Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Forensic Explosives Laboratory: Contaminated Equipment

5.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked in another place on the use of contaminated equipment at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory, Sevenoaks. The Statement is as follows:

15 May 1996 : Column 505

15 May 1996 : Column 506

    "I hope that the House will recognise that in the regrettable circumstances of this incident the Government have taken every proper measure to deal with the consequences."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.40 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Home Secretary's Statement made in another place. However, it seems unfortunate that this information was first given in the form of a response to a Written Question and also that, as I understand it, briefing to the press began before that Written Question appeared in the House.

The Statement is disturbing since it affects the convictions of a number of terrorists. Quite clearly, it would have been courteous to make it verbally to both Houses of Parliament in the first instance. It is tragic that the sustained efforts of many police officers, lawyers and witnesses that have secured the convictions of a number of terrorists may have been placed in jeopardy. It would also be tragic were it to be found that innocent people had been convicted and served prison sentences. In either case, public confidence will have been shaken and the morale of police investigators severely damaged.

Three years ago I was a member of the Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, which examined the working of the Forensic Science Service. As part of that investigation we visited the explosives laboratory at Halstead, although technically that was outside the remit of our investigation. On the whole, we were reassured by what we found in the Forensic Science Service. However, we were concerned about, in particular, the poor communication that existed between lawyers and scientists, who quite clearly spoke different languages, and also between scientists and politicians and the Home Office. This House contains many distinguished scientists. As the Minister said in a previous debate, it is often better informed than is the other place.

Therefore, one of the important recommendations made in the report of the Select Committee was that a forensic science advisory board should be established to advise the Home Secretary on matters relating to forensic science. It is very much to be regretted that such a board has not been set up. It could have advised the Home Secretary on basic good housekeeping practices, which would presumably have included regular checks on all the equipment involved in testing for traces of explosives. It is extremely difficult to understand how a second-hand centrifuge that has been at Halstead since 1989 was not thoroughly cleaned and tested on arrival and why it has not been thoroughly checked since then.

Another of our concerns was the difficulty for the defence of obtaining independent forensic evidence. One of our recommendations was that the Metropolitan Police laboratory should remain separate from the rest of the Forensic Science Service so that to some extent there would be some sort of "Chinese wall" between different parts of the Forensic Science Service, and the

15 May 1996 : Column 507

defence would be able to obtain independent evidence and would be able to have traces of Semtex and so on checked for.

We welcome the appointment of Professor Caddy to examine these matters, and have every confidence in his ability to pursue them with great rigour and to report to the Home Secretary appropriately. It is very important that he should report within a limited timescale. There may well be innocent people in prison; or, on the other hand, the confidence of police officers who investigate terrorist outrages will be undermined if the investigation is excessively prolonged. I would welcome some indication from the Minister as to the timescale in which she expects Professor Caddy to report, so that public anxiety can be allayed and confidence in the criminal justice system can be restored.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Like the noble Baroness, also, I find it almost incomprehensible that Ministers were not frank with the House yesterday rather than being dragged down here as a result of a Private Notice Question in the House of Commons. That is simply no way to treat a matter of this degree of seriousness.

Apparently the press was informed some time between 3.15 and 3.30 yesterday afternoon--at about the time when a Statement should have been made in both Houses. That demonstrates a remarkable lack of judgment in dealing with a matter of critical importance to the system of criminal justice in this country. Is the Minister aware that the revelations that have now been made inflict further damage on our criminal justice system? Certainly I welcome the independent inquiry under Professor Caddy, a man of immense reputation. But how could such a situation arise, as it has on this occasion, after so many well publicised miscarriages of justice relating to forensic science evidence in the past? That is the point that I find the most difficult to understand.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, I find it surprising that after the failures of the past which led to the appointment of the Royal Commission under the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, the Government ignored the recommendation of that commission, of the Science and Technology Committee of this House and of the Royal Society for Chemistry that a forensic science advisory committee should be set up which would report to the Home Secretary on the performance and efficiency of the forensic science laboratories. Once again, the Government have demonstrated their indifference to independent, expert advice. Are they now prepared to admit, after this deeply regrettable error, that they have erred and that they will now appoint the committee that the Royal Commission recommended?

Is the Minister aware that the only people who are celebrating today are the IRA? Does she appreciate the sense of incomprehension among the general public that such a situation has been allowed to arise and, to take up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, the indignation among many operational police officers,

15 May 1996 : Column 508

who may face the prospect of seeing their dedicated work in the investigation of serious crime swept aside because of this disgraceful episode of incompetence?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page