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Biometrics Commissioner and Forensic Science Regulator

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance—although hasn’t that changed again overnight? Never mind—and that of the House of Commission. I am not, because I may be required to speak at any moment. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week before coming on to the estate. They can do so downstairs: I did so the other day, and they gave me a pack of six for the future as well. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Nineteenth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2017-19, The work of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Forensic Science Regulator, HC 1970, and the Government Response, Session 2019-21, HC 1319.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for allocating time for this issue to be debated. I also acknowledge the role of the predecessor Science and Technology Committees—some Members who will speak in this debate served on those predecessor Committees, and I pay tribute to their assiduity and tenacity in keeping a focus on this subject—ably assisted by a succession of brilliant Clerks, who continue to this day in the shape of Mr Ben Shave, one of the Clerks who is advising the Committee on these matters.

The issues covered by my Committee and its predecessors are of considerable complexity, but also great importance. The global value of biometrics is expected to reach £21 billion this year, a 130% increase compared with 2016. The perceived vulnerability of passwords, the growing prevalence of mobile devices with biometric capabilities, and wider advances in computing technologies all point to biometrics and forensics playing a greater role in public and private life. In the UK, biometric data obtained via technologies that capture, measure, analyse and process digital representations of our physical or behavioural traits, such as DNA, fingerprints, voice and handwriting, are held by the police on no fewer than four separate databases, while criminal investigations have long relied on the services of private sector and in-house forensic science laboratories.

As I said, the Science and Technology Committee and its predecessors have published a number of reports on forensic science—specifically in 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018 and 2019—and on biometrics in 2015 and 2018. Our sister Committee in the House of Lords has also undertaken a detailed examination of the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system over the course of almost a year. In 2018, our immediate predecessor Committee called on the Government to give statutory powers to the Forensic Science Regulator, a recommendation that—thanks to a private Member’s Bill tabled by my fellow Select Committee Chair and a former member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones)—has now been implemented. We place on record our gratitude to him for his achievement in securing that legislation.

We also said that the Government should strengthen the auditing of standards of compliance; deliver a planned IT upgrade that would fully implement an automatic custody image deletion system for those not convicted of any crime; and ensure that any wider deployment of facial recognition technology is not considered an operational decision for the police but is a matter for Parliament to decide. We said that the treatment of how image databases should be managed and regulated should be subject to similar scrutiny.

Shortly after that 2018 report was published, the Government published their biometrics strategy, which committed to enabling

“more efficient review and automatic deletion of custody images by linking them to conviction status, more closely replicating the arrangements for fingerprints and DNA”.

However, it did not mention the important matter of the accreditation of police laboratories. In a follow-up report, published in 2019, our predecessor Committee concluded that concerns remained about the long-term viability of the market for forensic science services and highlighted the significant risk that that posed to the effective functioning of a criminal justice system. Other recurring concerns raised in that report included gaps in current forensics research, the absence of a mechanism to set clear national research priorities, insufficient oversight of biometric technology, and a lack of scientifically rigorous testing of new biometric technologies. That Committee also expressed worries about the effectiveness and potential bias of facial recognition technologies.

In the 20 months between the publication of that report and the Government response—it is worth noting that 20 months is an unconscionably long time for the Government to take to respond to a detailed and specific set of recommendations—the passage of the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 gave the regulator new, statutory powers, so our Committee invited the former regulator, the former biometrics commissioner and relevant Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing, to seek their views on where things stood in June of last year.

Professor Gillian Tully, the former forensic science regulator, told us that at the time of her departure, in February 2021,

“neither toxicology nor digital forensics had sufficient capacity to meet the current needs of the service.”

That shortfall in capacity has real-world consequences. Professor Tully spoke of cases that rested on the accusation that an individual was, for example, driving while under the influence of drugs, and cases that she was familiar with had to be dropped. It may not have been a large number, and prioritisation on the part of individual police forces may have also been a factor, but her testimony is worrying nevertheless, at the time when advances in toxicology and forensic science more generally should be playing a greater role in securing convictions. Indeed, in a conversation with a person with current knowledge of the system, I was given to understand that we have only 30 qualified toxicologists operating in the United Kingdom. That is an extraordinary number, considering the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders.

In his appearance before our Committee, the Minister acknowledged that he, too, was concerned about capacity, and I know this from conversations separately. He committed to looking urgently at how to stimulate more forensic toxicologists to join the profession. Part of the purpose of today’s debate is to seek from the Minister an update on how that is going and whether the intention is being translated into practice. On digital forensics, we heard about mobile devices and computers sitting in very long queues for analysis, and that convictions that might have been made if there were greater integrity to the laboratory accreditation process have been lost.

Such concerns relate not only to forensics but to biometrics. Professor Paul Wiles, the former commissioner for the retention and use of biometric material—the biometrics commissioner—highlighted four concerns. First, the existing framework governing the use of biometrics by our police forces had not kept pace with developments in biometric technologies, and the Government had not responded to domestic and European Court of Human Rights judgments about the framework. Secondly, the police, the Home Office or some combination of the two had yet to create a proper evidence base for the use of new biometrics, which could complicate the decision-making process around future deployments. Thirdly, the Home Office has yet to update databases containing both biometric data and more general information relating to offenders, convictions and arrests. Finally, Professor Wiles argued that biometrics, together with artificial intelligence and large databases, are the technologies that, at least in part, will drive the future social world in which we live, and their use should therefore be considered a key strategic issue across Government. For a Government who have made a signal commitment to improving conviction rates and protecting society to fail to make use of stunning advances that can help to secure convictions and put into jail people from whom society should be protected is a serious omission.

Professor Wiles also specified several areas where he thought elected Members of Parliament should decide what was not in the public interest. Facial recognition technology is a case in point, as well as the fingerprints we use to log into our phones, and a plethora of applications including voice recognition and gait analysis.

I do not want to give the impression that we were told that the use of all these technologies falls on the negative side of the register—that the advances they comprise are not good for society. That would be the wrong impression. Professor Wiles highlighted the idea of frictionless airports and their potential for eliminating the onerous barrier checks that have come in in response to the terrorism threats of recent years. Advances in technology might allow some relief there, which would be very much in the public interest. However, the point that he and others have made is that the rules need to be clear, there needs to be a co-ordinated cross-Government approach when it comes to formulating those rules, and that we should not delay doing so.

That brings me to the response from the Government to our predecessor Committee’s 2019 report, and the work that has been undertaken since then. I am sure the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) will cover the report in his contribution, as will the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). From my perspective, the key takeaway of our Committee session that questioned the Minister and his colleague Baroness Williams, the Minister for Countering Extremism, is that, although some progress has been made, it does not stand comparison with the progress that should have been made, and the opportunities to protect society from the advances in technology that are available. It was clear to me from the session that the outstanding issues need to be addressed and the pace of action needs to be accelerated.

Several areas require scrutiny in the weeks and months ahead. As of July 2021, 16 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have joined the Forensic Capability Network, although the Government anticipate that the number will have risen by the time powers in the Forensic Science Regulator Act are fully taken up by the new regulator. Will the Minister update us on the current number of forces that have joined the network?

On a related point, we remain concerned that without the disclosure of data on accreditation and compliance, the Home Office will not be able to evaluate the success of the Forensic Capability Network, or the transforming forensics programme that was launched in 2017. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s plans for measuring the success of the new regime in driving accreditation and compliance? Has the case for a single system of accreditation for both police and private laboratories been considered?

The Government have encouraged some collective decision making through these two initiatives, but in our June 2021 session Professor Tully suggested that attempts to

“work through persuasion rather than any form of mandate”

have now run their course. She stated clearly that there are some areas on which there should be national decision making, even if that results in reversing some decisions that were been taken by previous Ministers and Administrations, whatever good faith and optimism was vested in those decisions at the time. However, the Government have confirmed that there are no plans to establish a new decision-making body specifically for forensic science, citing ongoing work taking place in the Home Office and UK Research and Innovation as a better avenue for determining future priorities and ensuring that capacity grows. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on this work. What might persuade the Government to revisit the muscular approach the Home Office is taking to this important matter?

In short, the picture is mixed. Some progress is being made, but not nearly enough considering the clarity of what was set out as being needed and the available opportunities. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is being considered in the House of Lords, and forthcoming College of Policing guidance on the use of facial recognition will provide opportunities to strengthen these matters. It will be helpful to hear from the Minister what assessment he has made of the contribution they will make. The Minister’s latest update to the Committee did not contain a publication date for the guidance; can he offer one today, so that we know where police forces stand on facial recognition technology?

There are several other areas I would like an update on. First, on biometrics governance and updates to the framework, the Committee was told in September 2021, following the Court of Appeal judgment in Bridges v. South Wales Police, that the Government were updating the surveillance camera code accordingly and consulting the relevant organisations set out in the governing legislation, including police, local authorities, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner. A revised code of practice was promised towards the end of 2021. We have now passed that date. When can we expect that to be issued?

Secondly, on the timeline for the new automatic deletion system for custody images, the 2024 deadline is approaching. I hope the Minister can update us on the interim steps being taken by the Government. Thirdly, the custody image review has been absorbed into the wider piece of work to implement the Government’s manifesto commitment to empower the police to use new technologies such as biometrics and including facial images within a strict legal framework. Can the Minister confirm what progress is being made on delivering against that manifesto commitment?

I mentioned that the Science and Technology Committee first examined these complex questions in 2011. More than a decade on, our interest in them is undiminished. The developments in technology cause us to commit to taking a close interest in the responses of the Minister today and in the months and years ahead. I urge the Government to have the same sense of determination and purpose in order to achieve the breakthrough in police practice and regulation that the technologies allow.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. It is also a pleasure to serve on the Science and Technology Committee under the chairship of the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I associate myself with his questions and the general points that he made, with one exception. The history of the Science and Technology Committee looking at forensic science goes back even further than he set out. I have been on the Committee a long time, but the first report on the subject came out before I joined it. Called “Forensic science on trial”, the report was published on 29 March 2005. The right hon. Gentleman referred to issues that have been examined repeatedly by the Committee—these are not my speaking notes, Dr Huq—but not to all the reports and the responses of the Government that have been produced on this issue.

The “Forensic Science on Trial” report went through the even longer history of forensic science. The way in which the Home Office has responded over time to the changing science is interesting and relevant. Science and the ability to examine and get information from crime scenes have changed enormously over time. It was only in 1988 that DNA led to the conviction of the double murderer Colin Pitchfork. Since then, DNA has been used thousands of times for many different crime scenes.

What worried the Committee then was that there had been big changes. Back in the early 90s, police forces went along to the people who did forensic science and asked for analysis of things from a crime scene, and they got it with no cost. The then Home Secretary, the noble Lord Blunkett, thought that there should be a more commercial relationship between the Forensic Science Service and police forces, and that the Forensic Science Service should be moved into a public-private partnership body. The Science and Technology Committee looked at that proposal and said that things would be lost if the service was changed in that way. A lot of evidence was taken, and the Committee’s report, which I will summarise, having just read it again, said that the evidence was not there to justify doing that.

Nevertheless, after the 2010 general election, the new coalition Government looked at the funding of the Forensic Science Service. They said that it was losing £2 million a month and things would have to change. They said that there was a real possibility, given that the Forensic Science Service was world leading, that we could sell our services internationally and make money from them. The Committee looked at that and said that the case was not made, because the statistics claiming that the cost was £2 million a month were based on false information. The laboratory at Chorley had already been closed, and the people working in the Forensic Science Service on the other side of Lambeth bridge were very worried about their future. The Committee certainly was not convinced that the changes should be made.

I will say this now so that there is no mistake: the Labour Government made some of the original decisions to change the Forensic Science Service, the coalition Government made a number of changes and the Conservative Government have made further changes. I do not see this as a party political matter at all. Like the Minister and other hon. Members around this Chamber, I want the forensic science facilities, whether private or public sector—it is not about differences between private and public—to yield the best information that will lead to the conviction of criminals. That is the key issue. It is not an ideological issue. Having said that, there has been a failure of Government, right the way through the process, to properly consider how to keep our elite status in world forensic science—it looks as though we have lost it now—and how best to deliver forensic science for the criminal justice system.

One of the conclusions of the Committee’s forensic science report, which was published during the 2010 to 2012 Session, was that if and when the Forensic Science Service disappeared, which it did, one of the things that would be lost was the context of the crime. The private sector does a very good job when it comes to simple, repetitive operations, such as doing fingerprint or DNA analysis. What is missing from the service at present, however, is the ability for the police to go to a public sector body, or a private sector body for that matter, and ask, “What question should we be asking? We are not scientists.” Previously when I visited the Forensic Science Service, it was very strong on the point that it would be able to help the client—the police, the criminal justice system—ask the right questions, which it could then examine scientifically before giving the information back. That has not happened, and that is one of the losses to the service.

The other loss to the service, to which the Government have never really responded, is that when the Forensic Science Service went, the money going into forensic science research and forensic science was lost and has never been replaced. The different science funding bodies do not really recognise forensic science as part of their bailiwick or funding responsibilities. Not only are the right questions not necessarily being asked, but the money going into research and science has been lost, and I believe it should be replaced.

During one of the many inquiries we have had, we heard from Dr Tully, who worked for the Forensic Science Service, then became a regulator and has now gone into academic life. When she came before the Committee, I asked her three or four times whether murderers and rapists would get off because of the changes in the Forensic Science Service, and every time she answered positively—that that would be the case. The right questions would not be asked, so the right information would not be fed into the courts system and very bad people would not be brought to justice. Murder and rape are the worst crimes, but the problem goes right the way through the system. If we do not have a good forensic science service, we do not have a good criminal justice system, because the criminal justice system relies on the scientific interrogation of crime science.

When the original decision was taken to disband the Forensic Science Service and leave things up to the market, there was an internal Home Office problem that I think indicates a broader problem. Professor Silverman, who was then the scientific adviser to the Home Office, told the Committee he was not consulted, and nor was the then Forensic Science Regulator. That indicates that the decision was viewed entirely as a cost-saving issue and not as a way of ensuring that the criminal justice system worked as well as it could to bring criminals to justice.

The other side—which the Committee has written about in every report since, including the latest one—is that now that the Forensic Science Service has effectively been disbanded, we all rely on the market to work. At different times, as the Minister will know, because he has replied to this point, the market in forensic science has been close to collapse for a number of reasons—most recently, because of covid, not as much work was being commissioned. One of the good sides of covid was that there was less crime, so there was less need for forensic science.

Another driver, over a longer period, was that the police were taking a lot of forensic sciences in-house to save money. However, they were not only saving money but using non-ISO-accredited systems to do that. They lost the good Forensic Science Service and replaced it with something with no accreditation, which makes it more challengeable in court. That was another reason why the Committee did not support the disbandment of the Forensic Science Service—because the market was too volatile and not stable enough to ensure that the forensic science that the police and the courts needed would be there to be used.

I do not know why Governments of different political colours have not got this correct and have dragged their feet on the regular call for the Forensic Science Regulator to be put on a statutory footing. It is half on a statutory footing now because my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), with Government support, took a private Member’s Bill through. However, even that Bill does not deal with biometrics in terms of the statutory basis for the regulator, so that demand has only partially been met.

I do not know whether the Minister, who has been in office for a period, knows why the Home Office, under different political parties, has not given the service the political prioritisation that the public would want, because I think the case is overwhelming. The public have an enormous appetite for television shows about forensic science and for reading detective novels, in which cutting up cadavers is the main focus. Yet, at the same time, our forensic service has gone from being one of the best in the world to, quite frankly, being moth-eaten and not as good as it should be.

I have spoken for quite a long time, but I want to emphasise a point that the Chair of the Committee made about custody pictures. If you, Dr Huq, were arrested—I am sure you would not be found guilty of anything—and taken into a police station, your DNA, fingerprints and photograph would be taken. If you were arrested by mistake, your DNA and your fingerprints would be destroyed if you wanted them to be, and you would have no criminal record, but your facial record would remain in the computers. With all the connections those computers have, that is very worrying. Most people do not know that they can ask for those photographs to be deleted. The Chair of the Committee referred to the Government’s commitment that they would be automatically deleted after six years. That is too slow. I do not think police forces have any right to keep a picture of you or anybody else who is not guilty on record, where it can be misused and accessed improperly in many cases. The Government have not, over that period, given the resources to police forces to delete those pictures. However, I have spoken long enough and I will let other people speak.

It is good to see you back in the Chair, Dr Huq. As you have said, I follow two of my fellow Committee members. I am also speaking from the Front Bench for the SNP. I should state at the start that I prefer to see myself here as a Committee member because this area is devolved to Scotland, and I will make a couple of remarks about that. For me, the big issues are around funding and governance, and I will talk about both.

Forensic science services provide accountability in what is a rapidly changing landscape, with new developments in not only technology and science, as well as in the many techniques we can use to promote greater public confidence and safety. It is in that vein that we are having today’s debate, because all of us want to see moves made to get the Forensic Science Service back up and running in the way it once did.

As I have said, forensic science is devolved in Scotland, and the Scottish Police Authority has its own fully accredited lab. It delivers world-leading forensic services and has over 500 trained staff operating out of four different sites, with scene examination based throughout Scotland. In September 2021, the Scottish Government published their forensic service strategy, which aims to continue to grow that scientific excellence. In March last year, Scotland’s first biometrics commissioner, Dr Brian Plastow—a former police chief superintendent—was appointed, and it is hoped that he will bring great expertise and significant leadership to that role. It is encouraging for us in Scotland that the UK Government have recognised the lead shown by Scotland and intend to watch with interest the work that has been done by the biometrics commissioner and the power to enforce a code of practice for Police Scotland’s biometrics use.

When it comes to forensics, public trust is paramount. It is imperative that when the public are going through criminal justice procedures, or when they are impacted in any way, they can place their trust in the civil justice system as a whole. That needs proper governance and a proper statutory footing: without those things, it is very difficult to get what is required. In their response to our Committee’s 2019 report—I am afraid I have not been a member for quite as long as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), and I do not go back to 2005, but I very much welcome the expertise of my fellow member—the Government stated that they were

“committed to maintaining and improving our world-class forensic services and supporting the forensic scientists who work in them.”

The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), mentioned the evidence we took from Professor Gillian Tully, who described some of the concerns she had. She told the Committee that the closure of forensic science services had led to the loss of significant research funding. In her words,

“that money was lost. It was not then taken and given to anyone else to do research”—

something that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton has described in detail today. That money has been gone for a number of years, and with it, expertise is dwindling and diminishing. The Chair of the Select Committee has mentioned that we have only 30 toxicologists, a fact that should cause all of us some concerns.

The Government’s response to our questions on this issue has been disappointing and, at times, repetitive. They said:

“The Government fully agrees that funding for forensic research is vital, but that it must come with a full understanding of the research landscape.”

They talked about a guidance document that would be hosted by UK Research and Innovation and made publicly available, enabling the forensic science research community to identify suitable funding routes. As Professor Tully has said, that funding went, and was not replaced. The Government’s response should be more robust than simply, “We’ll provide the means by which people can apply for funding,” because expertise in forensic science does not just mean expertise in forensic science; what people are saying is that they also need to have expertise in writing funding applications. If that has been gone for a long time, it is very difficult to get it back.

We know from the work that we do with research institutions and private research bodies that they have people dedicated to writing these research applications and funding applications. Now, if this is a service that is on its knees and that has not had an injection of funding, we are asking the people working for that service to dedicate more of their energy and resources to apply for funding that quite frankly should be directed to them now, without further delay. It would be good to hear some words on that from the Minister this afternoon.

We know that science funding is important. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton talked about our no longer being a world leader. I would like to think that Scotland still retains some of that expertise, but his point is well made, because without the funding and without the ability not only to conduct research but to train up new people in the techniques that are currently being used, it becomes very difficult for people to operate in the circumstances in which they have been asked to operate.

I will briefly mention laboratory accreditation, which the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee, has mentioned already. He has said that 16 forces have already signed up to it, which I suppose is a good start, but we need more data on this issue. We need to know when other forces sign up to the Forensic Science Regulator’s code and, if forces are not signing up, why they are not doing so. Information on that would be helpful.

I suppose that one of the issues that causes the public most concern is the idea of how their biometrics and images are managed. There is a lot of work that the Government need to do in that regard. It is concerning that they are not moving to a system whereby custody images or other biometric information are deleted automatically and at the point where no charges are brought to bear.

The Government have reiterated their position that individuals can request to have that information deleted. That makes the assumption that members of the public know that they can make that request and know that their images have been captured and are still being held. There has been a lot of discussion about this issue. If you were so unfortunate, Dr Huq, as to be taken into custody and images are captured, you might know after this debate that you have a right to ask for them to be deleted. But do we know what other images are being kept?

In fact, a piece of evidence that we took for a report by a predecessor Committee referred to the number of images being held on databases that were not custody images; they were other images. I would like to know about them. My two daughters went on a climate action march during COP26, and I would like to know whether their images were captured and, if so, are they being held? I appreciate that I am talking about Scotland and a devolved issue, but if that march was taking place here in England what would happen with those images? The right to protest and demonstrate—the right to march—is fundamental to democracy. People should be able to do those things without their images being captured and retained.

Public confidence depends on clarity and full disclosure of how these images and other biometric information are used, which is why there is a really strong need for the regulator. The Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) has, of course, put that into practice, which is really helpful, but we need to see action on this issue.

I will finish by saying that the Scottish Government have enshrined statutory powers for an independent regulator to judge the ethics of forensic science for quality and fairness, and to help criminal justice to go beyond the reasonable doubt threshold by using biometric data. It would be good to see what steps the UK Government, if they are truly watching with interest, are taking. I appreciate that Scotland is a much smaller entity, and probably easier to manage than what the Minister is dealing with. However, if there are lessons to be learned, I hope he can learn them and start putting into practice some of the recommendations of the Committee reports.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing the debate, and on his elegant critique of Government progress. He asked a comprehensive list of questions about missed deadlines and the like, which I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to. I join him in thanking the members and Clerks of the Science and Technology Committee for all the work that they have done—he listed the number of times that this issue has been looked at and the proper and serious work that has been undertaken.

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) talk about the history of how we got to where we are, and how none of us here will be looking at this through the eyes of ideology—what should be private or public—but through the eyes of what is most effective. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) said about funding and governance, we should have the ambition to be world leaders in this space—that should be what we are all striving towards.

As Members have already made clear, forensic science is critical to the investigation of crime and the administration of justice. Without it, thousands of people would not have been brought to justice. It not only allows us to identify offenders and provide evidence to the courts, but is a vital safeguard against wrongful conviction and false allegations. When it comes to forensics, the stakes are high. The United Kingdom must have an efficient, working and credible model for forensic investigations.

I welcome the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), to whom I pay tribute for his hard work and commitment in delivering his private Member’s Bill. However, it has not yet been fully implemented. He asked the Minister a written parliamentary question on 5 January, and the Minister’s answer was “as soon as possible”, so I would appreciate some kind of timescale to go with that. Considering that it took the Government nearly 20 months to respond to the Committee’s report, Members of the Opposition cannot be confident that the Government are committed or willing to prioritise these important matters.

One of the major issues affecting forensic science is the market and the availability of services. It is vital that the Government ensure there is sustainable capacity to meet the needs of the whole criminal justice system. The market does not work as it currently runs; private providers come in and out and some collapse, leading to delays and confusion as they pass on their work. New recruits are not trained properly, funding is unclear and unequal, and increased pressure leads to falling standards, errors and, potentially, miscarriages of justice. The police need costs to be as low as possible because their budgets have been cut, and everyone is having to make difficult decisions in a volatile and unsustainable market.

Such fragmentation of the sector does not just provide a regulatory headache; it has real-world impacts. This lack of certainty leads to criminal cases being put in jeopardy and emergency funding needing to be provided. Redundancies in the sector are also an issue. It is vital that the criminal justice system has the power to retain the very best scientists.

Forensic science is time sensitive. Courts rely on toxicology reports to determine whether an individual was driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, but they cannot receive a report if the statutory time limit for the test has been passed. It cannot be right that charges are dropped because of a forensics problem. It is also the case that police forces are sometimes forced to ration and prioritise which cases they send to forensics. Forensics work must be done in a timely manner.

On digital forensics, we know that rape victims—really vulnerable people—might have their phones confiscated for months or even years, in the worst instances, while waiting for a forensics team to download and analyse their data. In the end-to-end rape review, the Government committed to leaving no victim without a phone for more than 24 hours in any circumstances. It would be good to understand a bit more about the progress towards that goal, particularly with the rape charge rate at a shocking 1.4%.

Similarly pressing are the issues of oversight and accreditation. Accreditation, as we have heard, provides an independent, impartial confirmation of technical competence. It surely forms an unavoidable plank in the plan to ensure public confidence in forensic science and the criminal justice system more widely. The importance of accreditation and compliance is indicated by the Randox case, which called into question the integrity of the laboratory’s toxicology results, and impacted 10,000 criminal cases. It was estimated that the re-testing of those samples might take between two and three years—even then, the degradation of samples would have rendered re-testing pointless. Randox did not have additional accreditation to the codes of practice and conduct for forensic science providers and practitioners in the criminal justice system.

The Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 requires a regulator to prepare a code of practice for forensic activities, which each forensic unit will have to comply with. It also included deadlines for units to achieve accreditation. As long ago as 2011, the Committee called for statutory powers to enforce compliance, with proper standards. These are yet to be introduced. The Committee called for a prohibition on the police using non-accredited laboratories to be included in the 2021 Act, as well as the mandate that all in-house police labs should be accredited within a year. The Minister disagreed, suggesting that these clauses would

“detract from the independence of the Regulator.”

It seems to me, however, that such regulations are critical, and might speak to some of the most concerning areas within the forensics sphere.

Regulation would ensure compliance with standards and deal with the fragmentary market. It would help solve the serious delays in digital forensics, which the Minister himself says remain a concern. It is a field now more important than ever, given the increasingly online nature of crime. Computer misuse has increased by 85%, hacking is up 161%, and 90% of cases now have a digital aspect.

Recent evidence given by Professor Tully shows that deadlines on accreditation of police laboratories continue to be missed. It seems impossible that the proposed October 2022 deadline for all forces to achieve accreditation on all sites will be met. The current situation sees victims relying on a forensics system that is not properly regulated, and reliant on a regulator with no proper enforcement powers. Time and again, the story seems to be of a Government failing to listen to the advice of experts, including that of the Science and Technology Committee.

At a time when just 6.5% of all crimes lead to a prosecution, the charge rate has halved and 1.3 million victims walked away from an investigation last year, public confidence in the justice system is at rock bottom. There can be no excuses. The Government say that tackling crime is a priority. They must put their money where their mouth is and stop the delays.

The use of biometrics has become an increasingly important and contentious issue, and it is only growing more so. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West attempted to include clauses related to biometrics in his private Member’s Bill, but the Government refused to support them, and they were removed. With new biometric systems being developed more rapidly than the police are able to keep up with, it is vital that the Government develop a proper evidence base for the use of these new technologies.

In his evidence to the Select Committee, Professor Wiles noted

“the continuing failure of the Home Office to update the crucial databases that hold both biometric data and general information about offenders, convictions, arrests and so on.”

The current legislation covering biometrics is a complicated patchwork quilt of Acts, difficult to grasp and to follow. We are clear that proper, fit-for-purpose regulation is needed. As in the forensics field, the stakes are high. It is crucial that the use of biometrics—undoubtedly powerful tools—does not infringe on civil liberties.

As we have heard, despite repeated assurances, the Government have still not delivered an automatic deletion system for custody images of unconvicted individuals whose data remains stored in a database. That is very worrying and, as the Biometrics Commissioner put it, unlawful. It cannot be right that an unconvicted individual would have to apply to have images of themselves deleted.

In the Conservative party manifesto for the last election, the Government said they would

“empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence”.

In evidence to the Committee, Baroness Williams noted that it was

“the legal framework that allows the police use”

of biometric technology that is both “necessary and proportionate” that is necessary in this sphere. There have so far been no legislative proposals from the Government on this front. I wonder when we might see a White Paper or similar setting out the Government’s plan to regulate this rapidly changing field.

The power of these new technologies is very great indeed. With regard to assets such as live facial recognition, voice recognition and gait analysis, Professor Wiles noted that the current framework

“has not kept up with the development of new biometrics; nor has the Government responded to judgments by both domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights about the inadequacy of that current framework.”

Even companies such as Microsoft—truly one of the great tech giants—support regulation.

When will the Minister act and commission a proper, UK-wide, independent review of the use and retention of biometrics and biometric data not covered by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012? Surely, with criminals utilising technology at a speed never seen before—I point to the sale of drugs online, which I have spoken about in this place before, as well as the criminal exploitation of children online—it is more important than ever that the Government get to grips with both forensics and biometrics, and absorb both into their plans to tackle crime.

The Minister believes that

“both of these biometrics and forensics are completely critical to the future success and…consent model of the police.”

We agree. There must be a clear, balanced and effective national decision-making structure for forensic science. This complex and complicated area deserves to be governed on a national basis, with policy decisions and implementation properly overseen. The Government must ensure that the 2021 Act is implemented, they must come up with a proper biometrics strategy, and they must deliver regulation, implementation and accreditation. That is crucial for the public and for victims.

It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Dr Huq. I am grateful to you, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing this debate and giving up the chance to commune with their constituents on a one-line-Whip Thursday to consider this important matter.

Before I start, I want to make it clear that, as far as I am concerned, forensics, biometrics and the use of technology in policing—and, indeed, the confluence of all three—has been for the last decade, and will be for the foreseeable future, the most important development in the prevention, detection and prosecution of crime, and represents the possibility of a great leap forward for policing generally, not just in this country but across the world. It is my determination that we should harness the capability that these three strands give us as much as we possibly can within a framework of public trust. All our work at the Home Office, and indeed at the Ministry of Justice, is focused on that key objective.

While there has been criticism during the debate of the system that we currently have—I think my right hon. Friend called it a mixed picture, which is fair—I do not think we should beat ourselves up too much. We see significant results in the courts and detection day in, day out from our ability to wield forensics and biometrics—my right hon. Friend has seen a result in his constituency just recently—and we have some of the best forensic scientists in law enforcement in the world operating in this country, in the private sector and elsewhere.

However, as hon. Members have said, forensic science in particular has faced challenges in recent years. Constrained resources, allied with a huge growth in the volume of sources of evidence, have put a strain on the system, particularly where digital material is concerned. We have taken steps to address that. As I hope Members will know, we are investing £25.5 million this year and a further £25.5 million next year to strengthen forensic services for policing, particularly digital forensics. We have set up the forensic capability network, which is bringing much-needed stability to the commercial market through co-ordination activity. I will get the updated numbers for my right hon. Friend after the debate.

When it comes to quality, Dr Tully did enormous amounts of work in this area previously, with partners, to make sure that there were standards of collection, analysis and presentation of evidence. However, hon. Members are quite right to push for more, and that is why we were so pleased to support the Bill to put the regulator on a statutory footing that recently went through at the second attempt. Although the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) was successful this time, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) had a go in the previous Session, but unfortunately his Bill fell before the end of the Session. It has been a long-term objective of ours to get the regulator on to a statutory footing so that her or his standards are enforceable. We are working closely with the regulator to commence those new powers as quickly as possible. I do not have a date, but we will do it as fast as we can.

There is of course much more to do, which is why we are working closely with the regulator’s office, the Attorney General’s office and other partners to push out the forensic science reform programme, which, as I hope Members will know, is organised around four pillars. The first pillar is police capabilities. It is about ensuring that the police have all the skills they need through the Forensic Capability Network and the Transforming Forensics programme.

We want to ensure that there is proper regulation, hence the Forensic Science Regulator Act, which we think is a major landmark in levelling that playing field. Also, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently going through the Lords, strengthens the law to ensure a consistent approach, for example for requesting information from phones and other electronic devices, and it will ensure that in all cases requests to victims and witnesses are necessary, proportionate and made only as a last resort. Guidance on that will appear quite soon.

Among other things, the code of practice will address how information may be obtained using other, less obtrusive means, and how to ensure that agreement is freely given and that the device user’s rights are understood. It is a good example of the way we have to address specific developments in forensics within an overall framework of regulation and public trust. One of our priorities is to ensure that law enforcement has access to all the evidence necessary for its investigations and to put behind bars those criminals who need to be put there, so we will also look at the legal framework for suspects to make sure it stands the test of time, and enables timely, thorough and fair investigations.

The third pillar of our strategy is criminal justice system capabilities. We have developed a model to measure the impact that forensic disciplines can have on the investigation and prosecution of crime throughout the criminal justice system, to make sure that evidence is fairly and properly presented in court and that it is robust and, crucially, presented properly to the court’s practitioners. That strand of work will also increase the transparency of expert witnesses’ credentials and ensure that defendants have equal access to those experts. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Judicial Office, again with other partners, are also helping to oversee and deliver that important strand of work. I would be happy to provide my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells with more information on that, as he requested.

The fourth pillar, of course, is research and development. We want to ensure that we are ahead of the game, particularly on development in forensics, making sure that we direct our research and capabilities towards those strands of work where we believe there will be most value for policing, and to make sure that we are not constantly playing catch-up with new technology, as we perhaps have been in the past. For example, we have work under way to enable crime scene investigators to capture fingerprints digitally at the scene and then transmit them instantly to where they are needed, as well as research into innovative ways to locate and recover microscopic body fluids, advancements in DNA techniques, and the role forensic intelligence plays in high-harm crimes such as county line gangs and drug violence.

In addition, Transforming Forensics and the FCN held a research and innovation festival week in 2021, with significant policing and industry engagement. Guidance for research and development stakeholders to access funding opportunities has been produced, and discussions with UKRI to identify options for future dedicated funding for forensic science needs are ongoing.

Taken with the legislation to give the Forensic Science Regulator those statutory powers, I hope that our reform programme represents a joined-up and concerted effort to address the issues facing forensic science in England and Wales. As I said earlier, we absolutely recognise the critical importance that forensics plays in the criminal justice system, and we will continue to work closely with the sector and other relevant partners to drive progress across these disciplines.

Police use of biometrics, such as DNA and fingerprints, plays a huge part in protecting the public. Last year, DNA linked more than 21,000 people to crimes, including 588 to murders and 491 to rapes. But biometrics are not without their challenges, and a number of hon. Members have referred to the challenge of facial recognition technology. We recognise that we have an overriding responsibility to keep the public safe and, where we can, we should equip the police with the techniques to do that.

We do believe that facial recognition will improve, or has the possibility of improving, public safety very significantly. Generations of police officers have used photographs of people to identify suspects, and more recently CCTV images have been a vital tool in investigations. There are many examples where suspect images have been matched to wanted known individuals, ensuring that they cannot evade justice when they cross force boundaries. What is changing is the ability to use computers to match images with increasing confidence and at speed, as well as to combine technologies such as surveillance cameras and facial recognition to greater effect.

As I hope Members know, live facial recognition trials have produced a significant number of arrests; we are up to 70 now, including for a double count of rape, robbery and violence, false imprisonment, breach of a non-molestation order, and assault on the police. My favourite story is that of the concert by a particular rock band in Cardiff that had been plagued by dippers—pickpockets and others stealing phones and wallets. Just advertising and notifying people that facial recognition was being used at that concert meant that the number of offences fell to zero. Indeed, South Wales police, which has been at the forefront of adopting this technology, produces about 100 identifications a month through retrospective facial recognition, reducing identification time from 14 days sometimes to hours, which is obviously critical when a dangerous criminal is at large.

I thank the Minister for his comments. The issue is not the use of these images—I think we all understand the importance of using the images— but their long-term storage. That is where people start having some difficulties.

I will come on to that in a moment. I just want to address the question of a legal framework. There is already a comprehensive legal framework around the operation of this technology. As Members will know, it has been tested through the courts. The police have broad common-law powers around the detection and investigation of crimes, including the use of technology, but there are other bits of interlocking legislation that need to be borne in mind.

Obviously, there is PACE—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010 and, indeed, data protection legislation, all of which gives a framework in which the police must operate. They are also subject to regulation through the Information Commissioner’s Office on the retention and use of data, and through a range of oversight bodies—happily, some external and some internal. As Members will know, a number of forces have, for example, ethics panels that are looking at the use of this technology. I will point Members who are interested to my appearance last week in front of the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which is looking at exactly this issue—the ethics and regulatory regime around the use of biometrics in particular.

We helped the police to appoint a chief scientific adviser, and forces have access to further support from their own ethics committees, as I said, as well as the Police Digital Service, the College of Policing and others. We have been working with the police to clarify the circumstances in which they can use live facial recognition and the categories of people they can look for, and I am told that the College of Policing will be publishing national guidance soon. That is a word that I have come to love in this job—“soon”, “soonest”, “shortly”.

It is of course an important part of our democratic process that people can raise and debate, including here in Parliament, legitimate concerns about police use of new technologies, and that legal challenges can be made in the courts, as has been referred to. Bridges v. South Wales police is an example.

I know that Members will recognise the importance of the police holding a bank of custody images for the potential identification of suspects and, often, witnesses. However, it is important that the public understand their rights in relation to the biometric data of all kinds that is held on them, and in particular their images. Last year, the National Police Chiefs’ Council established a new working group to develop further guidance on the retention of custody images. Through that group, the Home Office has worked with the police to issue new guidance stressing that people have the right to request deletion of their custody images. The police will communicate that guidance through various means to complement the existing information that is already available online and elsewhere. However, it remains the Government’s ambition to deliver an automatic deletion system for these images. We hope to do that during this Parliament, and I would be happy to supply the Science and Technology Committee with more details when I have them in due course.

I do not disagree with anything the Minister is saying, but would it not be easier if, when people are taken into the custody suite after an arrest and have their photograph taken, there were a simple sign next to the camera saying, “If you are found not guilty, or you are not guilty or the charge is not sustained, you have the right to have these images deleted”?

I certainly think it would be a good idea to provide people with that information at as early an opportunity as we can. Whether they would read a notice on the wall at that moment of particular stress is something that I would have to think about, but it should be possible to provide them with that information as they exit the police station, having been released with no further action. That does not necessarily suppose that they are not going to be subject to further investigation at that point, but they can at least be informed of their right to request the deletion. Whether the police force complies will depend on other factors.

I told the Committee last June that we would make an announcement about further reforms to empower the police to use technologies while maintaining public trust. As I outlined earlier, we believe that a comprehensive legal framework and a range of regulatory and oversight bodies are in place, but we are always seeking improvements. We have already appointed one person to carry out the previously part-time roles of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner to reflect the increasing convergence of those technologies.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport consulted last year on further consolidating biometrics oversight arrangements, recognising that the current arrangements are complex and confusing for the police and public alike, and that they potentially inhibit confident adoption of new technologies. We have also consulted on a power to create a code of practice to set out the principles for police adoption of new technologies, such as biometrics, to ensure greater consistency while maintaining the flexibility to allow the law to keep up with rapidly developing technology. We will respond to that and to the DCMS consultation in the spring.

As I hope I have outlined, the Government recognise right hon. and hon. Members’ aspiration that this should be a critical stream of work for the Home Office, and for policing more generally. We also recognise that there is the possibility to undermine public trust in the use of technology if we do not get the framework of accountability, supervision and regulation correct. For these technologies to be successful, they need to be successful in court, which requires standardisation and quality. We recognise that there are capacity issues that need to be addressed, and we are working with partners to fill those gaps. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells will take comfort, for example, from the fact that the Forensic Capability Network, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the private sector are, as we speak, working together on a workforce strategy to plug exactly the capability and capacity holes that he identified.

Finally, as I said at the start of my remarks, we believe that the use of forensics, biometrics and technology together, as they converge, presents an enormous prospect for a great leap forwards in our collective safety in this country—not just in the prosecution of crime, but in its prevention. The critical thing to remember about fighting crime is that the greatest deterrent to any crime being committed is the perception by the person who would commit it of their likelihood of being caught. The better we get at catching those people and putting them behind bars, the less likely they are to offend.

Thank you, Dr Huq, for chairing this important debate. I hope that the contemplation by Members of your prospective arrest has not given you too much cause for alarm. God forbid that that should happen, but at least you know your rights when it comes to custody images as a result of the debate.

I thank the Minister for his response, and my colleagues for joining in the debate. Let me emphasise three points to the Minister. First, I was pleased that he recognised the importance of technology for the future. He is a serious individual with a long record—including as London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing—of making a difference in reducing crime and protecting victims. Of all the things that he can do in office, getting this right could have the greatest impact, not only in detecting crimes and securing convictions but in preventing crime in the first place, as he pointed out in his example from south Wales. I hope that he will give this matter the immediate priority that I think is necessary, without prejudice and without being hidebound by past decisions, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said.

My second point is about funding, which the hon. Members for Blackley and Broughton and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned. The integrated review emphasised that our ambition is to be a world-leading figure in science and to deploy it to drive our national influence. Forensics, interest in which is exploding around the world, is an area in which we have had a leading position, but we cannot maintain that if we are losing money and putting up barriers to accessing research funding. I hope that the Minister will, with his new scientific adviser, look seriously at how we can correct that.

Thirdly, on the question of custody images, I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance that measures will be put in place by the end of this Parliament. In that and the other issues, my Committee will continue to take an interest—as I hope he will—and we look forward to making great progress, for the safety of all our citizens, during the remainder of this Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Nineteenth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2017-19, The work of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Forensic Science Regulator, HC 1970, and the Government Response, Session 2019-21, HC 1319.

Sitting suspended.

Backbench Business