Forensic Explosives Laboratory

– in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 17th December 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:12 pm, 17th December 1996

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the inquiry undertaken by Professor Caddy into the circumstances and implications of centrifuge contamination in the Forensic Explosives Laboratory at Fort Halstead.

The House will recall that, on 14 May, I announced that I had invited Professor Caddy, who is director of the forensic science institute at Strathclyde university, to undertake an inquiry into the discovery of RDX, a component of Semtex, in the centrifuge at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory. Professor Caddy was asked to report on the general question whether it was likely that contamination could spread from the centrifuge to samples under examination. He was also asked specifically to examine the laboratory's papers on all past cases in which RDX traces were found and a criminal conviction resulted, and to assess the likelihood that contamination might have occurred in those cases, and he was invited to examine the laboratory's procedures in the trace laboratory, and to make recommendations.

I am today publishing in full Professor Caddy's report as a Command Paper. I have also written to Professor Caddy setting out the Government's response to his report. Copies of the report and the response have been placed in the Library.

Before I turn to the substance of the report, I should like to place on record my thanks to Professor Caddy for undertaking the inquiry. The discovery of explosives contamination in the centrifuge was a grave matter, and one that raised serious questions about the reliability of the forensic evidence that had been submitted by the FEL in some serious criminal cases. I therefore decided to commission without delay an independent inquiry into the circumstances in which the contamination occurred and the implications of the discovery.

I was pleased that Professor Caddy, one of our foremost experts in forensic science and a man of considerable experience in forensic explosives matters, agreed to undertake the inquiry. I am grateful to him for completing that important work so promptly, and for submitting a clear and authoritative report. I should also like to thank Mr. James McQuillan, of the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland, and Dr. Douglas Munro, of the United Kingdom accreditation service, whom Professor Caddy invited to assist him in his inquiry.

The key issue on which Professor Caddy was invited to give an opinion was whether it was likely that the centrifuge had contaminated forensic samples. Professor Caddy looked at all the 124 cases covering the period 1988 to March 1996 in which RDX traces were found and from those identified 14 in which such traces formed part of the evidence before the court, and in which a criminal conviction resulted.

Professor Caddy deals with each of those cases in detail in section 7 of his report. His overall conclusion is set out in section 8, in the following terms: From this evidence it can only be concluded that the results obtained from all cases remain a true measure of the presence of the explosive RDX and that no contamination of these casework samples arose from the contaminated centrifuge". I accept Professor Caddy's findings on the key question of contamination. My officials have accordingly written today to the representatives of the 14 individuals in whose cases traces of RDX formed part of the evidence before the court and a criminal conviction resulted. In the letters, they state that I do not consider that the findings of the report necessitate the referral of any of the cases to the Court of Appeal. That does not, of course prevent further representations from being made on behalf of any of those individuals; but on the basis of Professor Caddy's conclusions, I find no grounds for initiating further action in respect of any of these cases.

I shall take this opportunity to correct a minor error of fact in my written answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) on 14 May, which was repeated in my statement on the following day. As Professor Caddy has discovered, the centrifuge was brought into service at the FEL in 1988, not in 1989 as was first thought. That does not affect the scope of the inquiry. All cases in which the centrifuge was used were examined by Professor Caddy.

The conclusion that Professor Caddy has reached on the question of contamination does not lead him to minimise the seriousness of the series of omissions that allowed the contamination in the centrifuge in the trace laboratory to remain undetected for so long. He describes that as a scientific oversight which is unacceptable and is to be much criticised". Professor Caddy's terms of reference invited him to examine FEL procedures in the trace laboratory and to make recommendations. Section 11 of his report sets out 18 recommendations which, he believes, will both increase the effectiveness of the FEL and provide even greater protection from the possibilities of contamination". He sets that in the context of the overall high standards that he found at the laboratory, concluding that the FEL along with the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland are probably two of the world leaders in terms of the analytical procedures employed but especially the quality assurance programmes used to monitor the containment of trace levels of explosive". Professor Caddy has made 18 recommendations. The Government accept 17 of them in full, and work on all those is already in hand. Of the 18 recommendations, 16 primarily concern changes to existing practices and equipment at the FEL, designed to improve the work environment still further. The Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for the FEL, is already taking forward work to ensure that the recommendations are implemented without delay. Resources will be made available to implement the changes that Professor Caddy proposes at the laboratory.

Two of Professor Caddy's recommendations are somewhat broader in focus and, with your permission, Madam Speaker, I shall say a few words about each of them. I turn first to the only recommendation that the Government do not accept in full. In recommendation 12, Professor Caddy says: The initial examination of all incendiary and explosive devices should be the sole prerogative of the two UK forensic science laboratories, FEL and FSANI, working in this area. The Government agree that this work should normally be carried out at these laboratories—indeed, the great majority already is. But we believe that it would be wrong to remove altogether the discretion on the part of the police to send devices to other laboratories from time to time if there is a sound reason for doing so.

I propose, therefore, to issue guidance to the police recommending that, unless there are sound operational reasons for doing otherwise, they should in future refer all incendiary and explosive devices in Great Britain to the FEL. The Secretary of State for Scotland will issue similar guidance to Scottish forces. In Northern Ireland, the RUC already refers all such work to the FSANI. I have discussed our response to this recommendation with Professor Caddy and he has expressed himself content with it.

Recommendation 18 also deserves special mention. In that recommendation, Professor Caddy states: Consideration should be given to the establishment of an Inspectorate of Forensic Sciences as a means of externally and independently monitoring the performance of laboratories in forensic science to the satisfaction of the forensic science community, the legal profession and most importantly the general public. We accept that recommendation. We shall, indeed, consider whether to establish an inspectorate of the kind that Professor Caddy details in appendix 4 of his report, but I must also have regard to the proposals of the royal commission on criminal justice, which favoured the creation of a forensic science advisory council. Professor Caddy's recommendation implies a system of statutory regulation that is different from and more far-reaching than the approach favoured by the royal commission. I shall now consider both proposals before deciding how to proceed.

In this context, I welcome the proposals that are under consideration to set up a professional body for forensic science. I understand that preliminary meetings have now taken place involving representatives from various forensic science and other organisations. Lord Dainton—the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee in another place, which reported on forensic science—is leading the initiative as president elect. I believe that this could be a useful initiative, and I shall therefore take a close interest in the progress made.

In summary, Madam Speaker, the Government accept the substance of all Professor Caddy's conclusions and recommendations. We accept in full 17 of his 18 recommendations and have already begun to implement them. We note the professor's conclusion that all the laboratory's analyses, in both case reports and court cases, remain valid. In particular, we note Professor Caddy's key conclusion that the safety of criminal convictions is not in question as a result of the discovery of the contaminated centrifuge. In the light of this, I have decided that the report does not necessitate the referral of any cases to the Court of Appeal.

We are determined to do all we can to ensure that an incident of this kind will never happen again. The FEL has a justifiably high reputation for its experience and for the high standard of its equipment and procedures. Professor Caddy's report does nothing to undermine this position in general, although it is clear that there are lessons which must and will be learned.

I commend Professor Caddy's report, and the Government's response to it, to the House.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

May I first thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me time to read Professor Caddy's report? May I also express the thanks of the Opposition to Professor Caddy—described by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) during our exchanges on 15 May as a "distinguished forensic scientist"—for the thoroughness of his work and the independence of mind that he has brought to bear on the report? I also want to place on record our thanks to those who assisted Professor Caddy.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, although Professor Caddy raised some very important matters of concern—to which I shall refer in a moment—at no point did he question the integrity of our forensic science services or any of their staff? I am sure that the House will be relieved by the central conclusion of the report—that the evidence provided in every case during the period under examination remains valid. The Secretary of State was, however, right to entertain further representations on behalf of the individuals convicted on the evidence once they and their legal advisers have had a chance to consider the report—which, of course, they have not seen at this stage.

However, does the Secretary of State accept that some of the criticism in the report about working practices at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory is very serious? Does he also accept that Professor Caddy's conclusion at section 3.12, that "only serendipity"—a lucky happenstance—brought to light the absence of any testing during and following the installation of the centrifuge, is alarming indeed?

I want to press the Secretary of State on three other points. First, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledged in his statement, Professor Caddy recommended that all initial examinations of incendiary and explosive devices and other related evidence should be the sole prerogative of the two United Kingdom forensic science laboratories—the Forensic Explosives Laboratory and the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State said that he will continue to allow the police to use other laboratories, if there are sound operational advantages in so doing. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the strength of Professor Caddy's initial recommendations to confine all that work to the FEL and the FSANI, the use of other laboratories should be permitted only if the two main laboratories do not have the capacity at the time to carry out the investigation required by the police?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State accept that Professor Caddy evidently has significant concerns, expressed in section 9.5 of the report, about the way in which the agency status of those two laboratories might "inhibit an open exchange" between the staffs of these laboratories "because of commercial restraints"? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the commercial restraints of agency status will not get in the way of the need, spelled out in section 9, to increase the intellectual challenge to members of those staffs by their meeting each other and exchanging information?

Thirdly, I want to press the Secretary of State on Professor Caddy's key recommendation to strengthen the independence of the forensic science services generally by establishing an independent inspectorate, which is contained in section 11 of the report and which is his personal recommendation in appendix 4. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is now four years since Professor Dainton called for an independent body to oversee the service and that that was followed by the report of the Royal Commission on criminal justice recommending the establishment of a forensic science advisory council, which proposal was given further backing by the Lord Chief Justice?

Although I accept that there is some difference in the specific proposals, the Secretary of State will accept that there is overwhelming agreement among all those parties that there has to be an independent overseer of the forensic science services. Lord Taylor said more than two years ago that the need for such a body was urgent, so should not an advisory council now be established immediately, initially on a non-statutory basis because of the time that it would take at this stage of this Parliament to enact into law proposals for a statutory inspectorate, although that might well be what is needed?

Will the Secretary of State also accept that the continuing delay in the Government making up their mind about the need for an oversight body must add to the concerns that Professor Caddy expressed in his report? Was not Professor Caddy right to conclude that such an inspectorate or body is necessary "to restore public confidence" to the forensic science community who, in turn, perform such an essential role in our criminal justice system?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the measured tone of his response and for his tribute to Professor Caddy and the work contained in his report. I entirely agree that some of the criticisms in Professor Caddy's report are serious and we intend to take them seriously, as is evidenced by the extent to which we have accepted his recommendations.

On the three specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman, first, I do not intend to limit the circumstances in which the FEL and the FSANI should be used by the police to the one set identified by the hon. Gentleman. I would expect that that would normally be the exceptional circumstance in which those laboratories would not be used, but I am not confident enough of my ability to identify all exceptional circumstances at this stage and would therefore prefer not to be tied down in that way.

On exchanges of information, we accept the recommendation that there should be regular meetings, and of course it is important that nothing should inhibit the quality of those exchanges in so far as they bear on matters of the type discussed by Professor Caddy in his report.

Finally, I accept the importance of reaching a decision soon on how we can best act on the desire of the royal commission and Professor Caddy for an independent voice in relation to forensic science, but the recommendations that they made are significantly different from one another, so I am not attracted by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that I should set up a non-statutory advisory council immediately. I certainly do not exclude the possibility of proceeding, in the first instance, on a non-statutory basis, but I prefer to consider more fully Professor Caddy's recommendation and its relationship with the royal commission's recommendation, and the further developments such as those that I identified, which are proceeding, before I reach a final view on the matter.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

In commending my right hon. and learned Friend on initiating the report, may I suggest that not only the forensic science community but the public at large should take satisfaction from the report? It will restore the public's confidence in the forensic science system.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I entirely agree with that important point. It is not surprising that some anxiety was expressed when those events came to light, when I commissioned the inquiry, but I believe that the public can have confidence in the outcome of Professor Caddy's report; I agree with my hon. Friend and am grateful for his question.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the Home Secretary agree that it will be a relief for all those involved in protecting the public against the bombing campaign that, despite the errors that were made, Professor Caddy has firmly concluded that convictions are not put in doubt by what happened? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise the implicit criticism of resourcing in Professor Caddy's report? How much money will be made available for the management and research resource requirements that Professor Caddy identified?

On independent monitoring, is it not a little odd, as for at least three years the Home Secretary has resisted setting up an advisory council, that he should now use that as a reason for not setting up a statutory inspectorate? Will he at least say that he is committed to setting up a form of independent monitoring, whichever form is eventually chosen?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his first question. Indeed it is a matter of relief that Professor Caddy came to the conclusions that he reached. I do not entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the report contains what he described as "implicit criticism" of resource inadequacy; but, in answer to his question, we estimate that the cost of implementing Professor Caddy's recommendations is about £500,000, and those resources will be made available.

On the last point, the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is unworthy. There have been several developments in forensic science since the royal commission reported; they should be fully taken into account. I recognise that there is a strong case for an independent role, and I hope to reach a conclusion on that matter as soon as possible.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

The whole House will be indebted to Professor Caddy for his report. He is a distinguished forensic scientist.

The Home Secretary said that he saw no grounds for referring cases to the Court of Appeal, but he appeared to anticipate that, when legal representatives of convicted people obtain copies of the report, they might seek to go to the Court of Appeal again on the basis of what is in the report. First, as many hon. Members have not had an opportunity to examine the report, will the Home Secretary tell the House why he feels that those people may seek to go to the Court of Appeal again?

Secondly, he will recall that, in a recent case, a senior official in the forensic science service was highly criticised for his lack of qualifications by, I believe, the Lord Chief Justice on appeal. Is that person involved in any of those cases?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman was reading rather too much into my remarks. As I said, I do not believe that any grounds arising out of this report would justify any of the cases concerned being referred to the Court of Appeal. However, I have learnt over a long period not to underestimate the ingenuity of lawyers. I said that it was open to representatives of those involved in those cases to make further representations suggesting that the cases should be referred, and that any such representations would be considered.

I do not have available a specific answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I have no reason to suppose that the person to whom he referred was involved, but perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman on that matter.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I am not complaining too stridently, but the document to which the Home Secretary referred was not available in the Vote Office shortly before he rose to make his statement; therefore, I do not know what the report says about the crucial Lockerbie evidence, about which there is considerable forensic doubt. I refer to the timing device or, more accurately, the sliver of timing device, which was the subject of considerable controversy both at the Royal Armaments Centre and in the United States, where considerable doubt has been thrown on the findings of Mr. Thurman, not least by Mr. Whitehurst, another expert. Rather than answer off the top of his head, will the Home Secretary write to me in detail about this aspect of crucial forensic evidence in the Lockerbie case? It leads to the involvement of Libyan sanctions, which, as was said in the last statement, are so damaging to British industry.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Once the hon. Gentleman has read the report, he may find that the essential point that he raised is covered in it. I am, however, perfectly prepared to write to him to answer his question as best I can. I am not entirely confident whether I shall provide in my reply sufficient detail to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but I shall do my best.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin , Sunderland South

Having been familiar with Professor Caddy's work over the years, I am happy to accept his conclusion that none of the forensic evidence in any of the cases has been disturbed. However, a number of cases in the not too distant past involved mistakes—or worse—by forensic scientists. Two problems have arisen: one is that an unhealthily close relationship developed between the police and some forensic scientists—in the Guildford case, for example, they were not above rewriting their evidence at the police's suggestion; and the second is that forensic facilities have often not been available to the same extent to defence lawyers, so they have been unable to test the prosecution's propositions. Is the Home Secretary satisfied that both those problems have now been resolved?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

That matter is, of course, quite beside the matters that gave rise to Professor Caddy's report, and quite beside his report. I have no reason to suppose that defence lawyers do not have adequate facilities to enable them to benefit from forensic science, but that matter is not directly raised as a result of the report.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

Those of us who have spent years working in laboratories will have listened to the statement with astonishment. It is basic to any analytical procedure that a test is run first on possible contamination of all the instruments involved. We have heard today of incompetence on a mountainous scale. It is hard to believe that a centrifuge was left in that condition for a prolonged time. Is the contaminant to which the Home Secretary referred the only indicator of the presence of Semtex or are there other indicators? Although it is impossible to argue with the conclusion made by a report that few of us have read so far, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us for how long that centrifuge was contaminated, and whether RDX is the only indicator of the presence of Semtex?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall resist the temptation to accept the hon. Gentleman's invitation to go into areas of technical expertise that I do not possess. I am satisfied that, when the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to read the report, he will find his concerns fully and more than adequately dealt with. There were serious shortcomings, as Professor Caddy reveals in his report, although I am not sure that they add up to the kind of criticism contained in the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson , Nottingham South

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement and Professor Caddy for his report. Will the Home Secretary comment specifically on the case of John Kinsella, whose name was included in the review even though he was not convicted on the basis of any forensic evidence that suggested that he had been in touch with Semtex? I know that the Home Secretary has been reviewing that case in detail and, I believe, has now received the statements from Pairic MacFhloinn in prison, who has accepted responsibility for the Warrington bombings and who has said, on record and specifically, that my constituent, John Kinsella, had no knowledge of the contents of the holdall with which he was left. Can the Home Secretary add any further comments on the review that he has undertaken, specifically in relation to John Kinsella's case?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No, I am afraid that I cannot add anything this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the basis on which representations have been made in that case is not connected with the presence of explosives. He is also right to say that representations have been made in that case; they are currently receiving careful attention in the Home Office.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Like many Members, I have not read the report and therefore cannot quarrel with any of its conclusions. In his statement, the Home Secretary accepted the view that there should be some degree of independent examination of the work done by the Forensic Explosives Laboratory, but specifically excluded the sending of samples to any other laboratory for testing. Those two points seem to contradict each other. When does the Home Secretary propose that an independent testing regime will be set up? After all, we have had a shocking exposé from Professor Caddy of serious shortcomings in the laboratory.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I think, with respect, that the hon. Gentleman slightly misunderstood what I said. Far from saying that I would not agree to have samples sent to other laboratories, I rejected, in part, one of Professor Caddy's recommendations that samples should be sent only to the FEL and FSANI. The Government's view is that, although that should normally be the case, there are circumstances in which it would reasonable for the police to use other laboratories. I cannot give a specific timetable for my decision on an independent role, but I recognise the need to come to a view on that matter as soon as possible.