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Debated on Monday 20 February 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mark Pritchard

† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)

Carden, Dan (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)

† Cates, Miriam (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)

† Eastwood, Mark (Dewsbury) (Con)

† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)

† Gullis, Jonathan (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)

† Hart, Sally-Ann (Hastings and Rye) (Con)

† Lavery, Ian (Wansbeck) (Lab)

† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of His Majesty's Treasury)

† Mills, Nigel (Amber Valley) (Con)

Owen, Sarah (Luton North) (Lab)

† Philp, Chris (Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire)

† Smith, Royston (Southampton, Itchen) (Con)

† Smyth, Karin (Bristol South) (Lab)

† Tarry, Sam (Ilford South) (Lab)

† Western, Andrew (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Wheeler, Mrs Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)

Hannah Barlow, Bethan Harding, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

The following also attended (Standing Order No. 118(2)):

Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 20 February 2023

[Mr Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Forensic Science Regulator Code of Practice

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the motion, That the Forensic Science Regulator draft Code of Practice 2023, which was laid before this House on 26 January, be approved.

As always, Mr Pritchard, it is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Forensic science is one of policing’s most important tools for investigating crime. The prosecution of county lines crime and violent crime types including knife crime relies on high-quality forensics, including digital forensics and DNA. We should always remember that the Stephen Lawrence case was ultimately solved only because British scientists were able to detect and analyse a drop of blood measuring less than 1 mm in diameter. That illustrates the importance of good forensic science to law enforcement.

This country is fortunate to have some of the world’s best forensic scientists, both in public law enforcement and in the private sector. Upholding quality standards in that science is vital to our criminal justice system, which is why the Government wholeheartedly supported the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), which ultimately became the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021. I put on the record our thanks and congratulations to him for securing and passing that important Bill. It is a good example of cross-party working and private Members’ Bills operating exactly as they should.

That Act established the regulator as a statutory office holder, and allows them to take action as a last resort when they have reason to believe that forensic science activities are being conducted in a manner that might create a substantial risk to the course of justice. It also requires the regulator to produce a statutory code of practice that formally defines which forensic science activities will be regulated and sets out the standards that providers will be expected to meet. This is the first time that a statutory code relating to the provision of forensic science has been produced anywhere in the world, and it will underpin the regulator’s new statutory powers.

The draft code has been subject to a lengthy and serious consultation, and was broadly welcomed by the forensics community. In fact, 83% of the respondents to the consultation, including from policing, the commercial sector, academia and the judiciary, expressed support for the model of regulation set out in the code. A copy of the code is available in the room; Members will notice that it runs to 362 pages.

I must admit that I was concerned that the code might impose unreasonable burdens on the sector, but I looked at the consultation responses in some detail and I was assured, first, that the respondents who will be subject to it were not unduly concerned about that, and, secondly, that although much of the content of the code is being put on a statutory basis for the first time, it draws together existing non-statutory codes of practice. Members will have seen in the impact assessment that the cost implications are not unduly high. For those reasons, I am satisfied that it is proportionate. I hope that if the Forensic Science Regulator looks at the transcript of these proceedings, he will see that Members on both sides of the House think the code should be policed reasonably and proportionately, and not in a way that introduces excessive or unreasonable burdens on policing or the forensic science community. We want high quality and the maintenance of standards, but not to the extent that that creates unreasonable bureaucracy or cost.

Adherence to the code will play a key role in ensuring the evidence used in investigations and presented to court can be relied on. Forensic providers in the public and commercial sectors will have to declare compliance with the code, and may need to obtain accreditation and establish quality management systems for the activities they undertake, which will of course give the courts confidence in the forensic evidence they receive.

I should stress that non-compliance with the code will not in itself make forensic evidence inadmissible. It is always for the court ultimately to decide whether or not to accept evidence, but I would expect courts to place extremely high weight on, first, whether a forensic science provider is accredited and, secondly, whether it is in compliance with the code. If it does one or, ideally, both of those things, I am sure the court will place great reliance on that.

The code will encourage providers to provide high-quality forensic evidence to courts, protecting the integrity of our criminal justice system and helping to guard against miscarriages of justice. On that basis, I commend the draft code of practice to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

Just over a year ago, I responded for the Opposition in a debate on forensic science with the previous but one Policing Minister. It was clear that a lot of work is needed on forensics in this country. We welcome the move to put the Forensic Science Regulator on a statutory footing, which has been called for for years. In 2018, for example, the Science and Technology Committee again asked the Government to do that.

As the Minister said, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) successfully introduced a private Member’s Bill that passed into law as the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021, which required the regulator to produce a code of practice. I pay tribute to him and to his work. He is a real champion of the cause and I know he shares our view that forensics are a vital part of law enforcement.

The draft code of practice builds on the non-statutory codes of practice and conduct, as the Minister said, incorporating much of their content. The codes were issued by the previous regulator, whose role was established under the royal prerogative. As set out in the draft code, a number of forensic science activities, ranging from human DNA analysis to toxicology and geolocation analysis, require proper definition and compliance. The code applies to all those doing forensic science activities mentioned in the code, whether they are individual practitioners or academics, in the public or private sectors, or forensic science units, with a view to upholding and maintaining proper standards.

We welcome the publication of the code now. It shows action on forensics that we think is long overdue. Forensic science is crucial to the investigation of crime and the administration of justice. We all know that the stakes are high when it comes to forensics—we must get it right. A recent report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services showed that digital forensics were in a truly shameful state, with an appalling 18-month delay in getting evidence. There has been a vacuum of leadership from the Home Office, and I hope that the code of practice will lead to improvements. Any information from the Minister on what progress has been made following the recommendations of that report would be welcome.

The Home Office completed an impact assessment on the forensic regulator in 2013, but there has been no published update since. Will the Home Office be publishing its internal impact assessment from 2021?

On accreditation, my understanding is that there was a proposed deadline of October 2022 for all police laboratories to be accredited. Will the Minister update us on progress?

There has been a leadership vacuum on the issue in the Home Office, but I hope that the code of practice will lead to improvement and we are happy to see it come into force.

I have very little to add to the remarks made by the shadow Minister, my constituency neighbour. I am grateful to the Opposition for their support.

We are investing in improving forensic science and putting more money towards it. We are supporting the police, principally through the National Police Chiefs’ Council, to ensure that they have resources available to them and that forensic services are delivered in a timely fashion to assist in investigations. For example, in the context of serious sexual assaults, there is now a standard that a complainant’s device is returned within 24 hours. That will be the case in every force by the end of June; it is the case in almost all forces already.

I hope that gives the Committee the sense that a lot of work is being done to ensure that digital forensics, as well as forensics more widely, are fit for purpose in the 21st century. I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her support.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.