Skip to main content

Code of Practice for the Forensic Science Regulator

Volume 828: debated on Monday 27 February 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

My Lords, forensic science is vital to the investigation and prosecution of crime. Without high-quality forensic evidence entering the criminal justice system, our ability to fight crime would be compromised. We are fortunate in this country to have some of the world’s best forensic scientists, who deploy their considerable skills to help deliver justice, but we cannot rest on our laurels.

Public confidence in the criminal justice system is vital. This confidence can be undermined if quality standards in forensic science are not upheld or maintained. This Government believe that, in order to set appropriate standards, a degree of statutory regulation is required, which is why it has been long-standing government policy—since 2016, in fact—that the Forensic Science Regulator should have statutory powers. That is why the Government supported the Private Member’s Bill that became the Forensic Science Regulator Act in 2021.

The Act established the regulator as a statutory officeholder. It gives powers to the regulator allowing them to act, as a last resort, when they have reason to believe that forensic science activities are being conducted in such a way as to create a substantial risk to the course of justice. It also requires the regulator to produce a draft statutory code of practice. This code defines which forensic science activities will be regulated and sets out the standards that providers will be expected to meet. It is the first time that a statutory code regulating the provision of forensic science has been produced anywhere in the world.

This code has been through a comprehensive consultation process, which revealed broad support among the forensics community. In fact, 83% of respondents to the consultation, which included stakeholders from policing, the commercial sector, academia and the judiciary, expressed their support for the model of regulation set out in the code. By adhering to the code and complying with its requirements, forensics providers will ensure that the evidence they gather and present to the courts is of the highest quality, in turn helping to maintain public confidence in our systems.

In practical terms, this means that all forensics providers who deliver forensic science activities to which the code applies will have to declare compliance with the code. In addition, they may also need to attain accreditation and establish quality management systems for the activities they undertake. Non-compliance with the code will not in itself automatically mean that the evidence gathered will be inadmissible—it is always the courts who ultimately decide whether to accept evidence—but compliance with the code will reduce the risk of substandard evidence entering the system. Compliance with the code will make it far more likely that providers are producing high-quality forensic evidence to the courts. Compliance with the code will help protect the integrity of the criminal justice system and guard against miscarriages of justice.

I very much hope that noble Lords will support this code of practice, which I commend to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for providing this opportunity to consider the Motion that the 2013 draft code of practice for the Forensic Science Regulator, laid before the other place on 26 January, be approved. I warmly welcome the Forensic Science Regulator’s code of practice as an important further step in ensuring the quality, consistency and integrity of our forensic sciences across England and Wales. The code builds on the non-statutory codes of practice and conduct issued by the previous regulator and incorporates much of their content.

I particularly welcome the code’s recognition of the importance of accreditation against internationally recognised standards in driving quality improvement, trust and confidence in the critical services of forensic providers. Technical competence and consistency across the mixed economy for the provision of forensic science services should be a vital part of a fair and functioning criminal justice system. This code of practice will help achieve that.

I should declare an interest as the chair of the United Kingdom’s national accreditation body, UKAS, which is the sole national body recognised by government for the accreditation of organisations against nationally or internationally recognised standards. Accreditation provides assurance of the impartiality and competence of providers, which we can all agree are imperative in the criminal justice system. UKAS and the Forensic Science Regulator have been working closely since the FSR role was first created; together, we have achieved consistent success in improving standards through the accreditation of forensic science providers in both the private sector and police forces. UKAS will continue to work closely to deliver the vision of the Forensic Science Regulator with respect to compliance with standards and, through the accreditation of forensic providers, the demonstration of the appropriate competence of the practitioners undertaking this critical work.

I believe that this code of practice will support and encourage a culture of improvement and a commitment to quality, competence and impartiality across forensic science provision. I am delighted to add my support to its approval.

My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome this code of practice. As the Minister so eloquently pointed out, we have one of the best five forensic science services in the world and have made enormous strides in getting forensic science set on a course of absolute science, rather than old wives’ tales or police lore. That is a huge step forward, which this country has been instrumental in taking.

However, it is right to say that there have been several serious miscarriages of justice—I have sat on several of them—where forensic scientists have not behaved with competence or integrity or have gone beyond what they are qualified to speak about. I therefore warmly welcome the work of the two non-statutory regulators, Andrew Rennison and Dr Gillian Tully, and now the statutory regulator, Mr Gary Pugh, in all they have done to try to eliminate the problems that have caused difficulties in such cases.

The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, has spoken eloquently about accreditation, which is key. Also key is the fact that, within organisations, there must be a senior appointed individual who can be made responsible for lapses that occur. I regard as the most important part of the code the part that sets out standards of impartiality and integrity. As I have said, there have been cases where this has not always been so. Much to my regret, in some cases, there has been a lack of professionalism. One must remember that forensic scientists are often put under a great deal of pressure; standards of integrity to resist pressure, particularly from police officers who are anxious to secure a conviction, are therefore essential. The record of what has happened is well known so I need not go into it.

Secondly, it is important to stress the duty of the court. Thirdly, I very warmly welcome—it may be due to Mr Gary Pugh’s personal integrity and experience—the duty to guard against miscarriages of justice.

It is also important that the code goes into detail. There have been serious problems in relation to footwear analysis, DNA and fingerprinting, and it is good to see those now firmly covered by standards. There has also been worry about the way evaluative opinions have been formed. Many experts—not merely forensic experts—stray outside their sphere of expertise and seek to act more as advocates than as independent experts, relying on matters to which the code refers. I am very glad, therefore, that there is a firm steer for evaluative opinions.

The strength of the code can be seen by the fact that it deals with infrequently consulted experts, making it clear that, although they are not subject to accreditation, they must abide the standards of the court. It is surprising to see the spheres in which expert evidence is often needed, and from people who will never have given expert evidence before, or where the court may never have had expert evidence. Therefore I see this as a landmark in trying to make certain that we buttress our outstanding reputation as a nation in forensic science and strengthen that position for the future.

I will ask two questions of the Minister. First, what is to be done to ensure that the code is publicised and enforced? Secondly—I have spoken on this on many occasions—is the Home Office really getting to grips with other issues in forensic science and taking forward the need to keep forensic science ahead of the game, particularly in digital forensics?

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl and the noble and learned Lord who have contributed to this important if short debate. They said that this is an extremely important step forward by the Government, and we welcome it as well.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, for his introduction. I also thank my friend in the other place, Darren Jones MP, and indeed my colleague and noble friend Lord Kennedy, who would be most upset if I did not mention that he was part of the Private Member’s Bill effort which became the Forensic Science Regulator Act in 2001. That was an important step forward and shows how sometimes Private Members’ Bills can make a real difference. As noble Lords realise, the Act required the regulator to produce a statutory code of practice so that all those doing forensic science activities uphold and maintain proper standards, which both the noble Earl and the noble and learned Lord said is so important, and which indeed many forensic scientists do.

This statutory instrument is the new code of practice. It builds upon non-statutory codes of practice and integrates much of their content. Upholding good forensic science standards is absolutely vital to our criminal justice system. The code applies to all those carrying out forensic science activities: individual practitioners, academics, private and public sector organisations, or indeed forensic science units.

With those general comments I have a few questions for the Minister. A report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services showed that, when it came to digital forensics, the police have not kept pace with the scale of the challenges they face. The report said that, in some cases, they simply did not understand what digital forensics meant. It found, in the words of the inspectorate,

“delays … so egregious that victims were being failed”.

Could the Minister give us any indication of what progress has been made following the recommendations of that report?

The Home Office also considered an impact assessment on the Forensic Science Regulator in 2013, but it has not been updated since. With this new regulator and statutory code, has an internal impact assessment from 2021 been made? There was a deadline of October 2022 for all police laboratories to be accredited. Can the Minister give an update on whether that target was reached?

My last point is one that both noble Lords have made. This report is 360 pages long, and it is a really methodical and thoughtful document that will make a big difference. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, asked, what will the Government do to work with the regulator to ensure that the whole code of practice is adhered to and followed? That is the test of it. I have not read every single word, but it is a really good document. As one example, right at the beginning, in paragraph 3.1.6, the code says:

“The Regulator may also provide guidance in relation to undertaking FSAs (whether covered by this Code or not) … While such guidance is often produced in a similar manner to standards, it is not published in the Code. The guidance may advise forensic units on how to achieve and maintain the requirements set out in the Code. Non-compliance with the guidance does not, by itself, establish non-compliance with the Code, but any forensic unit which does not comply with guidance … shall be capable of showing how the requirements of the Code have been met.”

From my reading of that, guidance can be produced but it does not have to be and units can follow the guidance but do not have to, because the regulator can be satisfied in other ways. If they do not have to produce guidance that people will have to follow, that requires the Government to put on the record how they are going to work with the regulator to ensure that the very important standards, procedures and processes that are laid out in this code, which will make a real difference and improve things enormously to build on the good work that is being done, as we have heard, will be put into practice and followed.

With that, we very much welcome the code and support the Government in its introduction.

My Lords, I thank all three noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I am grateful for their considered and constructive contributions.

I pay tribute to the Forensic Science Regulator for producing such a detailed and comprehensive code of practice. The code is a significant piece of work, as befits an instrument that will help to drive up quality standards. It is long, but builds on other non-statutory codes of practice and conduct and incorporates much of their content, meaning that much of its content will already be largely familiar to forensic science providers. The code sets out for the very first time definitions of forensic science activities and specifies which of those activities it applies to. As I said in my opening remarks, this is the first time that has been done—and not just in England and Wales; this is a world first.

I turn to some of the specifics that have been raised. I thank my noble friend Lord Lindsay for his positive remarks and for the UKAS perspective. I am sure he would acknowledge that accreditation for forensic science activities is not a panacea, but experience has shown that it raises quality standards by improving processes and ensuring that if failures happen then appropriate steps are taken. In addition, accreditation helps drive standardisation to support cross-force co-operation and efficiency.

It is fair to say that achieving accreditation takes time and resources, but evidence from non-accredited laboratories has always been open to challenge in court and there is a real risk of losing cases as a result, which goes some way to answering the question from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker.

Accreditation across the board helps to ensure a level playing field and consistent quality standards, which also goes some way to answering the questions from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, particularly those around impartiality and integrity. It is acknowledged that some forensic providers and police forces have failed to achieve accreditation across a range of forensic disciplines, which can cause miscarriages of justice, abandoned trials and so on. This code, together with the powers in the Act, will allow the regulator to issue compliance notices against forensic providers that are failing to meet the required quality standards.

In answer to the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, about whether and how this will be supported by the forensic science—I hesitate to call it “industry”—caucus, as I said in my opening remarks, the office of the Forensic Science Regulator engaged in a statutory consultation which ran from 8 August to 31 October 2022. There were 110 responses with 3,000 comments from across the forensic science community—again, as I said—including from policing, academia, the judiciary and the commercial sector, with 83% of respondents overall expressing support. The private and commercial sector has actively been calling for regulation for a long time because it understands the value of quality and wants to compete on a level playing field. This is the crucial point: almost 80% of policing respondents expressed support. Based on those numbers, I think it will be largely self-enforcing. It is fairly obvious that the industry is going to be very excited about this progress.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the HMICFRS report that showed that digital forensics were perhaps a little left behind. We have invested around £10 million in this financial year—2022-23—in the new digital forensics programme in the Police Digital Service that will support forces through automation and better safeguard victims’ privacy and in other new technology to increase forces’ capacity to process digital devices. We are working very closely with the NPCC and other criminal justice system partners to understand clearly current national performance and implement the recommendations of the HMICFRS inspection report on digital forensics. The Home Office has undertaken a national data collection project which looks more widely at governance, operating models, resources, training, technical capabilities and funding, which all impact on the ability of the police to conduct timely investigations and provide high-quality forensic evidence to support CJS outcomes. However, I acknowledge that this is a rapidly evolving space, so I suspect this is a debate we will come back to at greater length in future.

In answer to the questions asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, about digital, about 90% of forces have some ISO 17025 accreditation for digital forensics, but no force yet has accreditation for all digital forensics activity. As I just said, significant progress is still required to meet full compliance. It is for that reason that the new statutory powers for the regulator are so important.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the impact assessment that was completed in 2021. It was an internal assessment for Home Office policymakers, but we will be very happy to publish that in due course.

None of this is sudden. It has been government policy for many years that providers should have accreditation for the forensic science activities they conduct. The previous non-statutory regulator regularly published timetables for providers to achieve accreditation, often giving several years’ notice. Since 2016, it has been official policy that the regulator should have statutory powers underpinned by a new statutory code. The Act received Royal Assent nearly two years ago. In answer to the question, the regulator did not expect all providers to be fully compliant by October. This is a grace period to allow those providers who are already well advanced to become formally accredited to the code before it comes into force.

I hope I have answered noble Lords’ question. Approval of the draft code of practice today will help pave the way for better and higher quality forensic science in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. However, that is not the end. The overriding need to maintain high-quality standards continues. The new powers that the Forensic Science Regulator Act provides, taken together with this draft code of practice, will help driven up quality standards, improve outcomes and maintain public confidence. I commend the draft code of practice to the Committee.

Motion agreed.