(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the developments surrounding the alleged manipulation of forensic evidence at the Randox and Trimega laboratories in Manchester.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question and apologise on behalf of the Home Secretary that it is me responding to her. I should also like to take this opportunity to place on record my congratulations to Prince Harry and his fiancée.
In January, Randox Testing Services informed Greater Manchester police that there may have been a manipulation of test results at its laboratories. Ongoing police investigations have since uncovered the possibility of the same manipulation having occurred at Trimega Laboratories. Criminal investigations by Greater Manchester police into the alleged manipulation of toxicology results are ongoing. The House will therefore understand that I must be cautious in my response, but I want to assure Members on both sides of the House that the matter is being treated with the utmost seriousness, given the need to retain public confidence in our justice system.
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. I laid a written ministerial statement on this matter before the House on 21 November. I understand completely that public confidence in the justice system is absolutely vital, which was why the written ministerial statement noted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, who is in the Chamber, will be overseeing the review process for individual cases and will work closely with Ministers from other Departments who are impacted by the outcome of this investigation.
Retesting in criminal cases has been under way since May and is ongoing, and the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and coroners will be contacting affected individuals once the outcomes of the retests are 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 to consider whether any action is necessary to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities. It is unlikely that decisions about the welfare of children will have been taken solely on the basis of toxicology test results, but the Department for Education has asked local authorities to assure themselves that the rationale for decisions made about children’s safety and wellbeing 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 created an application form to allow 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 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.
Does the Minister accept that this is the biggest forensic science scandal for decades? It involves not only data that includes evidence used in sex cases, violent crimes, driving cases and unexplained deaths, but the liberty of subjects, so does he understand the concerns of victims and of people who might have been convicted on the basis of unsafe data? Is it true that Ministers did not consult the chief scientific adviser on the decision to privatise the Forensic Science Service but merely informed him of that decision two weeks before announcing it?
Is the Minister able to tell the House how long it will take for all the retesting to be completed? Is he able to say more about the scale of the problems at the two named laboratories? When will he be able to provide the House with full details, subject to legal proceedings? Are any other labs under suspicion? Is he able to specify the likely cost to the public purse arising from retests, appeal procedures, and possible litigation and compensation payments? What is the Government’s response to the likely human cost of incorrect forensic evidence in family court cases? What is the scale of comparable costs in criminal court cases?
Does the Minister agree with Professor Peter Gill, one of Britain’s most distinguished forensic scientists, who said that it was difficult to imagine the scandal having occurred under the Forensic Science Service, when scientists were routinely sent mock cases that were checked as a quality control? He stated:
“When you get rid of that system the quality is quite difficult to maintain”.
Does the Minister accept that many stakeholders, including those in forensic science, believe that the problems and the allegedly faulty data that we are now seeing flow directly from the misconceived decision to privatise the Forensic Science Service?
I start by agreeing wholeheartedly with the right hon. Lady that this is an extremely serious matter. Members on both sides of the House will completely understand why it could be unsettling for any potential victims—there is no doubt about that at all. At its heart, this matter is about public confidence in our justice system—it is as serious as that.
Where I do disagree with the right hon. Lady—we are coming from a different place on this—is when she tries to squeeze this into a Labour political narrative around “public good, private bad.” I simply tell her what the independent Forensic Science Regulator has expressed:
“No reasonable set of quality standards could guarantee to prevent determined malpractice by skilled but corrupt personnel”.
I would go further. I think that there is general understanding and agreement that there has in fact been increased stringency in the standards and quality requirements for forensic science within the CPS—[Interruption.] There is muttering on the Labour Benches, but this has been driven by the Forensic Science Regulator, who in 2011 published the first codes of practice and conduct for forensic service providers. I am not at all sure that we could have regulated against this situation.
The right hon. Lady asks about testing. I can confirm that 70% of top priority cases are already in the system for retesting—there are around 10,000 cases in relation to Randox. I cannot answer some of her other questions because they fall within the boundaries of the police criminal investigation.
I understand the right hon. Lady’s point about costs and the impact on the criminal justice system, about which we are obviously concerned, but it is too early in the testing process to be making judgments. If we are to have a clearer view of the impact, we will need to see where that process leads but, as she would expect, we and our colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are monitoring it very closely.
Order. I am keen to try to conclude these proceedings by 4 o’clock, if possible. This is an important matter, but there is a statement to follow and a very, very heavily subscribed continuation of the Budget debate, which colleagues will want to factor into their calculations when asking questions.
Perhaps the Minister can help us a little more on this very serious matter. Can he give us some idea of the dates over which this alleged wrongdoing took place and how they relate to the changes in the Forensic Science Service? What percentage of the samples involved were or were not used for evidential purposes in criminal cases or others?
My hon. Friend is entirely right that what is alleged goes back over many years—[Interruption.] Some of the issues at the other organisation may go back as far as 2010. My central point is that any attempt to try to link this to the FSS issue is driven by tribal politics, rather than clear assessments of the underlying reality.
It is imperative that the public trust forensic science testing and, by extension, criminal and civil justice as a whole. There were warning signs about the firm’s predecessor, Trimega, which had seen children almost taken into care on the basis of erroneous evidence. That major mistake should have been a red flag to the Government, so why were they not alert to the risk presented by the Randox lab, given that its predecessor had such a poor record?
Does the Minister agree that the privatisation of vital elements of the justice system without proper oversight can lead to errors or deliberate tampering, and that the cost both to the individuals affected and to confidence in the justice system outweigh any money saved? Finally, what steps will he take to restore the public’s faith in forensic expert evidence and the justice system as a whole?
I clarify that, although there are possible employee links, Trimega and Randox are separate organisations. Trimega was doing something different and was subject to a different regulatory regime—for better or worse, the regulatory regime in relation to the family courts has always been lighter. However, I completely agree with the hon. Lady about the seriousness of the allegations and the issue underlying the investigation into Randox, which is why, following the analysis of what has been done, I believe that the Government and the system have acted very quickly to respond to the information we received in January 2017 by setting up proper processes of retesting and prioritising these cases.
To reassure my constituents, will the Minister confirm that, for the most serious family and criminal cases, it is highly unlikely that a decision would have been made solely on the basis of one individual toxicology test?
I do believe that to be true, and my understanding is that in some of these family cases more than one test will be taken. However, that does not take away from the uncertainty that people involved in these cases may feel, which is why my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice have set up a bespoke process that people can access quickly under which they can request that their case is reviewed.
In passing, it is worth noting that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) and I were Home Office Ministers, we ruled out the privatisation of the Forensic Science Service. But my question to the Minister is this: if wrongdoing by a private sector company is found in due course, what penalties will be levied against it?
How nice to have been a Minister before the age of austerity. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is that he is jumping the gun in terms of the police investigation. We should let Greater Manchester police do their work.
Obviously this is extremely serious. Can my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is providing all the necessary support so that the police can prioritise testing live cases?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Again, I am satisfied, having reviewed our process, as I do regularly, that the system and the gold command, which was set up very quickly, have done a good enough job of prioritising cases and getting retesting going as quickly as possible. As I said, the last numbers I saw suggested that 70% of the priority cases were in the system for retesting.
Is the Minister able to say whether Randox’s contract has been suspended? Is he able to say, in general terms, whether a company that was guilty of manipulation would have to pay all costs associated with retrial, for instance?
As I understand it, the police have suspended all contracts with Randox. Randox is co-operating with us fully on identifying the priority cases and getting the retesting done as quickly as possible. On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about future costs, I refer back to what I said before: we need better evidence about the impact on cases.
The Minister accuses Labour of politicising the forensic service, yet it was his Government who chose to privatise it out of the mistaken and ideologically bankrupt view that everything is better when it is done in the private sector for the profit motive. Will he now distance himself from that ideology and recognise that public confidence in the justice system requires public servants?
I refer the hon. Lady to what I said before and to the view of the independent regulator, who arguably knows more about this than anyone in the House. She has expressed the view that
“no reasonable set of quality standards could guarantee to prevent determined malpractice by skilled but corrupt personnel”,
which it looks increasingly clear is what has happened. That is what the independent regulator has said, and I am really sorry if it does not correspond with the views of the Labour party.
Professor Peter Gill is the most distinguished forensic scientist. He did magnificent work on DNA mass profiling. His authority is unquestioned, and he warned that what happened with privatisation would lead to the present situation because of a lack of trust in results. I have spent my working life in laboratories, so I know how highly prized the integrity of scientific results is. This is a very rare situation, with an accusation having been made, and I am afraid it is the Government who have taken a political stance on this. The Opposition and the scientific community are absolutely right to be deeply concerned.
As I said clearly at the outset, I do think that the situation is extremely serious, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s diagnosis that it may be a rare one. Again, I repeat the view that the regulator has reached about the efficacy of any standards of regulation to prevent
“determined malpractice by skilled but corrupt personnel”.
Again, I place on record the progress that has been made since 2011, when the regulator published the first codes of practice and conduct for forensic science providers. I do think that there is increased stringency in the standards and quality requirements for forensic science, and that matters enormously because of the way this underpins confidence in forensic science within the criminal justice system.
The Minister does himself no credit when he says that this is a tribal issue. I direct him to three reports—not one or two—by the cross-party Science and Technology Committee that criticised his Government’s Home Office for not consulting Professor Silverman, who was the scientific adviser to the Home Office. I also suggest that he reads the evidence—three times—from Dr Tully, the Forensic Science Regulator, who said that murderers and rapists will go free because of the changes that the Government made. Not one party but all parties came to that conclusion. Given what appears to have happened in my constituency, will the Minister, after the courts have dealt with the matter, look into conducting a full review of forensic science services?
As I have made clear, this is an enormously important issue. We need to get hard evidence of what happened and its impact on the system, and all lessons will have to be learned from that process. I know that the Opposition do not like it, but the point I am trying to make is that the urgent question was about what happened at Randox, not about the privatisation of the Forensic Science Service. As the independent regulator said, there is no link.
I used to work for the NHS as a clinical scientist, and every test that we did in our laboratory, including toxicology testing, was subject to rigorous internal and external quality control standards. It is my understanding that the Forensic Science Regulator has no statutory authority over private forensics laboratories. When will the Minister give the regulator statutory authority?
In the 2016 forensic science strategy, we committed to placing the Forensic Science Regulator on a statutory footing by the end of this Parliament. We are seeking the appropriate parliamentary opportunity to do that.
The Minister does not seem to be aware that senior police officers think that the Forensic Science Service has been a mess ever since privatisation, with long delays affecting victims and the wider justice system. One reality of the current situation is that there will have to be significant retesting, which will cause further delays. The Government have to look into this matter and reviewing the decision to privatise needs to be central to that process.
I agree that retesting is the priority and that that needs to be done as quickly as possible—that is a Government priority—but I do not think that revisiting the decision on the Forensic Science Service is a priority. As I have said, that decision was taken in 2011. We have seen increased stringency in the standards and quality requirements. We should not be revisiting those old arguments.
Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), the Forensic Science Regulator said in January that she needed statutory powers to enforce regulation as soon as possible—not in 2022, but as soon as possible. Will the Minister think again?
I do not need to think again. I have said we are going to do that and that we are trying to find the right parliamentary opportunity to do so.
Children’s social services and judges make decisions on adoption and fostering on the basis of forensic science services. What assurance can the Minister give, especially in relation to adoptions since 2010, that children have not been removed from families on the basis of false forensic information? What conversations has he had with Ministers in the Welsh Government about the failings of the Forensic Science Service with respect to Welsh adoptions?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, who is sitting next to me, has written to all local authorities to ask them to review the cases in which the organisations in question may have been involved. As I understand it, he should be receiving all the evidence by the end of this week and we will take it from there.