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Forensic Science

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:02 pm on 20th April 2006.

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Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North 3:02 pm, 20th April 2006

First, may I make my apologies for having to leave before the sitting finishes? Ironically, I shall be comparing the role of Select Committees in this Parliament with their role in the Canadian Parliament, which draws on scientists and others, and in the United States, which has Congressmen and senators. The meeting is in Sussex, so I have to get down there to explain just how good this Select Committee is and has been.

This is another excellent report. It has fanned the flames, or lit the fire, on many issues. The Committee's position was established with the open access inquiry. I noted yesterday that the European Parliament said that we were spot-on in making all information accessible to people. That has put mud in the eye of Reed Elsevier and other publishers that believe that they are the only organisations that have the right to publish things.

The Committee has also done some sterling work on international development by showing the role of science and technology in the developing world. The Department for International Development discovered at a Committee sitting that the need for scientific advice was staring them in the face and appointed an adviser—that was probably the first such incident but hopefully not the last.

I wish to speak generally about forensic science, which involves many different individuals and agencies in research and development and in promoting understanding of the role of forensic science in the criminal justice system. Different agencies and people working together is probably the hardest act to follow—one has only to ask Sir Alex Ferguson about melding 11 supremely talented individuals into one unit. We should not be too unhappy with suggestions that that will not happen immediately and that it will take a great deal of work. That certainly is the case in this field.

Forensic science is an ever-expanding area, as we have just heard. Many private and public bodies interact with the political process: the Home Office and its Forensic Science Service, academics, research students, scientists, medics, social commentators trying to unravel the details of scientific investigations of crime, and educational and judicial practitioners. It is a busy, high-octane field and very difficult sometimes to unravel.

The report has made a dent in the situation and illustrates the problems, which are being spoken of in professional societies. Last summer, I journeyed to Lincoln to speak about the issue at a conference of forensic practitioners. The meeting took place on the day of the London bombings, and the people there knew immediately that it was not an electrical fault that caused the disastrous events that occurred one after the other. It was interesting that some of them disappeared because they had to help out with the analysis of the situation.

The report will be debated by practitioners at two other high-octane meetings, at which the Home Office will be represented. That is the level of seriousness with which the report is being taken, and the Committee—the previous one and this one—should be congratulated on its work.

Forensic science does more than provide science and technological evidence. I want to spend a few minutes on a high-profile case that was illustrated in The Guardian this week. We have heard how blood spattered on to clothes in the Jenkins case. The question was not just that blood came from an individual, and therefore the accused was guilty, but how it got there, and how it was identified at the scene of the crime whether it got there by, for example, exhalation. One must consider every aspect and not just make the obvious assumption. It is a difficult arena.

I know well the case of O. J. Simpson, the famous quarterback. Footprints and forensic and other evidence were against him, yet, in the eyes of many people who thought that he must be guilty, he managed to escape the system.

The case I want to illustrate is one that happened in Kilmarnock in my home country, Scotland. A police constable was accused of murdering a woman. Her fingerprint—I believe that it was a thumb print—matched a mark on a windowsill inside the house, according to the Scottish forensic fingerprint division. The PC, who was 35 at the time, protested her innocence. She said that she had never been in the house and worried that she might have been sleepwalking or that she had handled the wood that was used to make the windowsill. Through an internet site, she managed to contact two American experts who came to Scotland, looked at the two fingerprints and immediately said that they were not from the same person. One had been amplified, and there was a little correlation, but they were not the same. That PC's life has been destroyed, and now a famous QC in this country is calling for a public inquiry into the organisation in Scotland that carried out the test. Nobody suffered for it; no blame was attached. As we heard, the feeling of confidence, which is affected by high-profile cases, is important.

As I know from science and technological matters, one needs only one piece of bad evidence, or one media story, to destroy a whole field of study. A case such as that one could set back many years the studies that are being done in forensic science, which I shall discuss later.

Incidentally, the person who was subsequently charged and put inside also got off on the basis that, on second examination, the fingerprints were not exactly the same. That was another irony in the case.

The woman was given £750,000. The question must be asked whether she would have received compensation if the grounds for compensation were reviewed. I believe I understand, but I am not sure that the public do, whether offering evidence in an appeal that the fingerprints were not the same would allow compensation to be paid.

I use that case not as an example in the dramatic sense favoured by the media to illustrate that the system is rotten, but to get the message across that it is necessary to be absolutely impeccable. The practitioners who carry out the work must have confidence that they have the support of the system, and should not be pressurised for particular results at a particular time just to please someone in high places. People will know what I mean when I say that.

Scientific forensic evidence is not everything; the interpretation of it is another factor. When considering the probability of something happening, it is always possible to find two people who will argue about that probability. That is no exact science either. I have just been involved in a case of oesophageal cancer in Norfolk, in Norwich, and Sir Liam Donaldson tells me that the numbers are no good for the broad statistical analysis we have. We have to go to Imperial college, which will carry out a small-level statistical survey. It is quite a sophisticated process considering cadmium exuding from aeroplanes and how biological agents may traverse a county to cause oesophageal cancer. To find out that sort of epidemiological stuff means a lot of argument about probability and requires a lot of correlations. To me, such scientific and technological evidence never seems as pure as people often believe it to be.

There are serious implications for court cases. Questions about accreditation and quality assurance are mentioned in the report. If we are to raise public confidence, we must know that such processes are being considered. We must remember, too, that a Select Committee can do only a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time in a complex field and I am sure that it would not pretend to have all the answers.

It is important to build a reliable, independent service where people are not pressurised, but are credited, given time to look at things and unstressed. They must be able to gather evidence to make a fair assessment and judgment of what might have happened at the crime scene or wherever. In this country, my model is that of the Food Standards Agency. Yes, it is criticised a little, but its independence and ability to stand up, give evidence and say what it thinks independently without interference is extremely important. It might be a model for us to take into consideration.

I am also thinking of all the different experts, expertises and professionals involved in such analysis. For example, there is not just one type of chemist, as my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon knows—there are analytical chemists, physical chemists and synthetic chemists, all of whom can be involved in a particular crime scene analysis. Medical students, cell biologists and biochemists, such as Sir Alec Jeffreys, or companies that they own will be involved. Anyone who tries to get all those people to agree on anything deserves a Nobel prize in their own right. It may be necessary to talk to people at Porton Down, or experts in photonics integration—I shall not go into all the technical details. At Ipswich, they have photonics integration experts, as they do in Slough. I did not know this until recently, but they are involved indirectly in analyses of things at crime scenes.

Samples travel very slowly from here to there to be analysed, and we are moving fast as regards the practicalities of that situation. My gosh, DNA-based analysis has revolutionised how we deal with crime scenes and other things as well, such as paternity. It has been very important, but as someone who has been involved a little in DNA analysis in the running of gels, I know it is not 100 per cent. pure art either. It is possible to deploy techniques once, twice, thrice or four times and get different answers each time. In identification situations, people are identified according to three or four bands and sometimes those bands are spurious, but sometimes they are not. The analysis has to be repeated and must be carried out by people who are not continually pressurised to get the result someone might be seeking at that moment.

We are moving to a situation where analysis can be carried out at the site of the crime itself through the use of a chip, sample extraction, amplifying segments and concentration in order to separate the fragments. It is possible to get an answer within about half an hour.