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Accreditation: helping futureproof the fight against fraud in the NHS

Fraud against the NHS takes many forms, ranging from false claims for treatment or the supply of goods, through to misrepresentation of qualifications and falsified time sheets.  The more sensitive, higher value, widespread and complex cases are dealt with by the NHS Counter Fraud Authority (NHSCFA).  The NHSCFA estimates that that fraud costs the NHS nearly £1.3bn a year, enough to pay for over 40,000 staff nurses or 5,000 frontline ambulances.  As frauds against the NHS frequently involve the use of technology, the NHSCFA has its own dedicated Forensic Computing Unit (FCU) whose role is to recover digital evidence for use in NHSCFA investigations and ultimately disciplinary, civil and criminal proceedings.

Since October 2017, the Forensic Science Regulator’s (FSR’s) Code of Practice stipulates that all providers of digital forensic services to the criminal justice system must be accredited to internationally recognised ISO 17025:2005 standard (general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories).  Following 18 months hard work, the FCU achieved UKAS accreditation for its two laboratories (based in London and Newcastle) earlier this year.

As one of only 13 organisations with digital forensic capability in the UK that is UKAS accredited for the imaging and analysis of computer hard drives, being granted accreditation is a badge of honour for the FCU.  Being accredited to ISO 17025 enables laboratories to demonstrate that they operate competently and generate valid results, thereby promoting confidence in their work nationally and, most importantly, in court.  Nikki Crook, Technical Head of the NHSCFA FCU said: “Having two accredited forensic laboratories is a prize that makes the months of intensive auditing and collaborative working across the organisation worth it.”

In addition to cementing its reputation within the digital forensics field, achieving UKAS accreditation has helped confirm that the FCU is operating to industry best practice.  This has helped boost confidence in the accuracy and repeatability of its results, and in turn, the integrity of the investigative process.  Crook said: “We were confident in our work previously – but getting this big tick for our processes and staff from an independent and exacting third party such as UKAS is a boost.”  The fact her unit’s labs are officially suitable, fit for purpose and competent adds weight to every witness statement and testimony required for court. It means any defence expert would be able to follow the processes defined by the FCU and use the same software to produce the same results.

Far from being a certificate to hang on the wall, accreditation is a continuous process which can help organisations keep up with best practice, something which Crook is keen emphasise.  “Although achieving UKAS accredited status is something to be proud of, that doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax.  We must now continue the good work and extend our scope of accreditation to comply with the latest version of the ISO standard, and maintain compliance with the FSR’s rigorous Codes of Practice; all while providing ‘business as usual’ that meets the very high expectations of our users.”

In turn, gaining UKAS accreditation is also helping the FCU futureproof its activities in an increasingly regulated area.  Crook concludes “ISO 17025:2005 is playing an important part in the fight against NHS fraud.  The time will come when the FSR gets statutory powers to enforce this accreditation, and the many laboratories without it will no longer be able to operate.  Fortunately the FCU will not be one of them.”