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The Forensic Science Regulator and Biometrics Strategy Bill 2019-21 (the Bill) is a Private Members’ Bill (PMB) sponsored by Darren Jones MP (Labour, Bristol North West). The Bill and accompanying explanatory notes were published on 21 September 2020. The Bill’s second reading debate is scheduled for 25 September 2020.

The Bill has been drafted with Government support. It is almost identical to a PMB sponsored in the last parliament by the Chris Green MP (Conservative, Bolton West): the Forensic Science Regulator Bill 2017-19. Mr Green’s Bill also had Government support but fell without receiving second reading when Parliament was dissolved for the 2019 General Election.

The Bill extends to England and Wales only. It would make statutory provision for the Forensic Science Regulator. At present the Regulator (currently Dr Gillian Tully) advises on quality standards in forensic science but does not have any statutory role. The Bill would rectify this by:

  • Placing a duty on the Regulator to publish a ‘code of practice’ for “forensic science activities”. The Bill would define “forensic science activities” as forensics within the criminal justice system but would give the Secretary of State delegated powers to expand the definition in future.
  • Empowering the Regulator to enforce forensic science standards. It would give the Regulator powers to investigate forensic science providers when it suspects they are putting the criminal justice system at “substantial risk”. The Regulator would be able to issue “compliance notices” to these providers requiring them to take specified steps. It would be able to temporally shut facilities until they meet the terms of their compliance notice.

Why the Bill?

The Bill seeks to address long standing concerns about regulation of forensic science.

At present the Forensic Science Regulator is responsible for:

  • Identifying requirements for new or improved quality standards and leading on the development of these standards.
  • Providing advice and guidance to enable forensic science providers to comply with standards.

The Regulator publishes Codes of Conduct and Practice for Forensic Science she expects all providers to comply with. At present she has no formal powers to ensure compliance.

Multiple stakeholders (including both the Commons and Lords Science and Technology Committees and the Regulator herself) have noted that a lack of effective regulation has created dysfunction in the forensic science market. There are three main areas of concern:

  • Quality of service. Questions have been raised about the quality of both public and private forensics provision. The accreditation of in-house police services is still said to be “patchy”. The arrest (in 2017) of staff at the private firm Randox Testing Services for tampering with samples raised questions about the oversight of private providers.
  • The private sector is unstable. Instability has been driven by police force procurement practices and their increased investment in ‘in-house’ forensic services. In 2019 the police service were forced to negotiate a “short term stabilisation package” with private providers to address the fact that a “vast majority” of contracts were “unprofitable and unsustainable”.
  • The current market cannot support adequate investment in research and development (R&D). Neither police forces (experiencing budgetary pressures) or private providers (operating on small margins) have capacity to invest properly in R&D.  

The Bill would put a future forensic ‘code of practice’ on a statutory footing. It would give the Regulator powers to investigate facilities who it believed were providing services that put police investigations or criminal proceedings at risk. This would allow the Regulator to take stronger action against unaccredited and non-compliant laboratories (both in the public and private sector). At present it has no powers to compel those carrying out forensics to meet the standards set in the current Codes. 

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