Lord Beecham: Government should be concerned about police outsourcing of digital forensic investigations
Labour Justice spokesman Lord Beecham writes following his House of Lords question on 'Outsourcing by police forces of digital forensic investigation work to unaccredited private laboratories'.
It is a cardinal principle of our criminal justice system that the prosecution should disclose to the defendant any material it holds in relation to the charges to go before the court. Much of this evidence is now held digitally, and in a number of cases which have recently hit the headlines the failure to disclose it has led to the collapse of trials, notably affecting cases of alleged rape. In one case a guilty verdict was overturned after the defendant had served four years in prison and in December and January one rape cased was dropped before trial, and two others collapsed.
Fifteen police forces have outsourced their digital forensic work to unaccredited private companies and one whose accreditation was revoked has, amazingly, continued to perform work for the prosecution.
January saw a major firm, Key Forensic Services (KFS), which served thirty police forces including the Met, collapse with around 2000 cases on its books costing an already underfunded police service millions of pounds. The Times reported that the Home Office declined to intervene such that the police services involved, through the National Police Chief’s Council, have to find the money to keep the company going for three months to process around 2000 existing cases including murder and rape. Some 30 police areas are affected.
None of this should have come as a surprise, given that as long ago as 2015 the National Audit Office warned that standards were at risk and questioned the Home Office’s oversight of spending. KFS lost over £1m in the two years ending in April 2016, yet no action appears to have been taken to review and deal with the situation before the company went into administration.
Tempting though it would be to ascribe all these problems to the Government’s infatuation with privatising key public services, not least in the justice system with dire consequences for, example, in the probation and custodial services, it is very troubling that, as I pointed out in my parliamentary question on these issues on 12th March, only 15 out of 43 police forces achieved the minimum standards required in their in-house laboratories.
The Minister, Lord Young, referred to the Forensic Science Regulator Bill, a Private Members Bill, which will give the regulator the necessary powers to enforce high standards, but the issues of the adequate funding of the police service and the requirement of accreditation for those providing the service remain to be resolved. In his reply to my question the Minister said “the Government have been clear that accreditation should be an important factor when procuring these types of services” but did not go so far as to say this would now be required, nor is it clear that this will be included in the Bill.
The Lord Beecham is an Opposition Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government, Housing & Justice. and a Labour peer