Darren Jones – 2020 Speech on the Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill

The speech made by Darren Jones, the Labour MP for Bristol North West, in the House of Commons on 25 September 2020.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Further to the Minister’s point of order, I am sure I speak for the whole House when I express our condolences following the tragic death of a police officer in Croydon overnight. For most of us, it is impossible to comprehend what the officer’s family, friends and colleagues must be going through this morning, and the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the House are with them.

Like other Members who have had the strange fortune of winning a parliamentary raffle for private Members’ Bills, I spent the first weeks of this strange year being inundated with submissions making the case for the noblest crusades and the worthiest causes, as well as some of the strangest. I realise that, at first blush, the minimal changes proposed in this Bill may seem a little arcane or marginal, but my purpose today—to give the Forensic Science Regulator the statutory powers necessary to do its job—is, in reality, an urgent and necessary one for the functioning of our criminal justice system.​

Access to high-quality forensics is vital so that victims and defendants get the justice they deserve, prosecutions are successful and our system commands and justifies the public’s confidence. Poor-quality forensics, as noted by the regulator, has without doubt lead to the failed prosecution of criminals and a failure to secure justice for victims. As it stands, the market for providing forensic services is flawed, with grinding delays, gaps in capacity and skills and a lack of real competitiveness. The first step in fixing it is to enable the regulator to enforce effective standards, which I hope the House will support me in doing today. It will not take a forensic scientist to note that the title of my Bill also anticipates action on the biometrics strategy, which is no less essential but will have to wait for another time, and I will speak more about that later in my speech.

The profusion of acronyms that, of necessity, opens the Forensic Science Regulator’s annual report gives some sense of the range of scientific disciplines and expert processes on which our justice system must rely. It incorporates not only crime scene investigation but digital forensics, drugs and toxicology analysis, firearms and ballistics, the comparison of tool marks and footprints, as well as DNA and fingerprints. For even the most established forensic practices, the maintenance of high standards is vital to the course of justice, but rapid advances in technology continue to reshape the tools with which forensic scientists can collect, store and analyse evidence and data, as well as the nature and complexity of the crimes they are working to combat. We therefore rely on experts to do that work for us and to present it in a way that is intelligible, accurate and reliable. As the regulator’s report observed last year:

“Courts should not have to judge whether this expert or that expert is ‘better’, but rather there should be a clear explanation of the scientific basis and data from which conclusions are drawn, and any relevant limitations. All forensic science must be conducted by competent forensic scientists, according to scientifically valid methods and be transparently reported, making very clear the limits of knowledge and/or methodology.”

Isolated slip-ups in the science threaten to imprison the innocent and exonerate the guilty. The potential for ubiquitous failings—made more likely by shortfalls in skills, expertise and funding—risks not only isolated miscarriages of justice but the integrity of the entire system. The stakes, therefore, are uniquely high. Plainly in such a world we should expect robust, mandatory and enforceable quality standards for the providers of forensic science, matched with an oversight regime with the independence, the teeth and the resources to do its job.

That insight is what inspired the creation of the office of the Forensic Science Regulator in 2007-08. It was tasked with enumerating those standards, ensuring the quality of providers and processes, assessing the soundness of the scientific techniques being used, and monitoring the competence of the individuals carrying them out.

In its inaugural mission, the Forensic Science Regulator was tasked to

“influence the strategic management of UK forensic science to place quality standards at the heart of strategic planning”.

That, among other issues, formed the seeds of the regulator’s present shortcomings. It can encourage police forces and their providers to seek accreditation, but it cannot compel compliance. It can establish assessments ​but not enforce their results. It can advise the Government of the day, but it does not weald any power on the market.

Virtually since its creation, therefore, the office and the voluntary model of regulation centred on it have been visibly short of the teeth they need. It is operationally independent, but unable to compel the change that is required.

Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve with the hon. Gentleman on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which he chairs. I am interested in his observations about the non-statutory powers since 2007-08. To what extent does he have evidence that the absence of statutory powers has had an impact on particular cases? That may be something he wants to speak about in more detail.

Darren Jones

I share the hon. Gentleman’s delight at serving together on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. The evidence speaks for itself, to stretch a metaphor when we are talking about evidence. The Science and Technology Committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as the Government’s own reviews and the Forensic Science Regulator’s annual reports, have all pretty much concluded the same thing: where standards cannot be enforced by providers and the validity of the forensic process is brought into question in prosecution, miscarriages of justice will have followed. The forensics regulator has been pretty bold in making that case in her annual report to Parliament. That is why, I am pleased to say, there has been broad consensus on the measures brought forward in the Bill to ensure that she can enforce the standards for more providers of forensic services.

That is why successive Governments have been notionally committed to putting the regulator on a statutory footing for nearly eight years. Many right hon. and hon. Members have called for this for a long time. That is what underpinned the conclusions of the reports from the Science and Technology Committees in this House and the other place that I mentioned to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller).

Last year the Science and Technology Committee, of which I was a member, concluded in its inquiry on this issue that

“the Regulator—now more than ever—needs statutory powers.”

A couple of months earlier, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee had said:

“It is hard to understand why…the Forensic Science Regulator still lacks powers they need… The Forensic Science industry is in trouble; such action is now urgent.”

The regulator herself said in the report:

“Legislation is urgently required to give the…statutory enforcement powers”

needed to do the job properly.

I therefore appreciate the Government’s willingness to co-operate in seeking to carry the Bill, and the support of the Minister and his officials in producing the Bill and the explanatory notes, and in helping to secure the Bill’s passage through the House today. It is ​especially important that the Bill does pass today, because the availability of these services on time and to reliable standards is often patchy.

When the then Government announced the wholesale closure of the loss-making Forensic Science Service in November 2010, the Science and Technology Committee warned that they had failed to give

“enough consideration to the impact on forensic science research and development (R&D), the capacity of private providers to absorb the FSS’s 60% market share and the wider implications for the criminal justice system.”

That warning has proved prescient. Today, many scientific processes are conducted in-house by police forces, but this is piecemeal in its extent.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward the Bill, which I understand has a fair chance of success. Clause 6(4) allows the regulator to prohibit a person from carrying out forensic science activities. Where that person is employed in-house at a police force, as he describes it, what would happen to the employment status of that individual?

Darren Jones

I think that is an important enforcement question. Of course, this has been one of the bedrocks of the voluntary model: where services are provided that do not meet the accredited standard, either by a private provider or in-house by a police force, that has just been able to continue. How a police force dealt with an in-house service that did not reach the accredited standard would be an issue for that police force, but I suggest that it might either bring its service up to the accredited standard or have confidence in the private sector market to find a provider that met that standard, which would be enforced by the regulator. I have every confidence that every police force across the country wishes to do this in the right way; there has been a huge amount of pressure on them to do so previously.

Kevin Hollinrake

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I do not object to the clause. I welcome the fact that, unlike under most regulators, individuals will be held to account, not just the organisation. My question is: where an individual who is employed by a police force is held to account, might disciplinary proceedings be taken against that individual, for example?

Darren Jones

It is not for me to conclude on that issue in debate on a private Member’s Bill. My personal view, for what it is worth and to entertain the hon. Member’s intervention, is that one would not want an employee to be dismissed as a consequence, but they might receive further training to meet the accredited standard and be able to continue their duties. However, as I say, it is not for me to judge an employment issue in such a setting.

As a consequence of some of the points that the hon. Member raises, individual services are often outsourced by police forces, but a lack of clear incentives for providers to seek accreditation, given the overriding need to compete on price, has created a vacuum of accountability. Last year’s House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report set out the situation. Their lordships concluded:​

“Simultaneous budget cuts and reorganisation, together with exponential growth in the need for new services such as digital evidence, have put forensic science providers under extreme pressure. The result is a forensic science market which is becoming dysfunctional and which, unless it is properly regulated, will soon suffer the shocks of major forensic science providers going out of business and putting justice in jeopardy… This is not just a budget issue: structural and regulatory muddle exacerbates the malaise. There is no consistency in the way in which the 43 Police Authorities commission forensic services. Some Police Authorities have taken forensic investigation predominantly in-house whilst outsourcing some services to unregulated providers. These actions call into question equitable access for defendants and raise issues over the quality of the analysis undertaken and the evaluation of the evidence presented.”

Their lordships therefore recommended that

“the Forensic Science Regulator should urgently be given a number of statutory powers to bolster trust in the quality of forensic science provision.” This is a multi-layered challenge that defies simple political or partisan characterisation, but the enduring message is that consistent standards, consistently applied, must be foundational to the effective provision of a forensic service across the whole country. Although forensic evidence is generally of good quality, the consequences of a market that is failing to perform that function to measurable standards are, of course, serious, specific and widespread.

The Home Office commissioned a joint review of the provision of forensic science, which identified a growing perception about the risk of unsafe forensic evidence and demonstrated the twofold impact of an inadequate enforcement regime. Some judges, the report noted,

“were not specifically aware of accreditation requirements or”

the Forensic Science Regulator’s codes of practice, and defence lawyers expressed concern that

“perceived compromises regarding quality standards meant that challenges to the integrity of forensic evidence presented in court could soon become routine.”

I think that it is of value for us to pause and reflect on that submission to the Government’s review. Defence lawyers had a concern that the forensic science process itself was being used as a mechanism to provide arguments in prosecution cases. Of course, the service itself should not be the basis for such submissions.

Richard Fuller

Frequently, regulators fall back on a requirement for statutory enforcement powers, citing that they are not in a position to be effective with the powers that have been given to them, whereas the issue could be that the regulators are not effective in using the powers that they already have. I admit that that is more usual in the economic sphere and there may be particular issues in the legal sphere, but in his research in preparing the Bill, has the hon. Gentleman reached any conclusions about how well the existing powers are being used versus the requirement for statutory underpinning?

Darren Jones

Yes, and the repeated conclusion, not just from the regulator but the other officials and bodies I have mentioned, is that the powers that the regulator has been given for some time—since 2007-08, when the office was created—are not sufficient to bring providers up to the accredited standard. There has been strong messaging, encouragement and co-ordination to try to bring providers up to the accredited standard voluntarily, but that has still not happened. After many years of trying, the regulator and others have concluded that statutory enforcement powers are required. On the evidence, that seems a reasonable request.

​Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

Following up on that point, is it right that the regulator already has problems with codes of practice and conduct? The annual report refers to the fact that there has been a delay in publishing issue 5 of those codes but that it would be published in early 2020. Has it now been published? Why are those non-statutory codes not sufficient?

Darren Jones

The regulator has been able to introduce codes of practice, but where they have not been followed, she has not been able to enforce them, which is one of the main issues today. As I understand it, the codes of practice are published in co-ordination with the Home Office, so perhaps the Minister can give an update on the outstanding codes that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

The market’s dependence on large or specialised service providers is not an abstract concern. We know that the resulting fragility, which already existed because of a lack of competition in the market, has had damaging effects on people in the criminal justice system. The collapse of key forensic services in 2018 is a case in point. To manage the fall-out from that collapse, police forces contracted other commercial providers to take on the resulting workload, creating system-wide capacity constraints. The appalling consequences that the Forensic Sciences Regulator laid out show that some cases, where forensic science may have provided valuable information or evidence, could not be processed. In addition, there was evidence of an increased error rate during this period, as well as an unsustainable strain on staff working overtime.

I am sure that all hon. Members agree that that is an unacceptable position for part of the criminal justice system to be in and that we should do our best to try to fix it. At the risk of straying a little beyond the immediate scope of the Bill, I urge Ministers to recognise the systemic issues that such cases highlight. Giving the regulator statutory powers will raise standards but cannot by itself mend a broken market. In the medium-term, the only way to get forensics right is through sustained investment in people, processes and skills.

I am sure that other hon. Members will have examples on which to draw, but the way in which violent sexual crimes are prosecuted makes an especially clear case for why statutory powers are so important. Such crimes, which are subject to unique challenges in obtaining convictions, often rely on DNA evidence as the critical element of a prosecution case. It is therefore vital that the possibility of contamination, for example, at sexual assault referral centres, is minimised as far as possible, yet the regulator’s 2016 annual report highlighted instances of DNA swabs being contaminated through unrelated case handling of different victims on the same day. Clearly, that is unacceptable.

Ensuring adherence to the regulator’s quality standards is a basic precaution, as victims and the general public rightly expect. However, the cost of testing to achieve compliance has meant that the commissioners of affected centres are unlikely to co-operate unless the regulator is empowered to require that. That inadequate incentive structure gets to the heart of why the current soft regulatory model is so weak for existing markets. The regulator’s highest aspiration is to create a competitive climate, in which underperforming or corner-cutting suppliers are unable to acquire contracts.

Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)

Will the hon. Gentleman also consider a problem in the digital sphere if there is no effective market for delivering services digitally? If victims of the worst crimes have their smartphone, which is so critical to many people’s lives, taken from them and it takes a long time for it to be returned, that will add to and compound that individual’s distress.

Darren Jones

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased to see him in the Chamber today, given his previous valiant efforts to try to secure a similar outcome in the previous Parliament. He makes an important point in respect of digital forensics, which, we know from the evidence reported to us in the House, has been in increasing demand, given the nature and complexity of modern crimes. There also seems to be a lack of expertise, skills and capacity to deal with that. There have been incidences reported in the media where victims have, for example, had all their data on their mobile phones downloaded at the point at which they have reported a crime. There are pretty significant questions about whether that is the right balance and approach: what the framework is around that, what happens with all that data going forward and whether that is the right approach to take. That, of course, comes to the questions around accredited standards for digital forensics.

With the market dominated by a few large players, and niche processes or specialised capabilities often, in practice, offered by a single small provider, the cost of achieving and retaining certification is frequently seen as a greater impediment to competitiveness than the ability to demonstrate the quality of their work. With the majority of affected forensic work conducted in-house, the absence of statutory regulation has meant that police forces themselves have come to the view that accreditation is a low priority for time and investment. Statutory regulation would therefore enable a path to competition on the basis of quality and encourage new providers to enter the market. Police authorities would not only be more accountable for the procurement decisions they make but better able to make the case to the Government for investment to enable funding safe, high-quality forensics.

I do not wish to present the Bill today as a panacea, but that kind of regulatory environment should be the baseline for a competitive market in services as publicly important as these. That aspiration is key, because although there is ample cause to regret that manner in which the forensic science service was shut down, the Bill seeks to improve and build on the marketised approach as it exists today, rather than seeking to turn back the clock. That is why making this change commands, in my view, such universal expert and political consensus.

In what form, then, could objections possibly be taken? I am conscious that a small minority of practitioners, for example, have previously expressed concern that a statutory regulator would mean essentially sound practices being invalidated on technicalities and leave robust prosecutions open to unfounded but seemingly credible defence challenges, but that is emphatically not a risk created by this proposed legislation. The enforcement and investigatory powers it seeks to create are not directly rooted in compliance with quality standards but justified by substantial risk that the course of justice will be prejudiced by reliance on the science conducted ​by these practitioners. As such, the only providers with a meaningful basis for concern are those whose work entails risk of that order. Most providers take the rules and codes of practice that govern their work, and the sense of public duty that comes with it, extremely seriously. Only a minority of bad actors have anything to fear from a system that begins with the aim of rewarding quality work done in good faith.

The same essential need for intelligent, enforceable and responsive regulation underpins the case for action to address the increasingly widespread collection, storage and use of biometric data. As I have already said today, the title of the Bill offers some clue to my initial aspirations on that front, but I take the Minister and the Government at their word that solutions are en route. They need to be, in my view, because this is an area in which it is even clearer that innovations and technology will consistently outpace the capacities of primary legislation and where current law leaves an intolerable vacuum for the abuse of new and developing biometrics.

In that context, and very briefly today, I would like to draw colleagues’ attention to the independent review of the governance of biometric data commissioned by the Ada Lovelace Institute, which I understand is due to report its conclusions next month. The findings, I suggest, would represent one of the most authoritative contributions to the debate on how we govern biometrics, and I hope Ministers will take full account of them.

The general data protection regulation defines biometric data in fairly bloodless terms as the information that results from

“processing relating to the physical, physiological or behavioural characteristics of a natural person, which allow or confirm the unique identification of that natural person, such as facial images”.

Some of the processes we are talking about, such as fingerprinting, are well established and the limits on their use well defined, but the potential for abuse created by the speed with which technologies for processing other kinds of biometric data are advancing should make clear the need for political oversight to keep up.

Clearly, that does not begin and end with, for example, automatic facial recognition, but the worry that the technology simply is not ready for roll-out has been debated on the Floor of the House in the past.

The Minister for Crime and Policing (Kit Malthouse)

I wish to acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s strong point that technology is moving at great speed in crime, as it is in all our lives, and to draw his attention to the fact that we were the only party that stood on a manifesto commitment—it was buried in our manifesto at the general election—to create exactly the robust legal framework to which he refers. I am hopeful that we will get movement on that quite soon.

Darren Jones

I am pleased to hear that from the Minister. I confess that I did not notice that in his party’s manifesto, but on the basis of his confirmation to the House, I look forward to the tabling of comprehensive legislation. I can confirm to the House that, although it may not have been in our manifesto under the previous Labour party leadership, I will do my best to ensure that it is in the next one.

I believe the Minister when he says that he wants to get this right, and the Government will have a partner in me when they get around to it, but time is of the ​essence. I sorely hope that the Bill fires the starting gun today on a period of revitalised thinking in the Government about how to regulate technologies in the public interest. I want to be a participant in that effort.

The Bill is as evidence-driven and task-focused a piece of legislation as it could be. Putting the regulator in statute is a matter of broad political consensus. As I have said today, on a cross-party basis in both this House and the other House, and among experts in the field, the regulator and, indeed, the Minister and the Government, there is consensus that the Bill should be given its Second Reading today. It will make good on a commitment, first made by the Government in 2013, that the regulator says is necessary if it is to do its job effectively. Finally, it will create a basis of quality enforcement, on which we can build a better-functioning market, and is plainly the right thing to do. On that basis, I commend my Bill to the House.