Calls for monitoring body were not followed through

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The Independent Online
Following the string of grave injustices resulting from seriously flawed scientific evidence, such as Judith Ward, the Birmingham Six and the Maguire family, a key recommendation of the Royal Commission investigating the miscarriages was the establishment of an independent Forensic Science Advisory Council.

Its task would be to monitor and ensure the highest standards, performance, efficiency and achievements of forensic scientists and to inspect both public and private laboratories and their practices.

Arguably, had it been set up in 1993 when the Royal Commission reported, it may have led to the earlier detection of contamination, which had been in the laboratories for more than six years, but was not discovered until two months ago.

But the body was never set up and the laboratory in Sevenoaks, Kent - first run by the Ministry of Defence's Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (Rarde) and now an agency - was left to regulate itself. Not only did it use second-hand equipment borrowed from another part of the establishment for the sensitive tests, but staff there never properly cleaned and tested it for contamination in more than six years. Worse, they used the same metal tubes and same rubber bungs for all 500 tests carried out during the period.

Contamination of the machine - a centrifuge, used in nearly all tests for explosives to separate dirt from the samples for analysis - was only discovered by accident, when a scientist at the laboratory spilt some material, cleaned it up, but kept getting "positive results" for explosives, indicating contamination. After a search the contamination was pinpointed to the centrifuge and more specifically to a rubber bung costing pennies to replace. The explosive traces could have been there since 1989 the date the machine was installed, an initial investigation has found.

The laboratory recorded positive traces of the explosives RDX - a component of Semtex - on the hands of Daniel McBrearty, a man living in west London who had been arrested as he went to sign on. He had no criminal record and there was no other evidence against him to support charges of possessing explosives - and the charges were dropped.

Mr McBrearty and his lawyer, Gareth Peirce, have never been given an explanation for what the prosecution accepted was "innocent contamination" and were blocked from pursuing a civil action because it was not "in the public interest". Ms Peirce said yesterday: "If ever a matter was in the public interest this is."

But she and other lawyers would like the investigation by Professor Brian Caddy, a leading forensic scientist and veteran of miscarriage of justice cases, to go back further than 1989. The same Rarde laboratories, were involved in the testing of the samples which wrongly convicted the Maguire family and Judith Ward, back in 1974 - although then on a different site.

Yesterday the Home Office said that it was still considering setting up an independent body, but with lesser powers than those envisaged by the Royal Commission and later endorsed by Lord Taylor as "one of the single most important recommendations".