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Digital Forensic Services

Volume 789: debated on Monday 12 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they propose to take any action in relation to the outsourcing by police forces of digital forensic investigation work to unaccredited private laboratories.

My Lords, individual police forces decide which providers they use to carry out digital forensic science services. The Government have been clear that accreditation should be an important factor when procuring these types of services, and continue to support the police to develop and share best practice in this area. The Government welcome the introduction of the Forensic Science Regulator Bill, which will put the regulator on a statutory footing.

My Lords, at least 15 police forces have outsourced digital forensic work to unaccredited private companies, some of which are subject to no regulatory oversight. One with accreditation had it withdrawn law year but continued to perform work for the prosecution, while another serving 30 forces collapsed in January, costing those forces millions of pounds. Only 15 out of 43 forces achieved minimum standards in their in-house laboratories by the deadline of last October. Given the importance of forensic evidence in the justice system, what steps will the Government take to ensure that the quality of the work is improved and that concerns about the failure to disclose key digital evidence cited by the head of the criminal Bar, the Justice Committee and a joint report by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are met?

I agree entirely with the noble Lord that police forces should use accredited service providers when they outsource digital forensic services. I mentioned a moment ago that the Forensic Science Regulator Bill, which was introduced last week, will give the forensic science regulator the statutory powers that she needs in order to enforce high standards in this area. In the meantime, I have looked at the report of the forensic service regulator. She referred specifically to some of the problems mentioned by the noble Lord and went on to say:

“Although the impact of these issues has been large, they arose from the actions of a very small number of individuals and should not be taken as a reflection on forensic scientists more widely … the vast majority of forensic science practitioners, whether working within commercial organisations, government-funded organisations (including policing) or elsewhere, are committed to providing high-quality scientific work to support the Criminal Justice System”.

The Government are also sponsoring research in order to drive up standards in this area.

My Lords, noble Lords will be aware of the issues surrounding disclosure of evidence, particularly to the defence in criminal prosecutions, because of the sheer volume of digital information in many cases. Will the Minister say whether setting in law a police bail limit of 28 days—as has been done recently, against the unanimous advice of academics and practitioners—and the relentless reduction of police officer numbers because of a real-terms cut in central government funding, leaving police officer numbers at a 30-year low, is likely to make that crisis better or worse?

On the specific issue of disclosure, which is important, the noble Lord will know that the Attorney-General has instituted a review, which will examine existing codes of practice, protocols, guidelines and legislation, as well as case management initiatives and capabilities across the whole criminal justice system, including how digital technology is used. Alongside that, the CPS and police forces are looking at any current cases to see that no cases go forward where there is a doubt about the disclosure process. The Government continue to monitor progress to ensure the police and the CPS deliver on the actions they have committed to undertake on the important issue of disclosure.

My Lords, have any doubts been raised or thrown against the findings of any one of these laboratories? Will the Attorney-General consult the Criminal Cases Review Commission, whose job it is to investigate miscarriages of justice, so that assurances can be given that no one has been wrongly convicted on the basis of evidence of this kind?

The noble and learned Lord raises a very important issue. Where a laboratory is suspected of having fallen short of standards, procedures will be under way to ensure that retesting takes place. I understand that that is happening as we speak. I will draw to the attention of the Attorney-General the suggestion the noble and learned Lord just made.

My Lords, it is probably not something that many in the House know, but the vast majority of cases coming before the criminal courts involve looking at social media for the assistance it gives in prosecutions and, indeed, in defence. It is often a signifier of the nature of relationships and often shows the extent of contact. Sometimes it shows that there is contact with certain people immediately before the commission of a crime. The quality of that assessment is very serious. It is clearly the position that there are just not enough people with the technical know-how being recruited to resource and to do this work to assist the prosecuting and defence authorities. We are talking about a serious piece of work being done in our universities and so on to create forensic skills for this purpose. As we now know, technology is widely used. Will the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to find recruits for this purpose?

The review I referred to, asked for by the Attorney-General, will identify solutions to some of the problems that the noble Baroness just referred to. It is the case that in recent years there has been an explosion in the use of social media in court cases. This has put enormous pressure on the digital forensic services. The regulator is aware of these issues. I hope that the review I have outlined, which is looking at these very issues, will come up with proposals and solutions that the Government can then take forward. I entirely agree that no one should be convicted because inadequate research has been done into relevant email and social media sources.

My Lords, more than 20 police forces have had to bail out key forensic science services because of the decision of the Government in 2012 to close the highly regarded national Forensic Science Service. Will those police forces be compensated, and precisely what benefits have accrued from the decision to break up the national Forensic Science Service?

The Forensic Science Service was closed in 2012. It was losing £2 million a month. Although this was not the reason for closure, there were real issues about the quality of some of its work, with multiple requests for case reviews and retesting. Increasingly, police forces that did not have their own in-house capacity were going to alternative service providers other than the FSS. It is not the case that the closure of the FSS has led to some of the issues that we have been discussing today.