wish to see the introduction of PPP. I am convinced that, properly supported, the GovCo can work very well. But it must be properly supported.

I turn to the national DNA database and other databases. I, too, have been concerned about the ease with which a young person can find themselves DNA tested and put on the database without ever having been cautioned, charged or anything. Such practice approaches the edge of a serious civil liberties issue, and I should like the Minister to address it. There is no control over the police in this matter. Are they simply on a stamp-collecting exercise, whereby any young person who comes to their attention automatically goes on to the database, so that they have lots of reference material when hunting for villains? If so, I agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). He said that if we want the police to do that, Parliament should be the body that decides it, not the police of their own volition.

We do not yet have any certainty about the future ownership and control of either the DNA or other databases. Control and ownership will have to be removed from the Forensic Science Service, even with its transition to a GovCo. Will the Minister provide us with some further information about what the Government have in mind for the long-term future of the control and ownership of the databases? That is absolutely fundamental.

We have said much about training, and I fully endorse it. The chemistry department under threat of closure at my local university, the university of Sussex, is an excellent department. We may yet save it, but we shall see. Its life would have been made much easier if prospective students who wanted to work in forensic science were aware that their best way in is to do a proper chemistry or physics degree. Do a serious science degree, and then top it up with some postgraduate training—boom! Doing one of the 455 Mickey Mouse degrees that, if one wants to enter forensic science, are on a par with a degree in media studies, is a total waste of time. It defrauds students and it does a disservice to the reputation of universities if they pander to the market in that facile way.

It would help if the Government and forensic science associations made it clear to students what were the best career and qualification paths for entering forensic science. It would encourage recruitment into serious science departments. There should be not only accredited degrees, but recognised and accredited qualifications for entering the profession and becoming a registered practitioner. Regulation is needed, and it could form part of the work of the independent regulator, if established. A very useful service would be created.

Research and development is not financed clearly, nor is it subject to any clear strategy. It would be most unfortunate if FSS, as a GovCo or in whatever form, were not at the cutting edge because there was not enough research and development in forensic science. Encouraging the "forensification"—that dreadful word that we heard in evidence to the Committee—of techniques for use in the criminal justice system will require a clear research strategy. We do not have one. We need clearly identified investment; we do not have it.
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Moreover, we do not have any clearly recognised body that can validate a new technique before its application to the criminal justice service, or assess whether it is fit for evidential purposes in the courts. It is another role for the advisory council, and another on which I should like some guidance from my hon. Friend the Minister.

I shall not stray into the thorny issues of court procedures, the legal profession and so on. Those issues have been fairly well explored, but other related issues in addition to the fundamental question of the status of the Forensic Science Service have been exposed by the inquiry and need answers.

4.50 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It has been a pleasure to serve on the Select Committee under the chairmanship both of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who spoke so eloquently earlier, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who introduced the debate so well. He demonstrated his acquisition of knowledge from an inquiry that took place in the main before he became Chairman, although we had an evidence session with Ministers under his chairmanship. That shows that he has quickly grasped the nuances of the scientific world, of the Committee and perhaps even of Committee members. He has also done that on all the other issues that we are dealing with.

This has been an enjoyable debate. I am sad that I was prevented from hearing 20 minutes of it by being detained outside the House. I apologise to you, Mr. Pope, and to other hon. Members for that. So much in the report could be raised, but I shall raise only two matters that were the subject of recommendations. First, paragraph 162, which talks about the prosecutor's fallacy and the presentation of DNA evidence, states:

The Government response stated:

one of our witnesses—

However, we recently heard from Mr. Cooke that no such meeting has taken place. I should be grateful if the Minister explained what the problem is, because the Government volunteered to have a meeting and my knowledge of Mr. Cooke is that he has strong views on the issues. The Committee had regard to them and he is unlikely to let the matter drop until the Government deal with it. We expect the Government to follow up the conclusion and I am sure that they wish to do so.

The second matter, on which I shall spend more time, is the scrutiny of expert evidence, with particular regard to the case of Professor Sir Roy Meadow. I should say at the outset that I do not know him. I do not believe that I
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have ever met him or spoken to him on the telephone. However, I feel strongly that there has been great unfairness in the way in which he has been treated and that that has huge implications for expert witnesses, as we mentioned in our report. I should, however, declare an interest in that my father is a retired professor of paediatrics, as is Professor Meadow, and I believe that he knows Sir Roy Meadow.

One thing that I do know about paediatricians, retired or otherwise, is that there is no private practice in paediatrics. There is a hard slog of long hours working for the health service, dealing in many cases either with critically ill children—some of the most distressing cases that one can deal with, in which life-and-death decisions are made in clinical practice—or with child protection, which involves highly controversial issues and in which, when there is a contested action, it is hard to conceive of feelings not being raised strongly on both sides. There is a duty on the prosecution in such cases to do what it can to protect children, and clearly it is of huge interest to the accused, innocent or otherwise, to defend themselves against heinous allegations.

I think that Professor Sir Roy Meadow was wronged in at least four ways. I am referring to the decision of the General Medical Council to bring a case against him, the decision of the GMC's fitness to practise panel to find against him on the charges brought, the subsequent decision to strike him off and, in particular, the press vilification to which he was subjected. I am not sure that we have dealt with that issue. I raise it because there can be miscarriages of justice. I hope that the GMC will learn from this case, given that Sir Roy Meadow was successful in his appeal against both the judgment and the sentence. The press vilification is particularly unfair to him because he is not in a position to respond when cases are sub judice or he knows of certain medical information or he is advised by his legal advisers that he cannot respond, whereas people who are accusing him can and do. The reporting was overblown and turned out to be wrong, given that he was cleared in the courts.

Sir Roy Meadow is still referred to as discredited despite having won his appeal, but I do not think that he is discredited. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that not only in Sir Roy Meadow's case but because we need expert medical witnesses to come forward to support the Courts Service, the press need to show responsibility when attacking someone before they are convicted by a disciplinary panel and, indeed, when they have been cleared by a court of that panel's finding.

Paragraph 170 of the report, which was written before Mr. Justice Collins's ruling in the High Court overruling the GMC decision, states:

That key recommendation should have given the Government pause for thought. However, their response was simply:

Given the crucial role of expert witnesses and the importance of their being willing to come forward, the Government response is not satisfactory. They have
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must have a view on whether Professor Sir Alan Craft, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, was correct when he said that the campaign against paediatricians in the field of child abuse

That was quoted in the judgment of Mr. Justice Collins given on 17 February 2006 in the case between Meadow and the General Medical Council.

It is children who suffer if expert medical witnesses do not come forward. In saying that, I want to record my concern and my feelings for Sally Clark, who clearly suffered a miscarriage of justice. That was seen to be the case in the second appeal, at which the evidence from Dr. Williams, which was not adduced at an earlier stage, was found to be so critical that the judges did not even seek a retrial. There is no doubt, therefore, that her conviction was unsound, but that unsoundness was not based, as a succession of judicial authorities have found, on the evidence of Sir Roy Meadow or his conduct.

Dr. Iddon : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a witness is in danger of being tripped up in open court, that is why a pre-trial hearing is extremely important?

Dr. Harris : I agree with that and with what the hon. Gentleman said about what needs to happen in this area, which reflected our report. I hope that there will be progress.

I would love to go into the issue of the evidence given, but it would not be appropriate. However, a couple of things need to be said. The evidence given by Sir Roy Meadow was not challenged by the defence in cross-examination and he was not recalled. The defence team had faxed to them the day before evidence from another expert, contradicting the statistics that he gave. Even if that had arrived too late for the defence, they could have recalled Professor Meadow to put it to him. The statistical error that Sir Roy Meadow made was obvious to people who work in that field, and I am surprised that so little has been said about the failures of the court system, including the defence.

Mr. Willis : And the judge.

Dr. Harris : I am cautious about criticising judges, but my hon. Friend mentions the judge. The judge in the Sally Clark trial made it clear to the jury that the case was not about statistics, particularly on sudden infant death syndrome, as the defence were not arguing that these were deaths from sudden infant death syndrome—that is, unknown natural causes. The judge escapes criticism in that respect, as he made that clear. Indeed, the Court of Appeal, when looking at the Meadow evidence in the first instance, upheld the conviction, even with regard to the fact that the evidence was found to be flawed.

What about the defence? We had an interesting exchange with the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, in the evidence session on 23 November 2005. My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee, asked at Question 67:
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a well put question, if I may I say so. The Attorney-General replied:

The defence was not mentioned in the question—he volunteered that. He went on:

I can tell the House that the defence did not do either of those things—

I asked at Question 69:

that is, his evidence—

In response to that, Lord Goldsmith stated:

The Attorney-General may have his reasons for worrying about headlines rather than what is fair and right in law, but there is now a clear argument that there was a failure in this case. The question must be asked—I hope that the Minister will respond to it—whether judges with adequate training should step in and say, "That is a statistical point, it may or may not be right, you are not a statistician." That could have been done in this case. As it happens, I do not think that it was necessary. I would be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that more could be done in this area.

The other point is that Mr. Justice Collins in the High Court found for Roy Meadow on three bases: first, that he should not have been struck off, and secondly, that he should not have been found to be guilty of serious professional misconduct. He said that in strong terms, and the GMC have not appealed those two aspects of the judgment, which suggests that it accepts them. The GMC needs to reflect carefully on his criticisms of their judgment and processes.

Mr. Justice Collins's third point was that expert witnesses should have immunity from disciplinary proceedings. That is a substantial part of case law now, and may well be challenged. The GMC has signalled that it will challenge it. It would be useful for Ministers to say what they think is right, as expert witnesses want to know—there should not be this limbo—whether they run the risk of facing disciplinary action by the GMC or other professional bodies and having the vilification that even Ministers such as the Attorney-General have accepted took place in this case.
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Mr. Justice Collins makes a reasonable suggestion in his judgment, which is that the principle that there should be immunity from civil prosecution for expert witnesses should apply for disciplinary proceedings, except when the judge makes the referral. If there is serious criticism by a judge, the judge will make the referral themselves, yet the GMC states in its response to the judgment, and later in seeking to appeal this aspect of the judgment, that where there has been criticism by a court, the GMC's procedures should be allowed for disciplinary cases. However, there was not serious criticism of Sir Roy Meadow by a judge in this case. Mr. Justice Collins said that if there is serious criticism, a judge can make a referral. That would be sensible, and I hope that the Minister will give his view on it.

I hope that the judgment in the High Court and the clearing of Sir Roy Meadow will make it possible for paediatricians to come forward and do work that protects children. There have been miscarriages of justice in this area—I am in no doubt about that—but we face equal or greater miscarriages of justice if we do not correct the impression out there that expert witnesses are themselves on trial. When they act in good faith, they should not be on trial or facing that threat; otherwise, children will suffer.

5.6 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and the former Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), on an excellent report. I was less pleased with the Government's response, in that it was fairly short and did not answer some of the issues that were raised. I shall be relatively brief.

As a former chairman of the London Assembly Transport Committee, the words "public-private partnership" strike fear in my heart because of the amount of money that may be paid to lawyers, how things may be negotiated and how things may go wrong in such circumstances. I understand that our Forensic Science Service is exemplary, one of the best in the world. My fear of a move to privatisation is that the service will be dilapidated in some way.

My experience of the private sector is that, when an in-house department that serves a primary function—the Forensic Science Service first and foremost serves our criminal investigation units and our police—makes itself available on a commercial basis outside, it moves across functions and other demands are made on it. It then has the dilemma as to whether to meet the commercial demand and receive revenue from outside, or whether to facilitate its original purpose, which in this case is to serve the police force.

It is not simply price competition that is the issue. It is also a matter of the capacity of the company, GovCo or PPP to provide the service. What does it prioritise—the huge commercial contract from abroad, which will bring in lots of money, or the needs of the police force? Which will be given priority by the privatised company? There are inherent dangers in moving towards PPP, so
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I urge caution in respect of the time scale by which the Government wish to proceed. The criteria, which I do not have time to deal with today, must be robust. I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I would wish the Forensic Science Service to move to a PPP.

It is important to know at this point what sort of inquiries have been made about companies that might have a commercial use for the databases that will be created. For example, divorce lawyers could have an interest in DNA databases, as they could use them for their purposes. A great deal of interest will be expressed in the DNA databases, and we should be more concerned about that.

As we have heard from many hon. Members, the DNA database and DNA collection are of great concern. The expansion of what I regard as a national database by stealth is a huge issue, and if that is the Government's purpose, they should have a proper debate on the Floor of the House. We have had no reassurance on any measure as far as security of access is concerned, or on the security of the databases and protection against misuse, whether that is hacking or more commercial activity.

I recently attended a European Standing Committee where a European Union proposal based on the principle of availability was discussed. Our databases will be made available to competent law enforcement agencies in all 25 EU member states for the purpose of catching criminals. What is on our database will be available in 25 countries, and the Secretary of State had no answers about that on the day.

Mr. Newmark : Does the hon. Lady share my concern about the broader issue of civil liberties? Of course, we must tackle crime and we should have the DNA of those who cause problems but, as she says, collecting DNA by stealth is an infringement of our civil liberties. That is the broader issue that we should be most concerned with.

Lynne Featherstone : The hon. Gentleman is right, but there are so many issues relating to the collection of DNA and the DNA database that I almost do not know where to begin.

Disproportionality is another concern in relation to the databases. We heard some of the figures on the non-cautioned and non-charged side of the equation. Twenty-four per cent. of those on the database are black and from ethnic minorities, who comprise only 8 per cent. of the general population. I agree that the juvenile figure is terrible. There is a distinction, but not a huge one; if someone is innocent, they are innocent whatever age they are. I have not heard a logical argument from the Government as to why we should retain the DNA of anyone who is completely innocent. We hear the mantra, "What is the problem if they are innocent?" But our civil liberties rest on a presumption of innocence until one is proven guilty, not a presumption of, "I'll keep it in case it is useful one day."

Regarding the question of innocence, on 30 March, the Minister said:

He added:

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In the same speech, he stated that there will be

There is confusion in the Minister's statement that serves only to exemplify and heighten the problems to which I have just alluded. I would like some clarification from him.

Control and custodianship of the database must be raised. It is a positive step that the Government are to revise the custodial arrangements for the DNA database and to move away from control by the FSS to avoid a conflict of interest, but I would welcome detail of any discussions the Government have had with the Association of Police Authorities or the Association of Chief Police Officers regarding independent oversight of the database. Have such discussions taken place?

I would also like to know the nature of the information that is to be stored on the database. The Government claim that such a database is needed to combat crime, but the information contained in it, though under independent custodianship, still needs to be public property and not a private commodity.

I wanted to expand a little on some of the unintended consequences of disproportionality in the collection of data, particularly with regard to those who are innocent. Even if someone is found guilty of a crime and has their details put on the DNA database, what happens when they have served their sentence? Someone has to have been arrested for their DNA to be taken, and if they are then let go without caution or charge, so be it. It is possible that, at some point, the process could lead to refusals. If someone who had been arrested were, for example, to apply for a job in a bank or as a pilot, there might be stigma attached—especially as the details spread throughout the EU—simply because they were on a database, and the distinction between being innocent and guilty might not be made. There are inherent dangers and the future of an innocent person might well be blighted at some point because many people believe that there is no smoke without fire.

The exacerbation of the problem of this database by stealth, particularly with regard to disproportionality, pertains to police discretionary powers. That is a debate for another day, but the result of the process in itself is disproportionality. That is exacerbated greatly by the DNA profiling that can now be carried out through the advance of science, which allows us to tell from DNA the ethnic mix of blood and, therefore, where a person might come from. There was a case in south London where 1,000 people of interest were asked to volunteer a DNA sample, all of whom were black because in this case the test would not hold water for the European white population. After such sweeps, the DNA is destroyed, but those who gave a sample were asked to sign a voluntary agreement that their DNA could be retained. Such processes contribute to the further disproportionality of our DNA databases.

Along with the details of the innocent, the Minister is storing up problems for the future. I want him to answer those questions. It is not appropriate to continue along our current path without having a debate on the matter in the House of Commons in the proper way. There are too many dangers and risks involved. People's civil liberties are at stake.
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5.17 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): It has been a far-ranging debate. I congratulate the Committee on its report, "Forensic Science on Trial". However, it is not just forensic science on trial, but science. We have heard about higher education in the UK and the future of the Forensic Science Service, which is of some concern to many hon. Members. The FSS has given good service to justice in the UK, and it is not in anyone's interest—certainly not that of Government—for it to be damaged in any way, particularly if that were on the altar of it becoming a GovCo, and possibly a PPP initiative.

We have also heard about training for the FSS and forensic medicine in general. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner)—some might say he is my MP, because that is my original stamping ground—spoke about the chemistry department of Sussex university. I undertook my master of science degree at Sussex, although not in chemistry. It is not just Sussex university that is suffering from a degradation in science studies, but others.

We have heard about the type of degrees that one might do in forensic science. There are 50 courses and 350 combinations of courses. Some examples were given, such as forensic science and music, religious culture and forensics. The phrase "Mickey Mouse" courses was used, but perhaps that is a little unfair. The aspirations of students are very important. Do they seriously expect to go straight into forensics with a degree in forensic medicine and media studies, which the Minister gave as an example from a sedentary position? The clear answer has to be no. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said, clearer guidance should be given to students regarding what their expectations of going into forensic science might be, given their particular course.

Another tremendously important area discussed was the assessment and interpretation of evidence in courts, not only by the lawyers who present the evidence but by the jurors. One contributor spoke about a study being undertaken by the Home Office on how juries make their decisions. It is a dangerous path to tread. However, it is important. The example was given that one juror might have scientific knowledge—or claim to—and persuade the other 11 to give a guilty or not guilty verdict.

The real problem in this country—I have argued this for a long time and it does not happen so much in the United States—is that we tend to get either artists or scientists, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Whether it is because of our A-level system, which forces us to study three or four subjects from the age of 16 onwards, I do not know. However, it is a fact that we often end up with inarticulate scientists and innumerate artists. Incidentally, I did a law degree but with double maths, physics and English A-levels, which was most unusual. I think that I was the only person doing a law degree with any sort of science A-level background. I thought that it would help me to be a better lawyer; clearly, it has affected my ability to be articulate, but that is why I became an MP instead.

It is important that lawyers are given training in some aspects of forensic science. They are certainly given professional training in the rules of evidence, and a subset of evidence is forensics. However, there is no
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training in that at present, as far as I know. I hope that hon. Members who did their professional exams more recently than I did can correct me if I am wrong, but I am convinced that there is no training in that at all.

That is why we get the problems that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) talked about, where people who give professional evidence in court in good faith as so-called experts—often they are experts—are vilified by untrained journalists and, I am afraid, politicians. There has been a lot of talk about the DNA database, which is maintained by police forces in the United Kingdom. I speak not for my party, but personally when I say that I have no objection. If Parliament wanted a DNA database for the entire population, and that was Parliament's will, I could see some advantages. It would not only help in the detection of crime, but have huge importance in epidemiology—

Dr. Evan Harris : Paternity.

Michael Fabricant : Yes, and paternity. It would help in epidemiology and the understanding of the spread of disease, genetically and in general. However, as so many hon. Members have said, that has to be a decision for Parliament. It should not be a decision for individual chief constables or, in some instances, those who rank below chief constable. That is plainly wrong. We are ending up with a sort of Untermenschen: those who are found to be innocent or voluntarily gave their DNA and are kept on a database, while others are not. That is clearly unprofessional and wrong and Parliament needs to take a view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised some interesting points about the forensic service in his police force. He said that this need not be about just the national Forensic Science Service, but that police forces too can have a forensic service. He spoke eloquently and proudly about the service that is maintained in Northamptonshire. It would seem that Northamptonshire police are a beacon with that service. It would be a dreadful shame if that service and detection rate were lost because of the mergers proposed by the Home Office. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) also spoke at some length about the need for training for lawyers, which I mentioned earlier. There need to be professional exams on rules of evidence. A series of issues have been raised.

I want to move briefly on to the Government's response to this excellent report. I do not want to sound pompous, or rather grand, like a great parliamentarian—I use that phrase and pronunciation very carefully—but I have served on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on the National Heritage Committee, as it was called previously, under the great chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), and briefly on the Home Affairs Committee under Robin Corbett, who is now in the other place, and I have to say that the Government's response to this report takes the biscuit. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said that they use weasel words; he was being positively generous.
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I have an example—it is quite extraordinary. The response contains marvellous examples of political correctness and political speak. Paragraph 4 cites paragraph 42 of the report, which states:

What is the Government's response?

Come on. "Ongoing"? Do we use that word nowadays? Clearly the Home Office does, and it went on at some short length to try to justify the Government's standing on that subject.

We hear in the report about the Government's track record at managing PPP projects. It states:

We cannot just blame the poor old Home Office and Home Office Ministers. The national health service computer system is an absolute disgrace and a disaster. It is costing the country and taxpayers a fortune and Computer Weekly recently said that the data contained on it are open to hacking. One has to wonder whether the DNA database is also open to hacking, as was mentioned earlier.

Professor Jeffreys said in his evidence that there could be significant cost implications associated with the collection of 16 markers for each profile. That was in connection with whether there should be 10 or 16 markers for DNA evidence, which comes back to identifying the probabilities and certainties of whether DNA evidence is always accurate. We have heard examples of how fingerprinting may not be accurate. There used to be an assumption some years ago that, if a fingerprint matched up, that person had to be guilty. We heard a good example today of how that might not be the case. Similarly, although DNA is a powerful tool in detecting miscreants, we must not always assume that a DNA match means 100 per cent. that the person is guilty. Clearly, that is not the case.

I do not want to detain hon. Members. We have heard some excellent speeches by hon. Members from all parties. Some serious questions have been asked of the Minister by Government Members as well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I do not want to shorten the time available to the Minister so that he cannot respond fully. It has been a full and helpful debate, and I hope that he will do the Chamber the courtesy of answering those questions in detail.

5.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham) : It is a pleasure to see you in your elevated position, Mr. Pope. I congratulate you on that promotion and on another promotion giving you cause to smile—that of Accrington Stanley to the football league. It is a good time for you, Mr. Pope, with two promotions following hard on one another.
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I, too, thank the Select Committee for what has been an excellent debate. As the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, there have been some truly excellent and distinguished contributions, by hon. Members who have a great deal of expertise in the field. The range of contributions shows the level at which the Committee has engaged with the issues. I welcome that indeed.

The distinguished Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), referred to English graduates at one point, so I hope that he will not hold it against me when I say that this humble English graduate is being tested to the full today. My solitary O-level in biology is being stretched to its limits by the Committee, but I shall do my best.

The Committee is not celebrating its achievements enough. The publication of the report, under the then chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), since followed up assiduously by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, has led to an unprecedented focus on forensic science, certainly in this place. Mention has been made of the Adjournment debate on 18 October last year and the oral evidence, when three Ministers came before the Committee. The hon. Gentleman may not like the fact that we do not meet more often, but that was an unprecedented development and a welcome one. There was the debate on the revocation of the trading fund order that allowed us to establish the GovCo, which was also used for a wide-ranging debate on the Forensic Science Service. There was also a recent debate on the national DNA database, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said. I do not believe that there has ever been so much scrutiny or focus in Parliament on such matters. That focus is to be welcomed, and the Committee's report has played a vital role in stimulating the process.

I carefully read an article that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough wrote in The Times this week about the report and the follow-up to it. If I read the article correctly, the tone was one of disappointment and chiding, saying that more should be done. That is why I say that the Committee should celebrate its successes more. The hon. Gentleman finished by saying:

However, complacency does not at all characterise the Government's attitude. Through the DNA expansion programme, the Home Office has been investing unprecedented resources into expanding the use of DNA and, more generally, the quality of science available to our police forces.

To refer to the point that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) made, those resources have gone directly into the capacity of police forces. There have been enormous levels of activity, which will ultimately knock on to the courts because, as was said, more evidence will come before the courts involving forensic studies and DNA.

Although the Committee might not achieve every recommendation in its report, I hope that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough will accept that there is progress on its substantial points. I shall go through the main issues that the hon. Gentleman itemised and draw out some of the observations that
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other hon. Members made. The hon. Gentleman's main issue was the changed status of the Forensic Science Service. I am well aware of his concern and that of the Committee but, to be clear, there is anything but confusion. I am extremely clear about the process that we have under way and I should like to reassure him and the Committee about that.

Two significant developments have taken place since I gave evidence before the Committee. The first was the revocation of the trading fund status and the creation of the GovCo in December 2005. That was a major development, but in the end it happened smoothly and without great uncertainty. I am pleased to say that the FSS has settled down well and has taken to GovCo status quickly.

Secondly, I gave the hon. Gentleman my commitment during the Committee sitting that I attended to publish the criteria on which we would judge any further change in status to a PPP. For the avoidance of any doubt whatever—I say this directly to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)—I can say that no irrevocable decision has been taken. Indeed, to pick up the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) made too, when I introduced the revocation of the trading fund order in December, I was persuaded that more time needed to be given. I was influenced by the Committee that day. I am sure that my hon. Friend pushed me more than once on the GovCo needing to be given time to bed down, get used to the new status and the new freedoms available to it, and have a chance to succeed in its own right. That is the phrase that we have used and it is a phrase that I will repeat and stick by. I extended the minimum time in which we said that no decision would be taken. We had said that no decision would be taken before December 2006, but in the course of that debate we said that no decision would be taken before the summer of 2007. We did not go for the full two years that my hon. Friend asked me for today, but I hope that he does not feel that we are not listening. We are, and I responded directly to some of the points that he made.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) mentioned limbo. It also would not be right to have a prolonged sense of limbo. We need clarity and an open process and, when the time comes to make a decision, to be clear about it and allow the FSS to have certainty about its future, because a prolonged period of uncertainty is not in the interests of the service.

We published the criteria on 29 March. They set out the four key areas by which we will judge the GovCo in due course. To conclude on this point, however, I repeat that no decision has been taken. I have been keen to give the FSS time to adapt to its new GovCo status, and to see what benefits it brings and how the service can use them to improve its operation.

To recognise the point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, I note that changes are taking place in the forensic science market. There was recently a major merger of the two other players, which will have an impact on the marketplace as a whole. He mentioned that I had identified the needs of the criminal justice system as the paramount concern in judging the criteria. That has to be at the forefront of any discussion.
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The second itemised criterion is the state of the UK forensic services marketplace. Of course the issue will be informed by the matters that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised, and we shall want to consider them extremely carefully. At the end of the day, our first consideration should be the quality of the service provided to the police and the criminal justice system. That is what we are about. I am sure that we could all unite behind trying to achieve the highest quality of provision. That should be the key point that determines our discussions.

We have laid out a clear way for the FSS in the statement. I hope to assure hon. Members that I will certainly continue to deal with the process openly and with straightforward responses to questions. Where we can give information on performance, we will of course seek to do so. To pick up the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown raised, the process should not be secretive, but nor can we compromise the FSS as it seeks to enhance its position in the marketplace. We need to make that balanced judgment, but I can give the Committee many of the assurances that it wants on such matters.

To pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made, I do not think that it is wrong for the Home Office to take the balanced, rounded view. We have the broadest possible view, in considering the interests of the police, the criminal justice system and public safety in the round. We are well placed to make that decision. As I tried to outline, we need to balance all the factors and criteria.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned FSS staff pensions. It is true that the staff are now public servants rather than civil servants. As such, they are no longer entitled to accrued benefits within the principal civil service pension scheme. However, the terms and conditions are broadly comparable. I will be visiting the FSS at Chorley tomorrow morning, and I am sure that the trade union representatives and I will be engaged on those matters. I meet them regularly, and I know that they are constantly updated.

Several hon. Members spoke about the national DNA database, which is of considerable interest at the moment. I make it plain that Parliament has taken a view on the national database. The extension of police powers to collect information was debated in Parliament, and a positive vote was given on those precise matters. Colleagues will remember that the question originated in a ruling by the House of Lords, when DNA evidence that was deemed inadmissible because there was no legal basis on which it could be retained, could not be introduced in a rape trial, even though it would have provided conclusive proof in that case. It is not true that Parliament has not been consulted.

Michael Fabricant : Will the Minister give way?

Lynne Featherstone : Will the Minister give way?

Andy Burnham : I shall use the time remaining to me; I have only a few moments, and I want to address more of the points raised this afternoon.
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The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said that if the Government were building a database by stealth, they should say so. We are not. We have no intention of building a national DNA database covering everyone in the country, even though others might favour such a proposal. Only a small number of people—about 30 highly security cleared individuals—have direct access to the national DNA database. The hon. Lady said that an assurance had not been given on the subject; I have given that assurance before, but I repeat it. It involves only a small number of highly cleared people. It is not true that the DNA database can be accessed from police stations. There are strict controls on who is able to gain direct access to that information.

The hon. Lady asked about the sharing of information and the principle of its availability in Europe. It may be in our interests to co-operate. The DNA database holds details of unsolved crimes as well as those of individuals. I hope that by sharing some of our information on unsolved crimes with European colleagues, we can solve crimes that have remained unsolved for many years. I want to see more, not less co-operation.

A further safeguard that the Committee can be assured of is that the statutory purposes of the national DNA database are clearly laid down in statute. Those purposes do not include use in the divorce courts or in the other places about which there was speculation. The statutory purposes are clearly linked to the prevention and detection of crime. That is the clear focus of the database. Those provisions were amended by Parliament to include the identification of dead bodies, following the awful tsunami in south-east Asia. That change, too, had the support of the whole House. The statutory purposes of the database are clearly limited in law, and people will welcome that.

Many other issues were raised today, and in the normal run of events I would give hon. Members a full answer. I shall seek to write to hon. Members who raised specific points.

I was pleased to hear about the developments in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East with Zentek Forensics; I hope that my constituents, too, might benefit from that.

I heard what the hon. Member for Kettering said about police force expansion, but I was completely unconvinced by the logic of his argument. In fact, I think that a strong argument can be made that larger police forces would use science far more effectively and invest in it far more strategically.

I cannot do justice in the time available to the legal issues raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I assure him that commitments given by the Attorney-General to the Committee in November have been—

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