The government is in denial over the impact of the police investigations into a potentially major scandal concerning Randox and Trimega, two private providers of forensic service to the justice system. Ministers have attempted to downplay the impact of the scandal as well as it causes. They are very misguided to do so.
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What is at question is whether the privatisation made the manipulation of test results more likely or made it more difficult to detect.
Diane Abbott MP’s exchange with the minister on this topic took place on the 27th November
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?Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department
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.