HL Deb 21 May 1998 vol 589 cc191-2WA
Lord Merlyn-Rees

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support proposals from the forensic science community for the creation of a Registration Council for Forensic Practitioners. [HL2043]

Lord Williams of Mostyn

We are pleased to announce the Government's support for the creation of a forensic science registration council, in line with the central recommendations made by the industry's own working group in December 1997. The working group, which was chaired by Lord Lewis, was established following an initiative by the Forensic Science Service.

The council's aim will be to promote and maintain high standards of competence, practice, discipline and ethics among forensic science practitioners. It will be non statutory, self-financing, self-regulating and independent, with input from users. The council will operate on a three tier basis, comprising:

a council, to include legal, lay and expert members, and incorporating a disciplinary panel;

an executive/registration board which would set the criteria for registration and operate the register; and

assessment panels which would assess qualifications and competence for each specialism within the forensic science community.

The council will build on and incorporate existing expertise and infrastructure using the experience of a wide range of professional bodies which already operate in this field.

While considering the working group's recommendations on this issue, the Government also looked at the other outstanding proposals for the oversight of forensic science put forward by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (which reported in 1993) and by Professor Caddy in his report of December 1996 into the contamination incident at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory. The Royal Commission and Professor Caddy recommended the establishment of a forensic science advisory board and an inspectorate of forensic science services respectively.

The Government considered all three sets of proposals very carefully. In light of the progress made in recent years by the forensic science industry to promote quality and standards, including the external accreditation of laboratories by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service and the British Standards Institute, we believe that the registration council offers the most practical way forward. The registration council would undertake a number of the tasks proposed for the advisory board and inspectorate, but would do so in a way which complemented existing structures for maintaining standards in the industry. We share the view of the previous administration, as set out in their final response to the Royal Commission (published in June 1996), that there is no need for the far wider remit envisaged for the two alternative oversight bodies. Many of the functions identified for the advisory board and inspectorate could only be fulfilled effectively with some form of statutory regulation, which the Royal Commission itself did not see as justified. The Government concur with this view.

It is important that any new arrangements for oversight command the support not only of forensic practitioners but also the end users of their services. We are pleased that the proposals to establish the registration council for forensic practitioners have received the overwhelming support of the forensic science community, as well as considerable backing from those in the wider criminal justice system.

Once fully established, the aim would be for registration with the council to become expected of those presenting expert forensic evidence in court. This would not preclude those who are unregistered from giving such evidence, although we believe such instances will become rare. It will also remain open to the courts to hear evidence from non-registered persons whose expertise is in a field outside the normal range of forensic science. As now, such decisions will remain a matter for the court to determine.

Although it is the intention that, once fully established, the registration council will be self-funded, the Government have agreed that they will provide financial support to help with the start-up costs. Such funding will be for an initial period of two years.

The setting up of the registration council will be a significant step forward in further raising quality and standards in the forensic science industry. Taken together with the other measures already taken by the industry, the council will do much to enhance the standing of forensic science in the criminal justice process.