The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System: A Blueprint for Change (1 May 2019, HL paper 333 of session 2017–19) said that the evidence it had heard pointed to a decline in forensic science in England and Wales. The committee noted this general decline had also been identified in numerous reports published over the previous decade, including reports from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and the forensic science regulator.
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee attributed this decline to the following factors:
[…] an absence of high-level leadership, a lack of funding and an insufficient level of research and development.
It also argued this had been exacerbated by the abolition of the forensic science service in 2012 by the then Coalition Government When the Government announced its intention to close the service in December 2010, the Government-owned forensic science service provided 60 percent of forensic services to police forces in England and Wales.
The reforms recommended by the committee included:
- The establishment of a forensic science board. This would co-ordinate the work of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, making sure the departments worked more closely together. It would also be responsible for the “coordination, strategy and direction” of forensic science in England and Wales.
- Reform the role of the forensic science regulator by expanding its remit and providing it with more resources. The committee also said the Government should deliver on its commitment to give the regulator statutory powers, originally made by the Coalition Government in 2012.
- Enable the forensic science regulator to work with the legal aid agency to set fair prices for forensic testing.
- Increase investment in digital forensic evidence techniques.
- Establish a national institute for forensic science. This institute would set the strategic priorities for forensic science research and development and coordinate funding.
The Government’s response to the report was published in July 2019. It welcomed the committee’s recommendations. It said that one of its “immediate priorities” would be giving statutory powers to the forensic science regulator. It also said it would take action to stabilise the market for forensic science services.
The Government said it would establish a forensic policy steering group, co-chaired by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. This was intended to ensure closer collaboration between the two departments. The Government also said that it was working in consultation with the Criminal Justice Board to review the objectives, membership and constitution of this group.
The Government confirmed it would consider the business case for establishing a national institute for forensic science. In the meantime, it said that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice were working closely with UK research and innovation to set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development.
House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report
In July 2019, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report on the work of the forensic science regulator. The report also recommended that the regulator should be given statutory powers, enabling it to set legally-binding standards for forensic services. It argued this was necessary because of instability in the forensics market, which it described as “on the brink of collapse”.
Criminal justice board forensics sub-group
In 2019, the Government dissolved the forensic policy steering group. It was replaced by a new body, the criminal justice board forensics sub-group. The Minister for Policing, Kit Malthouse, has described the remit and composition of this body as follows:
The sub-group operates on behalf of the Criminal Justice Board to provide high-level leadership and oversight of forensic science in the criminal justice system.
The sub-group is jointly chaired by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, bringing together stakeholders from across policing and the criminal justice system to ensure that forensic science capability and delivery is effective for all relevant parties.
The then forensic science regulator, Dr Gillian Tully, argued in her 2019 annual report that the composition of the sub-group was more representative than its predecessor. She argued it offered a greater opportunity for coordination between the police, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and others. As such, she described it as “well placed to advise on issues facing forensic science”. However, she argued the Government needed to do more to provide better leadership on forensic science policy.
Digital forensic science strategy and the forensic capability network
In July 2020, the national police chiefs council published its digital forensic science strategy. This included measures intended to improve the coordination of forensic services across police forces. The national police chiefs council has also launched the forensic capability network. This is intended to provide support to police forces in accessing accredited forensics services.
The forensic science regulator confirmed in her 2019 annual report that the forensic capability network had been delivering support to police forces since its establishment. She also noted the network had been attempting to address instability in the commercial market for forensic science services. However, she said more needed to be done to stabilise the procurement and provision of forensic science services by police forces.
Forensic Science Regulator Bill
The Forensic Science Regulator Bill was introduced during the 2019–21 session. This is a private member’s bill introduced in the House of Commons by Darren Jones (Labour MP for Bristol North West). The bill would put the forensic science regulator post on a statutory basis. It would also give the regulator powers to enforce a statutory code of practice.
The bill has received the support of the Government and has completed all of its stages in the House of Commons. The bill was debated in the House of Lords on 19 March 2021 at second reading. During the debate, the chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Lord Patel (Crossbench) supported the measures in the bill. However, he argued the Government had missed the opportunity to address other issues identified by the committee. These included, expanding the role of the forensic regulator to address the “dysfunctional market of provision of forensic services”. He also argued the bill did not address the lack of coordination and resources in forensic science research and development.
Speaking at the end of the second reading debate, the Home Office minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, said the Government had provided investment to support improvements in forensic science provision. She said this included support for the national police chiefs council’s forensic capability network.
No amendments were tabled to the bill after second reading. The House passed a motion agreeing the ‘order of commitment be discharged’, allowing the bill to proceed to third reading without receiving a committee stage or report stage. Third reading took place on 22 April 2021. The bill is currently awaiting royal assent.
Creation of a forensic science institute
In October 2020, Jane Hunt (Conservative MP for Loughborough) asked the Government what discussions it had had on the merits of establishing a forensic science institute. In his response, Kit Malthouse said the Government was still considering the case for establishing a national institute. However, he said that, since the publication of the House of Lords Science and technology Committee’s report, the Government had provided funding for the forensic capability network. He said part of the remit of this network was establishing of priorities for forensic science research and development. He also said the Government and UK research and innovation had established the science for the justice system advisory group. This group would also help coordinate forensic science research in the UK.
- House of Lords Library, ‘Forensic Science Regulator Bill’, 16 March 2021
- House of Commons Library, ‘Forensic Science Regulator Bill 2019–21,’ 10 March 2021
This article was updated on 23 April 2021 following the third reading of the Forensic Science Regulator Bill in the House of Lords on 22 April 2021.
Cover image by Michael Longmire on Unsplash.