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Forensic Explosives Laboratory: Contaminated Equipment

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 15 May 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

5.33 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked in another place on the use of contaminated equipment at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory, Sevenoaks. The Statement is as follows: "As I explained yesterday in response to a Question from my right honourable friend from Beckenham, on 14th March 1996 a small amount of the explosive RDX, one of the main components of Semtex, was detected in a part of a centrifuge at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory. The Forensic Explosives Laboratory is part of the Ministry of Defence, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency but provides scientific support to the police and Crown Prosecution Service in cases involving the criminal use of explosives. One of the services that it provides involves the laboratory analysis of swab samples taken to determine the presence of explosives and the type involved. This 'trace' analysis involves a range of procedures, including the use in many cases of a centrifuge.

"The contamination involved not more than 30 micrograms, or 30 millionths of a gram of RDX. It was detected in a part of a laboratory centrifuge which was probably already contaminated on its arrival at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory in 1989. By normal standards, the amount of explosive detected was tiny; nevertheless, it should not have been there.

"The contamination was discovered following one of the laboratory's weekly quality assurance exercises. As soon as it was discovered, work was stopped and the centrifuge was taken out of operational action. The Forensic Explosives Laboratory then instigated an immediate investigation into the source of the contamination and any implications there might be for casework samples.

"As I told the House yesterday, all the information from this preliminary investigation was laid before the Government in a formal report. A copy of that report was placed in the Library yesterday.

"There is a small theoretical possibility that casework samples showing RDX traces may have been affected by the centrifuge contamination. Regular quality assurance tests are undertaken by the laboratory. In addition, every time the laboratory examines a casework sample it also tests a control. Neither of these checks at any stage indicated RDX traces at a level which would suggest that casework samples are likely to have been contaminated.

"But further investigations are required to determine precisely how the incident occurred and what the implications are for the criminal cases involving RDX in which evidence was submitted by the Forensic Explosives Laboratory. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I agreed that an independent review should be established to look into these matters. As I explained to the House yesterday, the terms of reference of this review will be: to report on the general likelihood of contamination being spread from the centrifuge to samples in the laboratory; to examine Forensic Explosives Laboratory papers on all cases in which RDX traces were found and a criminal conviction resulted and assess the likelihood of contamination; and to examine the laboratory procedures in the trace laboratory and make recommendations.

"As the House knows, I have invited Professor Brian Caddy to undertake this review. Professor Caddy is Professor of Forensic Science at Strathclyde University and is a renowned expert in the field of trace explosives. He was involved in the appeal cases of the Birmingham Six on behalf of the appellants and advised the Maguire family for the May inquiry.

"Professor Caddy will report to me in the first instance, but the results and recommendations of his review will be made public and I will, of course, bring his findings to the House. In advance of that, as soon as a definitive list has been established and agreed with Professor Caddy, the representatives of those whose cases involved an RDX trace and resulted in a conviction will be notified. As I indicated yesterday, on present information it is thought about a dozen cases could be involved.

"I will consider in the light of Professor Caddy's report whether particular cases should be referred to the Court of Appeal. If any case is referred to the Court of Appeal, it will then be for the court to weigh the evidence and decide how to proceed.

"From the information presently available to me, it would appear that the risk of contamination is small, but in a matter of this importance and sensitivity I am determined to act only on the basis of the most rigorous and independent scientific assessments. As I have already said, I will keep the House fully informed of the outcome of Professor Caddy's review and the measures which flow from it. It would be quite wrong to leap to assumptions about any case until we have the clear scientific evidence on which to base proper decisions.

"I hope that the House will recognise that in the regrettable circumstances of this incident the Government have taken every proper measure to deal with the consequences."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.40 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Home Secretary's Statement made in another place. However, it seems unfortunate that this information was first given in the form of a response to a Written Question and also that, as I understand it, briefing to the press began before that Written Question appeared in the House.

The Statement is disturbing since it affects the convictions of a number of terrorists. Quite clearly, it would have been courteous to make it verbally to both Houses of Parliament in the first instance. It is tragic that the sustained efforts of many police officers, lawyers and witnesses that have secured the convictions of a number of terrorists may have been placed in jeopardy. It would also be tragic were it to be found that innocent people had been convicted and served prison sentences. In either case, public confidence will have been shaken and the morale of police investigators severely damaged.

Three years ago I was a member of the Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, which examined the working of the Forensic Science Service. As part of that investigation we visited the explosives laboratory at Halstead, although technically that was outside the remit of our investigation. On the whole, we were reassured by what we found in the Forensic Science Service. However, we were concerned about, in particular, the poor communication that existed between lawyers and scientists, who quite clearly spoke different languages, and also between scientists and politicians and the Home Office. This House contains many distinguished scientists. As the Minister said in a previous debate, it is often better informed than is the other place.

Therefore, one of the important recommendations made in the report of the Select Committee was that a forensic science advisory board should be established to advise the Home Secretary on matters relating to forensic science. It is very much to be regretted that such a board has not been set up. It could have advised the Home Secretary on basic good housekeeping practices, which would presumably have included regular checks on all the equipment involved in testing for traces of explosives. It is extremely difficult to understand how a second-hand centrifuge that has been at Halstead since 1989 was not thoroughly cleaned and tested on arrival and why it has not been thoroughly checked since then.

Another of our concerns was the difficulty for the defence of obtaining independent forensic evidence. One of our recommendations was that the Metropolitan Police laboratory should remain separate from the rest of the Forensic Science Service so that to some extent there would be some sort of "Chinese wall" between different parts of the Forensic Science Service, and the defence would be able to obtain independent evidence and would be able to have traces of Semtex and so on checked for.

We welcome the appointment of Professor Caddy to examine these matters, and have every confidence in his ability to pursue them with great rigour and to report to the Home Secretary appropriately. It is very important that he should report within a limited timescale. There may well be innocent people in prison; or, on the other hand, the confidence of police officers who investigate terrorist outrages will be undermined if the investigation is excessively prolonged. I would welcome some indication from the Minister as to the timescale in which she expects Professor Caddy to report, so that public anxiety can be allayed and confidence in the criminal justice system can be restored.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Like the noble Baroness, also, I find it almost incomprehensible that Ministers were not frank with the House yesterday rather than being dragged down here as a result of a Private Notice Question in the House of Commons. That is simply no way to treat a matter of this degree of seriousness.

Apparently the press was informed some time between 3.15 and 3.30 yesterday afternoon—at about the time when a Statement should have been made in both Houses. That demonstrates a remarkable lack of judgment in dealing with a matter of critical importance to the system of criminal justice in this country. Is the Minister aware that the revelations that have now been made inflict further damage on our criminal justice system? Certainly I welcome the independent inquiry under Professor Caddy, a man of immense reputation. But how could such a situation arise, as it has on this occasion, after so many well publicised miscarriages of justice relating to forensic science evidence in the past? That is the point that I find the most difficult to understand.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, I find it surprising that after the failures of the past which led to the appointment of the Royal Commission under the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, the Government ignored the recommendation of that commission, of the Science and Technology Committee of this House and of the Royal Society for Chemistry that a forensic science advisory committee should be set up which would report to the Home Secretary on the performance and efficiency of the forensic science laboratories. Once again, the Government have demonstrated their indifference to independent, expert advice. Are they now prepared to admit, after this deeply regrettable error, that they have erred and that they will now appoint the committee that the Royal Commission recommended?

Is the Minister aware that the only people who are celebrating today are the IRA? Does she appreciate the sense of incomprehension among the general public that such a situation has been allowed to arise and, to take up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, the indignation among many operational police officers, who may face the prospect of seeing their dedicated work in the investigation of serious crime swept aside because of this disgraceful episode of incompetence?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. While recording her reservations for the purposes of this debate, she nevertheless made very measured and constructive comments. I should like to take up some of those points. I am afraid that I cannot say the same for the noble Lord, Lord Hams of Greenwich. The noble Lord has made the mistake of presuming incompetence before Professor Caddy has even undertaken his work. We should not in this House prejudge the outcome of the investigation of this eminent scientist.

As soon as the contamination was discovered in the explosive trace laboratory, work was stopped, the centrifuge was taken out of action and the Forensic Explosives Laboratory then instigated an immediate investigation into the source of the contamination and the implications there might be for casework samples. The report was formally submitted to the Home Office on 25th April. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary lost absolutely no time in doing what anybody in his position would have done; namely, to make sure that there was a proper investigation, that that investigation should leave no stone unturned, that it should report fully and that the results of that report should be made public in both Houses.

The press was not briefed before the House was informed. It was not briefed between 3.15 and 3.30 yesterday. It was after the House received written notice that the press was given an opportunity to ask any questions it wished to ask, and it was given answers to those questions. But there was no discourtesy to either House. The report was laid before both Houses and was placed in the Library of both Houses.

There was no oral statement for very good reasons. The full facts and the action being taken were set out in the Written Answer. As I said, the laboratory report on the incident was placed in the Library. Until we have Professor Caddy's report, there is absolutely no profit in speculating or second-guessing what may or may not have happened. It is better to have the considered view of a scientist. It is important that, when the review is completed, the House should be informed of its findings. The Home Secretary will make sure that that is the case.

A point was made about the recommendation that there should be an overseeing, overarching body. It is important to report for the purposes of this debate that there is a United Kingdom forensic science liaison group. The group came together to draft the code of practice that is in place. The noble Baroness referred to being impressed by the way in which the code of practice is working in the laboratories. Indeed, the head of that laboratory was a member of the liaison group which drew up the code of practice.

Secondly, there is the United Kingdom National Measurement Accreditation Scheme (known to many as NaMAS). It acts as an external auditor. It visits and revisits the laboratories on a six-monthly basis. It tests the systems and puts the laboratory through a fairly rigorous exercise before offering accreditation to those laboratories. That is a form of external audit which is very important and is, one might say, a monitor of standards. The British Standards Institute also has a role. So there is still some question mark over quite what the nature of any overarching body would be.

I was asked by the noble Baroness about the time-scale within which Professor Caddy is likely to report. He intends to come to the Home Office tomorrow to talk about how he will set about the work. As to how long he will take, we hope that he will do it as speedily as possible. But it must be a full and thorough review. It will take as long as he needs to take.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred again to the role of the Commission and the Forensic Science Advisory Council's recommendation to provide external over-sight. I have referred to that a little, but perhaps I may make one more comment on it. The existence of such a council would not have prevented an error of that kind. One can never totally rule out errors of that kind. External over-sight of the main public sector bodies in forensic science is already provided by NaMAS and, of course, by the British Standards Institute.

The Government's interim response to the Royal Commission, published in February 1994, explained that the Government were looking very carefully at the proposal for an advisory council but would need to take account of a number of reviews under way at the time. Those are now concluded. The Government will publish its final response to the report in due course, setting out their views and bringing together various legislative and other steps that have been taken or are intended to give effect to the Royal Commission's recommendations. It must also be said that it is just possible that Professor Caddy himself will have something to say on the matter. We look forward to hearing anything that he may have to say.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said that the revelations inflict further damage on the system. It goes without saying that this is a serious situation. It is bound of its very nature to dent confidence. But it would have dented confidence even more to have delayed putting an investigation in place and making sure that it would be carried out by an eminent scientist, one in whom I believe we all have confidence. That I believe will do more to restore public confidence. But there is no doubt that public confidence is an issue and I believe that Professor Caddy's work will go a long way to make sure that it is restored.

5.52 p.m.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that many on this side of the House are grateful for the Statement and the fact that an independent inquiry is to be set up, not least as a way of giving reassurance to police, lawyers and others who have been involved in those cases and who must feel, as has been pointed out, that their work might have been undermined? Does she agree that many noble Lords who have listened to the Statement and have read the newspapers would not, as she herself suggested, accept that, had there been some kind of overarching body, it could possibly have found out that a piece of machinery was not working properly any more than my right honourable friend the Home Secretary or any Government Minister could have found it out? After all, it is not their job to test those kind of things. Were they involved in that kind of detail, they would not be able to do the many things that they should be doing. Will she accept that it is very important that the inquiry that takes place should address its questions to the people who are responsible?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those remarks. Some of the things that we have read have been quite extraordinary. We should not be surprised at what we have read about this incident. We have come to expect hysterical responses. But there have been some very irresponsible parliamentary responses from members of the Opposition, in particular members of the Liberal Democratic Party, about this matter.

My right honourable friend has done what he should have done. An incident has been revealed to him. He has set in place an investigation. He has appointed an eminent scientist to oversee it. He will not rest until he knows what has happened and he accounts to Parliament precisely for what has happened, indicating the steps that should be taken and what should be learnt from it.

My Lords, perhaps I may commend the appointment of Professor Caddy not only because of his eminence scientifically but because he was involved in some of the earlier appeal cases against miscarriages of justice with which I was associated. Nevertheless, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that in the Home Office there is sometimes no way out. One has to face Parliament. It is better to do it earlier than later because, given the propensity to exaggerate, that sometimes makes the situation a good deal worse.

Perhaps I may put one question. What is the significance of the date 1989? Does it mean that any cases before that date have to be resurrected because of what may be discovered? Is it a firm date or is it the date when the machine came into use?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from experience, having been in the hot seat at the Home Office. He will know that the primary duty of the Home Secretary in such a situation is to see that answers are sought and that information flows freely back to Parliament, to which any Home Secretary would be accountable. I am grateful to him for those remarks.

The year 1989 is significant because the piece of equipment which has been seen to be contaminated was brought into use in 1989 in that particular laboratory. My understanding is that it was on the site at Halstead but being used by another department. As it was moved as a piece of equipment from one department into this particular laboratory, it cannot be guaranteed that it was not contaminated on entry.

My Lord, I hesitate to say thank you to the Minister for repeating the Statement. The whole business calls into question three different areas, if I may so put it.

The first is the way in which this Government treat Parliament. I think that is very significant. I heard yesterday on the grapevine that the press had been briefed yesterday afternoon. This morning I saw reports in the newspapers. Also this morning I read in yesterday's Hansard (it was delivered today) the Written Answer which effectively gave the information. My understanding is that it was information that was available only today rather than yesterday. It may be that the procedures and paperwork relating to the other place are rather different from those in this Chamber, but in terms of the Government informing this House, effectively we received the information a day late. So there is a question mark about the—I would put it as contempt in which this Government hold Parliament.

The second problem is the calling into question of the scientific basis of a very delicate area of our criminal justice system. It has been said before that it is amazing that such a situation should develop, given the previous difficulties and miscarriages of justice that came about as a result of precisely scientific efforts in this particular area. So the scientific basis for the forensic science part of the criminal justice system is being brought into question.

The third problem is that it calls into question the very basis of our whole scientific community. Bearing in mind that we are currently dealing with a major scientific bombshell in the shape of BSE, the calling into question of the ability of our scientific community to operate satisfactorily that this situation has raised is very unfortunate. It is very unfortunate that this whole situation appears to stem from the Government's inability to appreciate the seriousness of matters with which they are faced.

My Lords, I do not believe that I have heard such a preposterous statement in this House for a long time. The noble Lord extrapolates from an incident in a laboratory that we call into question the whole of the criminal justice system and the whole of the scientific basis of this country. The noble Lord should think again about what he said.

In relation to the argument that we have treated Parliament with contempt, I can say that as soon as was possible my right honourable friend put before both Houses a full written Statement. He could say no more because what the House is interested in is what happened, how it happened, what lessons can be learnt and where we go from here. That can be answered only when we have seen the work of Professor Caddy. That is why an oral Question yesterday would not have furthered the Statement put before the House. I have already made clear that there was no briefing of the press before the Statement was put before both Houses. I hope therefore that the noble Lord will think again.

We have a fine criminal justice system, a fine forensic science service and a very fine scientific body of work going on in this country. I do not believe that this one incident calls all of that into question.