HC Deb 15 May 1996 vol 277 cc953-62 3.34 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the problems arising from the use of contaminated equipment at the forensic explosives laboratory, Sevenoaks.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

As I explained yesterday in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), on 14 March 1996 a small amount of the explosive RDX, one of the main components of Semtex, was detected in a part of a centrifuge at the forensic explosive laboratory. The laboratory is part of the Ministry of Defence's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency but provides scientific support to the police and Crown Prosecution Service in cases involving the criminal use of explosives.

One of the services that the laboratory provides involves the laboratory analysis of swab samples taken to determine the presence of explosives and the type involved. That "trace" analysis involves a range of procedures, including the use in many cases of a centrifuge.

The contamination involved not more that 30 micrograms, or 30 millionths of a gram, of RDX. It was detected in a part of a laboratory centrifuge that was probably already contaminated on its arrival at the forensic explosives laboratory in 1989. By normal standards, the amount of explosive detected was tiny; nevertheless, it should not have been there.

The contamination was discovered following one of the laboratory's weekly quality assurance exercises. As soon as it was discovered, work was stopped and the centrifuge taken out of operational action. The forensic explosives laboratory then instigated an immediate investigation into the source of the contamination and any implications there might be for casework samples.

As I told the House yesterday, all the information from that preliminary investigation was laid before the Government in a formal report. A copy of it was placed in the Library yesterday.

There is a small theoretical possibility that casework samples showing RDX traces may have been affected by the centrifuge contamination. Regular quality assurance tests are undertaken by the laboratory. In addition, every time the laboratory examines a casework sample it also tests a control. Neither of those checks at any stage indicated RDX traces at a level that would suggest that casework samples are likely to have been contaminated. However, further investigations are required to determine precisely how the incident occurred and what the implications are for the criminal cases involving RDX in which evidence was submitted by the forensic explosives laboratory.

That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I agreed that an independent review should be established to look into those matters. As I explained to the House yesterday, the terms of reference of that review will be to report on the general likelihood of contamination being spread from the centrifuge to samples in the laboratory; to examine FEL papers on all cases in which RDX traces were found and a criminal conviction resulted, and assess the likelihood of contamination; and to examine FEL procedures in the trace laboratory and make recommendations.

As the House knows, I have invited Professor Brian Caddy to undertake that review. Professor Caddy is Professor of Forensic Science at Strathclyde university and is a renowned expert in the field of trace explosives. He was involved in the appeal cases of the Birmingham Six on behalf of the appellants and advised the Maguire family for the May inquiry.

Professor Caddy will report to me in the first instance, but the results and recommendations of his review will be made public, and I will, of course, bring his findings to the House. In advance of that, as soon as a definitive list has been established, and agreed with Professor Caddy, the representatives of those whose cases involved an RDX trace and resulted in a conviction will be notified. As I said yesterday, on present information it is thought that about a dozen cases could be involved.

I will consider in the light of Professor Caddy's report whether particular cases should be referred to the Court of Appeal. If any case is referred to that court, it will then be for it to weigh the evidence and decide how to proceed.

From the information presently available to me, it would appear that the risk of contamination is small, but in a matter of this importance and sensitivity, I am determined to act only on the basis of the most rigorous and independent scientific assessment. As I have already said, I will keep the House fully informed of the outcome of Professor Caddy's review and the measures that flow from it. It would be wrong to leap to assumptions about any case until we have clear scientific evidence on which to base proper decisions. I hope that the House will recognise that in the regrettable circumstances of this incident, the Government have taken every proper measure to deal with the consequences.

Mr. Straw

Does the Secretary of State accept that what we now know about fundamental flaws in the forensic testing of explosives is bound to weaken public confidence in the criminal justice system and that we may end up with the worst of all worlds—innocent people in prison and the guilty walking free? Given the seriousness of the situation, does he not understand that if he had come to the House of his own accord yesterday he would have earned credit for his approach? Instead, through his tawdry attempt yesterday to bypass the House, he has made a serious situation worse.

Was it not treating the House with contempt that journalists were told by the Secretary of State's office on Monday that an important announcement was imminent and that they were briefed at 3.15 pm yesterday while Members of Parliament were kept in the dark until the last possible moment? Contrary to the impression that he has just given that the flaws emerged as a result of a routine weekly test, will he acknowledge what is spelt out in paragraph 3.1 of the report: that nothing would have come to light but for the pure chance of an accident in the laboratory in which, unusually, a glass centrifuge tube broke?

Is the Secretary of State not aware that serious anxieties about quality control in forensic laboratories have been expressed time and again and that on every occasion to date, Ministers have shown breathtaking complacency in resisting proper independent scrutiny of their work? Why have Ministers so long refused to act on the views of the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is chaired by Lord Dainton, and on the specific recommendations of the royal commission on criminal justice that there should be established a forensic science advisory council to report to the Home Secretary on the performance, achievement and efficiency of those laboratories?

In particular, why did the Secretary of State ignore the strident warning by Lord Chief Justice Taylor in 1994 that the establishment of such a council was "urgently needed" and "overdue" in view of the increasingly competitive environment in which the laboratories have to operate? Given what we now know, was not the Lord Advocate, in responding for the Home Secretary in the other place in February, wholly ill-advised to claim that there was "no necessity" for improving the regulation of the laboratories? What does he say now to the calls from Lord Dainton and the Lord Chief Justice? Is not the Royal Society of Chemistry right that the case for the establishment of such a body is unanswerable? Is not the Secretary of State directly and personally responsible for the failure to act on the recommendations made to him?

On the report that the Secretary of State published yesterday, is it not extraordinary that the history of this centrifuge is not known with certainty, that no one has so far been able to say from where it was purchased—second-handand— that no proper records were kept of its cleaning? Will he say how long Professor Caddy's inquiry is likely to take, whether he is satisfied that all possible cases where the tests could have been contaminated have been identified, and how many defendants may be involved? Will he also accept that the scope of the inquiry must be widened so that once Professor Caddy has completed the most urgent task of investigating the consequences of this contamination, a much more extensive review must be undertaken into the working practices of all forensic science and explosive laboratories?

Does not the way in which the Secretary of State has handled this grave matter expose a disastrous combination of arrogance and ineptitude, sadly all too typical of the Government, which will make it more difficult properly to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system?

Mr. Howard

As to the oral statement, the full facts and the action being taken were set out in my written answer yesterday to a parliamentary question, and the forensic explosives laboratory report on the instance was yesterday placed in the Library of House. Until we have Professor Caddy's report, I can give no further information and we move increasingly into the realms of speculation without the facts.

I have absolutely no intention of following the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) into the realm of speculation which was the basis of every question that he put to me. My concern is to give Parliament and the public the facts, not to second-guess the independent reviewer whom I have appointed. I have asked Professor Caddy to report as soon as he can consistent with a rigorous, thorough and comprehensive report.

I shall deal with one or two of the other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that it is not true that the press were briefed yesterday before the answer was made available to the House. My understanding is that the briefing commenced at 3.30 pm. That is the best of my understanding. That is what I have been told in answer to the questions which I have raised.

But the one thing above all which emerges from this regrettable incident and the way in which it has been handled by the hon. Gentleman and his cronies on the Opposition Front Bench is that they will stop at nothing to try to make political capital out of any incident. It is a disgraceful approach to serious matters of this kind and it will do the hon. Gentleman and his reputation no good whatever.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the prompt and thorough action that he has taken in this serious matter. Will he confirm that, of the dozen or so cases concerned where Semtex formed an important part of the evidence, the majority of those cases had evidence other than Semtex to be seriously considered and, therefore, it becomes less likely that in those cases the persons concerned will be released?

Finally, is it not preposterous for the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to suggest that had there been an independent forensic council it would have detected at Sevenoaks some contamination of a rubber bung at the bottom of a test tube upon which some of the equipment had rested? The whole thing is preposterous. The Opposition are trying to make a mountain out of a very small molehill and are discredited by the stupidity of their attempt.

Mr. Howard

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will forgive me, but I do not propose to confirm the point that he put to me as to whether there was other evidence in the cases that we have so far identified as candidates for further investigation because I do not wish to engage in any speculation on any of those questions. I have asked Professor Caddy to look at them, but until we have his report the least said about any of the cases the better. I can confirm to my hon. and learned Friend that, so far as I can see at the moment, he is right in saying that the establishment of a forensic science advisory council would not have had the slightest bearing on this regrettable incident. But on that too, a final view must await Professor Caddy's report.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

For how long was the Home Office aware of the information that was revealed yesterday before it was put in the public domain? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that in the Forensic Science Service, equipment is tested and quality-assured in a way which enables the records of all the equipment that is used for forensic testing to be traced? Will he further confirm that in the Forensic Science Service, no analytical results are relied upon unless blank tests have been carried out first? When outside laboratories are used—as was the case here—why are the Forensic Science Service's high standards of checking apparently not used? Will he assure the House that, in future, the Forensic Science Service will be able to set the standards used by outside laboratories before analytical results from those laboratories are used in evidence?

Mr. Howard

Let me first deal with the sequence of events. The preliminary results were reported to the Home Office by the forensic explosives laboratory on 19 April in a draft report. The final report was formally submitted to the Home Office on 25 April. I was fully briefed on the matter on 26 April, although I had been given a general oral account of the discovery on 22 April. In conjunction with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I then considered what action should be taken. It obviously takes a little time to decide upon the form of inquiry that is appropriate, and to identify and approach the person who is best qualified to carry it out. When that process was complete, I brought the matter to the House. I simply do not see how I could possibly have acted more expeditiously. I believe that I accounted to Parliament at the earliest possible moment.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) referred to the Forensic Science Service, but was not gracious enough to apologise to the service for his intemperate attack on it on the "PM" programme yesterday. He either had not read the written answer before he went on that programme—it was available for a full hour and a half before he made the broadcast—or, having read it, he had not understood it. The hon. and learned Gentleman is wont to make wild accusations without the slightest evidence to support them in a way which brings himself and his party into increasing disrepute. He should apologise to the Forensic Science Service at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that as soon as the laboratory discovered the contamination of the equipment, that equipment was taken out of service and an investigation was commenced immediately? Does he agree that the answers to questions such as that are important, and not the characteristically synthetic indignation of the Opposition?

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is an important point, and I can confirm exactly what he said. The piece of equipment was taken out of action as soon as the matter was discovered.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I ask the Home Secretary a question of which I gave his private office notice? Are there any implications for the Lockerbie situation? In particular, will Professor Brian Caddy—who some of us know to be a distinguished forensic scientist in Scotland—be specifically asked either by the Home Office or by the Crown Office to look at the crucial work of Dr. Hayes and Dr. Fereday, as that is central to the Lockerbie situation? Will he give that undertaking? He could easily say yes.

Mr. Howard

It would not be remotely appropriate for me to give any such undertaking. Professor Caddy, to whom the hon. Gentleman has just paid such fulsome tribute, is in an excellent position to decide what material he needs to look at, whose opinions he needs to consult and what investigations he needs to carry out. That is why I have appointed him to carry out the scrutiny.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Having a forensic laboratory in my constituency and having visited it a number of times and seen the range and excellence of its work, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to dissociate himself from the Opposition's attacks on the forensic service? Will he also pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the many people who work in it to underpin our justice system?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is right. It would be quite wrong, as I have repeatedly said, to rush to any premature conclusions before we have the results of Professor Caddy's work. There is no evidence so far to indicate that any prosecution has been flawed by evidence contaminated in the way that has been the subject of such widespread speculation. But it is important that no stone be left unturned in the investigation, which is what I have asked Professor Caddy to do.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Home Secretary aware that, quite apart from the individuals concerned, there is bound to be international concern about these cases? Time and again when trying to deal with terrorism, which causes so much suffering and destruction, it is unfortunately the British criminal justice system that seems to be on the defensive. That does this country great discredit abroad. All in all, has this not been a bad day for justice?

Mr. Howard

If any concern has been caused abroad, it is much more likely to have resulted from the hysterical attitude of the Opposition parties than from the fact that the Government have, in public and at the earliest possible moment, said that we have found something worthy of investigation and that we will have it thoroughly and independently investigated.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that a democratic criminal justice system, even if it has faults, is infinitely preferable to a terrorist system of summary executions in which all the victims are innocent and no victim has a chance of repeal or review before being murdered?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes his point with characteristic vigour.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I do not think that it is the Home Secretary 's role, or that of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, to examine test tubes in forensic laboratories—although that might be a suitable occupation for them after the general election. Nor do I have any criticism of the arrangements that the Government have made, apart from the fact that they failed to make a statement to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—shortly to be my right hon. Friend—had to ask a private notice question to elicit the information.

What I am worried about is the role of Professor Caddy. The Home Secretary seemed to say that the onus would be on the professor to recommend cases for examination on the basis of his inquiries. Surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman's duty is to inform the legal representatives of anyone convicted, however remotely, by forensic evidence of the presence of Semtex. Thereafter the onus should be on the legal representatives to make representations and force the Home Secretary to take the cases to the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. We have already made it abundantly clear that we intend to do precisely that. Once it has been identified that there is some evidence that could have been contaminated in a particular case, the solicitors for the defendant concerned will be notified as soon as the information is available.

Then the question of whether any such cases should be referred to the Court of Appeal will arise. In taking that decision I and—no doubt—the Criminal Cases Review Commission, once it is fully in operation, will place great significance on the work of Professor Caddy. I believe that we intend to approach the matter in precisely the way the hon. Gentleman suggests we should.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Is it not a bizarre spectacle to see Opposition spokesmen leaping on 30 millionths of one gram of Semtex on the off-chance of hitting my right hon. and learned Friend over the head with it? Is it not irresponsible that that political action may put at risk the convictions of terrorist murderers?

Mr. Howard

There is no limit, as we have seen yet again today, to the irresponsibility of the Labour party, but it is something that we have become well used to.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Does the Home Secretary understand that it is extremely important to clarify which cases will be reviewed so that the speculation about the rights of appeal can be ended fairly quickly? In that context, does he recall that, on 31 August last year, I referred in some detail to him the case of my constituent John Kinsella, who was convicted of involvement in the Warrington bombings, despite the fact that he has never been owned by the IRA, his involvement has been denied by one of the self-confessed bombers and his conviction was based only on his handling of a holdall in which the bombers had concealed the Semtex? Will John Kinsella's case be one of those that has been referred for review?

Mr. Howard

I will not indicate the cases, because we do not yet have the information that we need to do so definitively. Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that the matter is clarified as soon as possible and that the cases are identified as soon as possible, and I hope that we shall be able to do so quickly. As for the case to which he referred, the material that he submitted to me in relation to that case is currently being studied.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend been told by his Home Office scientific advisers that any contaminant in a centrifuge is highly unlikely to get in contact with anything being tested in an encapsulated test tube? Does he not find it extraordinary that the person who purports to be the shadow Home Secretary finds people guilty first and innocent later?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend has extremely accurately characterised the findings of the preliminary report. That is exactly what that report says, but it goes on to say that it would be prudent and responsible to commission a further independent inquiry, and I have done precisely that. I entirely agree with the points made by my hon. Friend.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

In the light of cases such as those of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven, surely the Home Secretary realises the sensitivity of these issues. When will he stop blaming the Opposition for the incompetence in his Department and take some responsibility for those areas that he purports to be in charge of?

Mr. Howard

What I blame the Opposition for is the hysteria with which they have approached this whole matter, the unnecessary alarm that they have caused by engendering and fuelling speculation about specific cases and the disgraceful way in which the hon. Member for Blackburn identified about a dozen realms of speculation in which he invited me to join him this afternoon.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The way in which my right hon. and learned Friend has dealt with this matter so far has been exemplary. [Laughter] Does it not amount to this—that Professor Caddy is an acknowledged expert in his field, he is carrying out on independent inquiry, and he will have full access to all the information and records? Unless Opposition Members are seriously suggesting that the Home Secretary should personally check every glass test tube in use in a process like this, there is nothing for which he should be reproached.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I agree with the points that he made. No suggestion made by the Opposition would surprise me. I should not be at all surprised if they did think that I should check every test tube personally.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has not it crossed the Minister's slippery mind that the public are getting more than a little weary of Governments blaming the Opposition for the Scott report, for BSE, and now for this, and throwing in a few scientists and blaming them at the same time? Should not he be big enough, now and again, to carry the can? He is the Minister; he is in government. He has been in court more often than anyone else in Britain. He is a recidivist, and it is time that he resigned.

Mr. Howard

As it happens, I am not the Minister who is ultimately responsible for the agency. I am answering this question because that agency, which is a Ministry of Defence agency, was carrying out work under contract for the Home Office, and I am interested in the implications for the cases where there just may have been some information affecting the verdict of the jury in those cases. I am concerned about that. That is why I have come to the House. That is why I, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, have commissioned this independent scrutiny. We have done exactly what we should have done in these circumstances.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Given that the Home Office knew about the contamination on 15 March—as the Minister has just told us—can the Home Secretary explain why the information has not been made public until now?

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Lady had listened to my answer to the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), she would have realised that what she has just said is arrant nonsense. Moreover—if she had got the date right, which she did not—she would have heard a full answer to her own question.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that samples of blood or urine taken from persons suspected of drunken driving are divided into two parts. One part is analysed on behalf of the prosecution, while the other is given to the defence so that it can be subjected to independent analysis if the defence so wishes. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into whether a similar procedure is used, or should be used, in the case of other criminal offences, especially those involving the handling of explosives?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I shall see that it is drawn to the attention of Professor Caddy.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

At least 12 convictions may be declared unsafe as a result of the Home Secretary's statement today. Will he ensure that he makes a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity—certainly before the summer recess—identifying the specific cases concerned? I hope that, if he can do nothing else, this sorry episode will provide conclusive evidence enabling him to make a decision about the remaining prisoners, who have now been waiting for seven months to be repatriated to prisons in the Irish Republic. I hope that he will make that decision today: it would provide some recompense for the extraordinary dilatoriness that he has shown so far in regard to this urgent matter.

Mr. Howard

I find it impossible to follow what passes for logic in the hon. Gentleman's question. There is absolutely no connection between one matter and another.