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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. While recording her reservations for the purposes of this debate, she nevertheless made very measured and constructive comments. I should like to take up some of those points. I am afraid that I cannot say the same for the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. The noble Lord has made the mistake of presuming incompetence before Professor Caddy has even undertaken his work. We should not in this House prejudge the outcome of the investigation of this eminent scientist.

As soon as the contamination was discovered in the explosive trace laboratory, work was stopped, the centrifuge was taken out of action and the Forensic Explosives Laboratory then instigated an immediate investigation into the source of the contamination and the implications there might be for casework samples. The report was formally submitted to the Home Office on 25th April. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary lost absolutely no time in doing what anybody in his position would have done; namely, to make sure that there was a proper investigation, that that investigation should leave no stone unturned, that it should report fully and that the results of that report should be made public in both Houses.

The press was not briefed before the House was informed. It was not briefed between 3.15 and 3.30 yesterday. It was after the House received written notice that the press was given an opportunity to ask any questions it wished to ask, and it was given answers to those questions. But there was no discourtesy to either House. The report was laid before both Houses and was placed in the Library of both Houses.

There was no oral statement for very good reasons. The full facts and the action being taken were set out in the Written Answer. As I said, the laboratory report on the incident was placed in the Library. Until we have Professor Caddy's report, there is absolutely no profit in speculating or second-guessing what may or may not have happened. It is better to have the considered view of a scientist. It is important that, when the review is completed, the House should be informed of its findings. The Home Secretary will make sure that that is the case.

A point was made about the recommendation that there should be an overseeing, overarching body. It is important to report for the purposes of this debate that there is a United Kingdom forensic science liaison group. The group came together to draft the code of practice that is in place. The noble Baroness referred to being impressed by the way in which the code of practice is working in the laboratories. Indeed, the head of that laboratory was a member of the liaison group which drew up the code of practice.

Secondly, there is the United Kingdom National Measurement Accreditation Scheme (known to many as NaMAS). It acts as an external auditor. It visits and revisits the laboratories on a six-monthly basis. It tests the systems and puts the laboratory through a fairly rigorous exercise before offering accreditation to those

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laboratories. That is a form of external audit which is very important and is, one might say, a monitor of standards. The British Standards Institute also has a role. So there is still some question mark over quite what the nature of any overarching body would be.

I was asked by the noble Baroness about the time-scale within which Professor Caddy is likely to report. He intends to come to the Home Office tomorrow to talk about how he will set about the work. As to how long he will take, we hope that he will do it as speedily as possible. But it must be a full and thorough review. It will take as long as he needs to take.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred again to the role of the Commission and the Forensic Science Advisory Council's recommendation to provide external over-sight. I have referred to that a little, but perhaps I may make one more comment on it. The existence of such a council would not have prevented an error of that kind. One can never totally rule out errors of that kind. External over-sight of the main public sector bodies in forensic science is already provided by NaMAS and, of course, by the British Standards Institute.

The Government's interim response to the Royal Commission, published in February 1994, explained that the Government were looking very carefully at the proposal for an advisory council but would need to take account of a number of reviews under way at the time. Those are now concluded. The Government will publish its final response to the report in due course, setting out their views and bringing together various legislative and other steps that have been taken or are intended to give effect to the Royal Commission's recommendations. It must also be said that it is just possible that Professor Caddy himself will have something to say on the matter. We look forward to hearing anything that he may have to say.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said that the revelations inflict further damage on the system. It goes without saying that this is a serious situation. It is bound of its very nature to dent confidence. But it would have dented confidence even more to have delayed putting an investigation in place and making sure that it would be carried out by an eminent scientist, one in whom I believe we all have confidence. That I believe will do more to restore public confidence. But there is no doubt that public confidence is an issue and I believe that Professor Caddy's work will go a long way to make sure that it is restored.

5.52 p.m.

Baroness Young: My Lords, will my noble friend accept that many on this side of the House are grateful for the Statement and the fact that an independent inquiry is to be set up, not least as a way of giving reassurance to police, lawyers and others who have been involved in those cases and who must feel, as has been pointed out, that their work might have been undermined? Does she agree that many noble Lords who have listened to the Statement and have read the newspapers would not, as she herself suggested, accept that, had there been some kind of overarching body, it

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could possibly have found out that a piece of machinery was not working properly any more than my right honourable friend the Home Secretary or any Government Minister could have found it out? After all, it is not their job to test those kind of things. Were they involved in that kind of detail, they would not be able to do the many things that they should be doing. Will she accept that it is very important that the inquiry that takes place should address its questions to the people who are responsible?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those remarks. Some of the things that we have read have been quite extraordinary. We should not be surprised at what we have read about this incident. We have come to expect hysterical responses. But there have been some very irresponsible parliamentary responses from members of the Opposition, in particular members of the Liberal Democratic Party, about this matter.

My right honourable friend has done what he should have done. An incident has been revealed to him. He has set in place an investigation. He has appointed an eminent scientist to oversee it. He will not rest until he knows what has happened and he accounts to Parliament precisely for what has happened, indicating the steps that should be taken and what should be learnt from it.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, perhaps I may commend the appointment of Professor Caddy not only because of his eminence scientifically but because he was involved in some of the earlier appeal cases against miscarriages of justice with which I was associated. Nevertheless, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that in the Home Office there is sometimes no way out. One has to face Parliament. It is better to do it earlier than later because, given the propensity to exaggerate, that sometimes makes the situation a good deal worse.

Perhaps I may put one question. What is the significance of the date 1989? Does it mean that any cases before that date have to be resurrected because of what may be discovered? Is it a firm date or is it the date when the machine came into use?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from experience, having been in the hot seat at the Home Office. He will know that the primary duty of the Home Secretary in such a situation is to see that answers are sought and that information flows freely back to Parliament, to which any Home Secretary would be accountable. I am grateful to him for those remarks.

The year 1989 is significant because the piece of equipment which has been seen to be contaminated was brought into use in 1989 in that particular laboratory. My understanding is that it was on the site at Halstead but being used by another department. As it was moved as a piece of equipment from one department into this particular laboratory, it cannot be guaranteed that it was not contaminated on entry.

Lord Monkswell: My Lord, I hesitate to say thank you to the Minister for repeating the Statement. The whole business calls into question three different areas, if I may so put it.

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The first is the way in which this Government treat Parliament. I think that is very significant. I heard yesterday on the grapevine that the press had been briefed yesterday afternoon. This morning I saw reports in the newspapers. Also this morning I read in yesterday's Hansard (it was delivered today) the Written Answer which effectively gave the information. My understanding is that it was information that was available only today rather than yesterday. It may be that the procedures and paperwork relating to the other place are rather different from those in this Chamber, but in terms of the Government informing this House, effectively we received the information a day late. So there is a question mark about the--I would put it as contempt in which this Government hold Parliament.

The second problem is the calling into question of the scientific basis of a very delicate area of our criminal justice system. It has been said before that it is amazing that such a situation should develop, given the previous difficulties and miscarriages of justice that came about as a result of precisely scientific efforts in this particular area. So the scientific basis for the forensic science part of the criminal justice system is being brought into question.

The third problem is that it calls into question the very basis of our whole scientific community. Bearing in mind that we are currently dealing with a major scientific bombshell in the shape of BSE, the calling into question of the ability of our scientific community to operate satisfactorily that this situation has raised is very unfortunate. It is very unfortunate that this whole situation appears to stem from the Government's inability to appreciate the seriousness of matters with which they are faced.

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