In March 2016, the Government published its Forensic Science Strategy—more than two years after the date originally promised by the Government. It came without a ‘Biometric Strategy’ that had been originally planned to complement it. It is now more than four years since the Government originally promised to produce a strategy on biometrics. The Minister has now told us that the Biometrics Strategy will be published in June this year. This report flags up issues that the Biometrics Strategy should take on board. We also take the opportunity to review the situation in forensics services, 18 months after our predecessor Committee’s report on the Forensics Strategy.
On forensics, there have been concerns about the sustainability of the market, with the collapse of private sector providers in recent months. The overarching focus in the police’s forensics procurement appears to be on low price. Problems of fragmentation of forensics testing remain, where testing is split between different providers. The Government should review the sustainability of the forensics market as part of a wider review of its Forensics Strategy, including the underlying causes of market unsustainability and fragmentation.
Accreditation of forensics providers remains vitally important in maintaining the confidence of the courts and the public in the evidence used in the criminal justice system, but not all providers are meeting the Regulator’s accreditation deadlines. The Randox case last year has demonstrated the importance of all forensic providers becoming fully accredited and of the need for rigorous auditing of standards compliance. The case also pointed to a more fundamental disconnect of standards and regulatory systems between the criminal courts (which are covered by the Regulator’s remit) and civil courts (which are not). The Forensics Regulator should work with the UK Accreditation Service to strengthen auditing. The Government should give the current private members’ Forensic Science Regulator Bill, which it has drafted, time in its legislative programme in order for it to make progress, and rapidly implement it following Royal Assent.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to make the Regulator a ‘prescribed person’ under the whistle-blowing legislation, which should happen as soon as her position is put on a statutory footing.
The Ministry of Justice should work with the Home Office and the Forensics Regulator to examine the scope for the Regulator’s remit to be extended to the civil courts forensics system, or for a similar regulator to be established with a similar remit, to bring a comprehensive and enforceable standards system to that sector also.
The Forensics Strategy requires re-evaluation. The Government should revise, re-issue and consult on a new version, and in doing so address the forensics requirements of the civil courts, as well as the criminal justice system.
On Biometrics, the Government’s rationale for the more than four years’ delay in producing a Strategy is less than convincing. It must now produce the Strategy in June, without any further delay.
The courts ruled in the 2012 ‘RMC’ case that it is unlawful to hold custody images without making a distinction between those who are convicted and those who are not. In response, the Home Office has introduced a system for unconvicted individuals to be able to request the deletion of their images, but not an automatic deletion system, reflecting current weaknesses in IT systems and a concern about the potential cost of a comprehensive manual deletion process. The Government’s approach is unacceptable because unconvicted individuals may not know that they can apply for their images to be deleted, and because those whose image has been taken should not have less protection than those whose DNA or fingerprints have been taken.
The Government must ensure that its planned IT upgrade is delivered without delay to introduce a fully automatic image deletion system for those who are not convicted. If there is any delay in introducing such a system, the Government should move to introduce a manually-processed comprehensive deletion system as a matter of urgency. The forthcoming Biometrics Strategy must address which of these possible routes will be followed. The Strategy should also set out the Home Office’s assessment of the lawfulness of its deletion-on-application response to the ‘RMC’ case, and the legal advice underpinning that assessment.
Facial image recognition provides a powerful evolving technology which could significantly help policing. There are concerns, however, over its current use, including its reliability and its potential for discriminatory bias. We welcome the Government’s assurances that the technology is only being used at the moment for targeting those on ‘watch lists’ rather than as a blanket approach. The technology should not be generally deployed, beyond the current pilots, until the current concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved. Ministers and Parliament, rather than the police, should take the final decision on any wider deployment. The Biometrics Strategy should include an undertaking that the House will be given an opportunity to debate and vote on the issue.
There are important ethical issues involved in the collection, use and retention of facial images in particular because they can easily be taken and stored without the subject’s knowledge and because various image databases already include 90% of the adult population between them. We welcome the Minister’s decision to set up a facial images ‘oversight Board’. The forthcoming Biometrics Strategy should consider how image databases should be managed and regulated, potentially by a dedicated ‘Regulator’ or by the Biometrics Commissioner with an extended remit.
Our brief inquiry has identified an urgent and significant need for action on the governance and oversight of both forensics and biometrics. This is vitally important because these disciplines, and the way their techniques and data are used, are at the heart of our courts system and underpin essential confidence in the administration of justice.
Published: 25 May 2018