Science & Environment

Forensic Science Service closure plan criticised by MPs

Forensic scientist
Image caption The government wants the private sector to fill the gap left by the FSS

The UK government did not give sufficient consideration to the wider impacts of closing the Forensic Science Service, an MPs' inquiry has concluded.

Implications for criminal justice, research and evidence archives were "hastily overlooked" for financial reasons, the report argues.

The FSS analyses evidence from crime scenes in England and Wales. The report calls for its closure to be delayed.

The government said it did not accept the report's findings.

The FSS had been losing about £2m a month and was at risk of falling into administration, which prompted the government to announce plans to close the service and sell or transfer many of its operations.

But critics argue that criminal justice - and innovation in forensic research - will suffer as a result of the closure.

They say an over-emphasis on profits could damage the quality of science, compromising forensic evidence used in court.

The MPs agreed with the government's assessment that administration was undesirable, but they said the decision should never have been taken purely on commercial and legal grounds.

The committee, chaired by Labour MP Andrew Miller, argues that the current timeline for closure is unlikely to ensure an orderly transition.

It urges the government to extend the March 2012 deadline by at least six months.

"Things have to happen, otherwise we're going to run the risk of damaging justice in this country," Mr Miller told BBC News.

The report urges against breaking up the FSS' evidence archives which hold about 1.78 million case files and are vital for revisiting "cold cases".

The government wants private enterprise, which currently accounts for 40% of forensic service provision, to fill the gap left behind by the FSS.

'Stabilising strategy'

But police forces have been bringing forensic work in-house in order to make cost savings. The committee viewed this practice of "in-sourcing" as an impediment to the future expansion of the private forensics market.

Mr Miller commented: "We now call on the government to stabilise the market, curbing police in-sourcing, and come up with a sensible strategy for forensic science research and provision in England and Wales."

Earlier this year, crime and security minister James Brokenshire confirmed the external forensics market was likely to contract from £170m to £110m by 2015. But the report raises the possibility that it could fall to the 2015 figure sooner because police cuts have yet to bite.

Responding to the MPs' inquiry, Mr Brokenshire commented: "We don't agree with the committee's report. It mis-states a number of very significant points.

"Our focus remains on providing continued high quality forensic services to the justice system now and in the future. We remain confident that our plans for winding down the FSS will deliver this."

It said the Home Office had not consulted Dr Silverman over the decision and that the government had not considered enough evidence before coming to its conclusion. The committee added that the chief scientific adviser's satisfaction at his exclusion from the decision-making process was "unacceptable".

Police labs

A spokesperson for LGC, the UK's biggest private forensics provider, commented: "We're pleased that the select committee has focused on the need for stability in the market, the contribution that private companies can make and the need for high quality forensic science."

But the statement adds: "We are concerned that any delay in the wind-down of the FSS would simply destabilise the market still further. What we need is to stick to the timetable so that private providers can plan and invest with confidence."

Professor Peter Gill, a forensic scientist from Strathclyde University, told BBC News: "[Forensic science] needs a lot of nurturing and looking after. Otherwise, there is a definite possibility that you are going to increase the number of miscarriages of justice."

"The problem is that this is now a fait accompli... you couldn't put the FSS back together now. The real issue is what's going to happen next."

Critics of in-sourcing voice concerns about quality standards in police labs and about impartiality - pointing out that complications could arise from the police acting as both customer and provider of forensic services.

But commentators in the police cite the example of fingerprinting, which has long been operated from within forces without significant controversy.

They argue that the boundaries between in-sourcing and out-sourcing are already somewhat blurred, with police employees being responsible for managing crime scenes and for forensic submissions.

Deputy Chief Constable Chris Eyre, lead on forensic procurement at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), said: "Our key aim is to ensure a sustainable operational capability for forensics and to ensure that the criminal justice system is not put at risk through uncoordinated activity either in individual forces or regions.

"There are plans to do in-sourcing of some forensic provisions and the driver for the police service in doing so is about being more efficient and effective in how we deal with and investigate crime. Through advancements in technology, like the use of drug testing kits in custody, forces are able to be far more efficient by undertaking drug testing there and then rather than needing to delay the process by sending it to a laboratory."

Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own publicly-funded forensic science providers: the Scottish Police Services Authority (SPSA) Forensic Services and Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI).

More on this story