My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Police Minister. The Statement is as follows:
“I thank the right honourable Lady for her Question. I apologise that it is me, rather than the Home Secretary, and congratulate HRH Prince Henry of Wales on his engagement.
In January, Randox Testing Services informed Greater Manchester Police that there may have been manipulation of test results at its laboratories. Ongoing police investigations have since uncovered that the same manipulation may have also occurred at the Trimega Laboratories. Criminal investigations by Greater Manchester Police into alleged manipulation of toxicology results are still ongoing. Therefore, the House will understand why I must be cautious in my response. However, I want to reassure Members on all sides of the House that this matter is being treated with the utmost seriousness.
The Government’s immediate priority is to work with the police and the independent forensic science regulator to establish the full scale of this issue and the potential impact on the public. A Written Ministerial Statement on the matter was laid in the House by me on 21 November. Public confidence in the justice system is absolutely vital, which is why the Written Ministerial Statement noted that my honourable friend the Justice Minister will oversee the review process for individual cases and will work closely with other Ministers from departments impacted by the outcome of this investigation.
Retesting in criminal cases has been under way since May and is ongoing, and the police, CPS and coroners will be contacting affected individuals once the outcome of the retests is known. The Department for Education has also asked all local authorities in England to review their records to establish whether they commissioned tests from Trimega and consider whether any action is necessary to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities. It is unlikely that the decisions about the welfare of children will have been taken solely on the basis of toxicology results. However, the Department for Education has asked local authorities to assure themselves that the rationale for decisions made about children’s safety and well-being is not now called into question.
The Government fully understand that people may have concerns about family cases, which is why the Ministry of Justice has also created an application form that allows people to apply to court to have their cases looked at free of charge if they are concerned. Government officials will continue to work with the police to monitor the scale of this pressing issue as further information emerges. Furthermore, as Greater Manchester Police’s investigation continues, we are considering what lessons can be learned to ensure that public confidence in forensic science is upheld”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question in the other place. Perhaps she can explain, when she comes to respond, why the Police Minister chose originally to make his announcement in a Written Statement on 21 November, and why it has taken an Urgent Question to get an Oral Statement from him. One would have thought that what we are hearing about was sufficiently serious to justify the Minister in the Commons coming to the Dispatch Box without being summoned there through an Urgent Question.
Regrettably, the 2010 Government abolished the Forensic Science Service. Perhaps this is one of the chickens coming home to roost as a result. Randox Testing Services, one of the companies involved, has been quoted as saying:
“We are now well advanced in developing a foolproof testing system which would enhance the security of our operations in the future, to provide the necessary level of confidence”.
Surely a fool-proof testing system being in place would have been part of the terms of its contract to do this work. Will the Minister confirm that that really is not the case, as the statement from the company seems to imply?
Randox has also said that it will be paying the cost of retesting. What about the cost of the police investigations that have been taking place for some time, of the local authority investigations referred to in the Statement and of the costs of obtaining legal advice? Who is going to be paying these? Is it the company, the police, local authorities or the individuals affected? The Police Minister’s Written Statement of 21 November said, in relation to the other company, Trimega—which is now part of Randox:
“The number of Trimega’s customers affected … is unknown. It may never be possible to identify them all, due to poor record-keeping practices”.
Is Trimega in breach of its contract, as a result of having poor record-keeping practices? If so, what are the potential penalties?
Finally, the information that has been given indicates that most drug tests from the current company, Randox Testing Services, between 2013 and 2017 are being treated as potentially unreliable. Will Parliament be told of the extent to which such drug tests—and those done by Trimega in the years before 2013—are found to have been unreliable and the precise impact this has had on individuals? That is the least that the Police Minister now owes Parliament.
I thank the noble Lord for his questions. He is absolutely right: it is indeed a very serious matter and the Government do not take it lightly. He will have noticed that the WMS of 21 November was a fulsome Statement and there is now an investigation going on which will take some time. He questioned the abolition of the FSS. The alleged manipulation predates the closure of the FSS, which was never involved in family cases—that was Trimega. He talked about Trimega being part of Randox. I must make it clear that at this point Trimega was not part of Randox. Trimega closed and Randox set up: yes, the two individuals were employed at Randox, but Trimega was not part of it.
The noble Lord also asked whether the numbers would ever be known. They may never be known accurately, but we think that approximately 10,000 tests were affected. The nature of what allegedly went on here means that we can never make this fool-proof because, as the regulator herself said, no reasonable set of quality standards could be guaranteed to prevent determined manipulation by skilled but corrupt personnel.
My Lords, while we agree that determined, skilled and corrupt practitioners in the public sector could equally have produced such a scandal, and that the performance of the former public sector Forensic Science Service was not without criticism, what lessons have already been learned, and what new safeguards are already in place, to prevent this happening again? The Minister said that the Government are considering what lessons can be learned, but surely there are immediate steps from the initial findings that can be implemented—and should have been implemented by now. What action have the Government already taken to reassure the public?
As the noble Lord points out, because this is an ongoing investigation the full lessons of what went on here cannot be appreciated yet. However, the Government have, of course, taken steps since January 2017, when we found out about this alleged manipulation. We supported the police’s initial response to the news of manipulation, including officials advising of the impact on the marketplace and the regulatory impact. The Home Office advised the NPCC in the creation of the silver groups working on the operating protocol for forces, the forensic service providers and the CPS. We facilitated the agreement of commercial terms between Randox and the independent testing companies and sat on the technical advisory group of forensic experts which advised the gold group on the retesting strategy.
As the Statement said, the DfE has liaised with local authorities in England to review their records and will consider what action needs to be taken from there. The MoJ, together with the DfE and HMCTS, has worked closely with the police to identify family and civil court cases where a toxicology test was undertaken by Trimega. We have advised the NPCC gold group and the team that is working with the CPS to ensure that the appropriate disclosure is made. We have asked all forensic toxicology suppliers to review their practices and have asked the Forensic Science Advisory Council to consider a number of measures to strengthen provisions to reduce the risk of malpractice and to help rapid detection. We are supporting the UKAS internal review and have briefed the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Family Division of the High Court. We have done a lot since we found out about this.
My Lords, a number of years ago, I visited the College of Policing’s Harperley Hall site in County Durham, which led on forensic science at the time for the college and did an absolutely extraordinary job. Will the Government look at how that was run and seek to emulate it in the future?
The noble Baroness is right that at times like this it is absolutely essential that we look at places and areas of best practice to see what we can learn. Of course, the full extent of that learning will not be forthcoming until a full investigation has been undertaken. However, I totally take her point that best practice has to be emulated.
My Lords, I completely take the Minister’s point about the difficulty in finding a system that is totally fool-proof, but it would seem from what we have heard that the vetting of personnel could well be the central issue here. Could she tell us, or possibly write to us about, how that vetting might be improved?
The noble Lord may be right that the vetting process was not sufficient. However, as the regulator said, no reasonable set of quality standards could be guaranteed to prevent this determined malpractice. We are talking about two corrupt people—perhaps there may be more—and the regulator herself said that it would have been very difficult to prevent it.
My Lords, anyone who has practised in the criminal courts, whether prosecuting or defending, will know that confidently given forensic evidence is enormously persuasive when it comes to the issue of guilt or innocence, which is the responsibility of juries. Is not the terrible feature of this that some may have been wrongly convicted or offered pleas of guilty when the evidence put to them simply did not amount to sufficient evidence to justify conviction? This is a serious breach of the civil rights of those who have had to appear in the criminal courts.
The noble Lord is right to point out that confidence in the system is absolutely crucial, and that to date, great confidence has been put in this area of science. He makes the point about somebody being wrongly convicted. It is rare, but not impossible, for someone to be wrongly convicted—but someone is rarely convicted on one piece of evidence, although it is not impossible. That is why the high-priority cases are being looked at and why, in the course of retesting, those sorts of issues will be established. However, the noble Lord is right to point it out.