Unlike the last debate, when we did not have enough colleagues to fill the time, it appears that we now have a number of colleagues who wish to participate in this debate. I should like everyone to have a chance to speak, but it is up to hon. Members to determine how many I can call.
It is a pleasure to see you, Mr. Amess, in the Chair for this very important debate. I am pleased to see that we have before us the same Minister who announced the reorganisation of the Forensic Science Service. His announcement came the day that we had a change of Home Secretary—a good day, it seems, to get bad news out. Members of Parliament were not given any prior warning of the news. In fact, we had the media on the phone telling us what was happening. That is not a good way for the Government to do business; in fact, it is a very poor way.
Let us set the background of where we are at and from where we go. Of course the announcement was bad news. We are talking about a review of seven sites. I hope that the Minister will stand up and apologise to hon. Members. The Home Secretary has taken the trouble to say sorry for not giving advance warning, but why should he apologise? He knew nothing about it. The decision was made while one Home Secretary was going and another was arriving. I hope that the Minister stands up now and apologises so that we can see what a decent chap he is. Does he wish to stand up? No. I think that that sums it up. That tells us everything about how this matter has been handled. It has been pretty appalling, has it not?
On 8 June, the Forensic Science Service launched a collective consultation in readiness for reorganisation of the business. As I have said, the timing of the announcement was particularly good—as one Home Secretary departed and another took office. It was a good day to bury bad news. In light of the Minister’s timing, I hope that he will be able to provide very comprehensive answers to all our questions, and that he will not simply hide behind the argument, “Nothing to do with me, guv. This is an operational matter for the FSS.” We do not want to hear that. This is about ensuring that crimes are solved in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I raised this issue in the House on 11 June, just days after the announcement. To be fair to the Minister, who is a decent man of integrity, he wrote to me a day or two later, giving me the statement for which I asked. However, I was alarmed by what the letter said. Will the Minister agree, when he winds up, that the decision has been inevitable for a long time? His predecessors have undermined the ability of the FSS to perform to its full potential by actively encouraging profiteers in a service that should be about public interest and not commercial gain. That is the concern of Labour Members, who have been raising the matter for months and months. Now we see that up to 800 jobs may be going, which is appalling.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, but this has been going on not for months but for years. This Minister has not approached me or other MPs. We were in regular contact with the Minister who used to have responsibilities for the FSS, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), and we discussed all the issues with her. There were discussions from start to finish. What has changed? We now have a Minister who does not believe in Back Benchers. What we have is a technocrat. We have stopped doing politics because good politics is about talking to Back Benchers and to the representatives of the sites that are down for potential closure. That is what politicians should do, but technocrats do not do that; they just accept decisions. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong and show that he is not a technocrat and that he is going to do politics, because it is about time that he did. I am disappointed in him because all the other Ministers took the time and the trouble to speak to us and explain what was going on and the rationale behind the decisions. Unfortunately, we have not seen that from this one. If the Minister wishes to intervene, I will give way at any point so that he can clarify his position and why he has taken a different role to others.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only did the previous Minister meet us to talk courteously about the matter, to try to get us to understand where the Government were coming from, but she also offered to go with us to visit some of the facilities, particularly the one in my constituency in Vauxhall?
I would welcome this Minister to Chorley. I hope that he does not pass judgment and allow things to happen without visiting sites and understanding the quality of the work that takes place, and the importance of that work. This decision is about privatisation. I have now found out that the chief executive is leaving and a new one is about to come in. He is Mr. Simon Bennett from QuinetiQ—[Hon. Members: “Oh no!”] We all know about QuinetiQ and how to become a billionaire: run a business, privatise it, fill up the bank account and off we go. Is that what is really behind the decision? It seems very strange that the chief executive who announced the closure programme and set out the rationale for it should be replaced. Surely the new chief executive should be the person who reviews the situation of all the sites—unless there is a hidden agenda, and I think that we should tease out that hidden agenda. The Minister must be up front and honest with us.
The Forensic Science Service states that as a consequence of the reorganisation, there is likely to be a headcount reduction of some 30 to 40 per cent. of the total work force. That change will take place over the next 18 months. It is against that backdrop that I applied for the debate, and I want to highlight my concerns about the Chorley site and the impact on the whole of the Forensic Science Service.
The Forensic Science Service is a leading provider of analysis and interpretation of evidence from crime scenes. It provides a comprehensive service from crime scene to courtroom and analyses more than 120,000 cases each year. It is the market leader in the supply of forensic science to the police and coroners in England and Wales. It is also a supplier to places such as the Isle of Man, the overseas territories and other Commonwealth countries. It has a global reputation for excellence in the development and deployment of new and advanced techniques. Its heritage and expertise also provide the basis for world-class training services.
As someone who supports the free market, may I say that I share the hon. Gentleman’s grave concerns about the limits of such a decision and about allowing private companies to provide evidence that could be used in murder trials? He has been critical of some Ministers, but will he pay tribute to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who has said that we will have an emergency investigation of this matter in the next two weeks, before the recess? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage anyone with relevant evidence to come before that Committee to make a strong case for keeping the FSS open.
I welcome that very important news. It sends a simple message to the Minister: stop anything going ahead and stop the plans now to allow that Committee to do its vital work. We welcome that news and I hope that the Government take heed of what has been said. It is on the Minister’s shoulders. It is no use him saying, “It’s not me, guv.” We do not want bully boys in suits. We want to ensure that honesty comes across in this Chamber, and for him to take on board what we have to say. We want him to listen, and to learn from previous mistakes. QinetiQ is a big mistake.
The Minister’s letter of 17 June has been mentioned. I genuinely believe him to be honest and open. In it, he said:
“We are committed to FSS’ survival as a core player in the forensics market and a vital part of the Criminal Justice System, and are investing considerably in the transformation programme.”
It is true that there is considerable investment, but I was disappointed with the words “a core player”; it should say “the core player”. The FSS ought to be the dominant player—it sets standards of professionalism and it is a beacon. It is a great pity that forensic science has been fragmented in a way that will allow the FSS to be sold off in three years’ time, which is the plan.
I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend. In fact, the problem is that the small players in the market are cherry-picking the work. That is what it is about. We know that the FSS is second to none in the world. Cases that would not otherwise have been solved have been solved by the FSS. Do we really believe that private companies will go back to cases from 30 or 40 years ago to solve murders, rapes and other serious crimes? The answer is no. It is because of the professionalism within the FSS that that can be done.
The FSS has held the evidence and is ready for the day when it can solve those cases. The private sector will not do that. We know what the private sector is about: it is about making money and answering to shareholders, not answering to victims of crime. The danger is that the move is a charter for criminals, and the Minister needs to be aware of it.
The hon. Gentleman makes his points extremely effectively, but I hope he will not lose sight of the fact that many small practitioners, some of whom are based in my constituency—I hope to talk about them later—have been affected by many of the Government’s changes to the FSS. They make an incredibly valuable contribution to forensic science.
Of course there are private companies that can do a job and pick up some of the work. There is lots of work out there. The one thing we know is that criminals will continue to come up with new ways to commit crime, which therefore have to be fought. Some work can be put out to private companies, but we are talking about the core of the business.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case and I am following his argument closely. He is absolutely right about the importance of forensic science. In Northamptonshire, 47 per cent. of all theft and motor vehicle crime detections, 30 per cent. of theft from motor vehicle detections and 48 per cent. of detections of burglaries from dwellings are a direct result of fingerprint and DNA analysis.
My hon. Friend is rightly proud of the forensic science work that is done in Euxton in his constituency, but does he agree that there is a partnership between the work at Euxton and the excellent work that is done at the university of Central Lancashire? It has one of the best forensic science courses in the country and was recently featured in a television series. Does he also agree that the proximity of those facilities is key to ensuring that we maintain that centre of excellence?
I cannot disagree—my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is about bringing together the know-how of the FSS based in Chorley and the university of Central Lancashire, which specialises in forensic science degrees, and about building up the expertise. The joke is that the FSS has just built those links with the university, only for them to be thrown out. That is ridiculous. There is a centre of excellence at the university and an FSS centre of excellence only 10 miles away. Why would anyone consider closing the latter? It is common sense not to, but obviously the lack of common sense is coming through, and it is a charter for criminals. That is what the Government are proposing. That is why they have got to think long and hard and withdraw from their decisions, which will have a serious impact for all of us. My hon. Friend is spot on.
The FSS also pioneered the development and implementation of DNA technology, and it paved the way for establishing the world’s first DNA database, which was launched in April 1995. It has also led the way in helping to solve cold cases. As I said, that service is not to be underestimated, given the advance of technology.
The FSS has seven primary sites around the country. It is important to ensure that there is a geographical spread. As we know, the service has to be close to the scenes of crimes, because evidence does not last for ever. In fact, in a recent case, the scientists had to leave Chorley and get to the scene of a crime because it was pouring down, and the blood was disappearing and the evidence was being washed away. If forensic scientists are two hours away from such a crime scene, how is the crime going to be solved? The answer is that it is not. Do we know what we are doing? Have we really thought this through? Are we assisting criminals to get away with murders, rapes and assaults? That is what we will be doing if we continue down this road. I hope the Minister reconsiders the matter very quickly and abandons the plan now.
I visited the Chorley site recently and once again saw evidence of the success of the FSS. There is a young, vibrant work force who work with older scientists, who pass on their knowledge. There are hundreds of years of expertise. Just because someone opens a shop, it does not give them the expertise. Expertise is about passing on knowledge and the best working practices historically. All that will be lost.
Of course, Chorley’s services range from drugs to the coding and detection of footwear, which is very important in solving a lot of crimes. Mobile phone expertise and electronic forensics are the latest things. They can detect whether someone who is in a serious car crash was using their phone. It can detect people who are dealing on the telephone or people who hold paedophilic images. A mobile phone can convict people. Which site deals with such things? Chorley. Which site do the Government want to close? Chorley. I presume that the Minister has considered the matter. Again, we do not want to hear, “It’s not me, guv. It’s them down the road. I’m only the Minister.” We want to hear what the Minister is going to do to ensure that we continue to put paedophiles behind bars where they belong. That is what we are talking about and why the matter is so serious.
On hearing the news of the job cuts, I was very concerned about the effect on the Chorley work force. Does the Minister want to intervene?
The news is sad. I was also horrified by the news, which was announced through Prospect, that three sites—Chorley, Chepstow and Priory House—were proposed for closure. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that that was a damaging blow to staff morale at Chorley and the other sites. The employees at Chorley have expressed how devastated they are, because they are dedicated to preventing crime and bringing criminals to court. They are not interested in shareholders’ profits; they are interested in ethics and putting criminals behind bars.
I was amazed by the subtle shift from the FSS. We started with a consultation about a headcount—that is what we were told—which then became a consultation about the proposed closure of three sites. Why those three sites? Why does the consultation not cover the seven sites? Why should we shut any site when we need a geographical spread? We need to return to that issue. I certainly do not want people to lose their jobs. We cannot put a price on stopping and solving crime, but the message seems to be that we will save money at the cost of allowing criminals to get away.
We have gone from a consultation on a headcount reduction to a consultation on a reduction by three sites. In a letter to me dated 8 June, Bill Griffiths, the FSS chief executive, referred to a headcount reduction, but he made no specific reference to the closure of Chorley or any other site. Chorley was not up for closure at that time, and I do not know whether Bill Griffiths knew that he was going to be replaced at that point, but it all seems very strange. Dates and people are moving all the time.
I met Mr. Griffiths on Monday 22 June. Once again, no mention was made of the closure at Chorley as part of the consultation that would start the process, yet two days later, on Wednesday 24 June, the proposed closure was announced via Prospect. We have still not heard any confirmation. Did the Minister phone up any Member here? Did anyone have a letter off the Minister to tell them what is going on? No. Yet previously, we were informed. What is the difference between Ministers such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and this Minister? Is it arrogance? Is it that he does not want to talk to Back Benchers? Are we not worthy of being spoken to?
It seems strange that different Ministers have played such different roles: from full contact, full conversation and engagement to zero. That is what we have had: zero contact and zero engagement. That is not good enough, is it? I hope the Minister will explain why he does not think that it is worth speaking to Back Benchers, when previous Ministers did.
How can an organisation operate in such a manner? How can that be right? I believe that the FSS’s proposals are misguided and will severely limit the organisation’s ability to support the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the coroners in solving crimes and investigating deaths. The Chorley site acts as a central hub for the police forces of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire, North Wales and North Staffordshire, and sometimes for parts of Derbyshire. Those areas have the highest crime rates outside London, and Chorley enjoys an excellent working relationship with their police authorities. Chorley also works with the Isle of Man, which I do not believe has been consulted. Neither have the coroners. A population of about 8 million will end up with no forensic science site, yet we know that Manchester and Liverpool are a major crime hub.
The geographical location of the Chorley site plays an important role, as the police can bring vital evidence there to be examined, which helps solve serious crime cases where early detection is required. For example, in drugs cases, the forensic science team at Chorley, which specialises in such cases, is asked to respond within hours of receiving a sample. The police wait for it to be analysed in order to get criminals into court. If they have to travel two hours to the west or three hours to the south, how will they achieve that? It cannot be done. That is why I say the proposal is a criminals’ charter. We will not be able to get evidence to court on time. That is why it is so serious. I am not just using rhetoric—these are the facts.
The Chorley team’s ability to respond quickly plays a major part in bringing serious offenders to justice. The police will be unable to operate in their usual fashion if Chorley is closed down. Members will remember the tragic death of Garry Newlove, who was beaten to death outside his home. We know that not getting evidence is a danger. It was the Chorley Forensic Science Service that detected the evidence, ensuring that the thugs who did it ended up in jail. The team were up against the clock. The judge was almost willing to give way and allow the case to be dismissed because evidence had not been produced. That is the importance of the Forensic Science Service, and that is why we must ensure that evidence is kept close to where the cases are. Can we really allow a decision to be taken that could restrict the police’s ability to bring vicious killers to jail? What alternative arrangements are the police expected to make when urgent examinations must be undertaken?
The FSS in Chorley also played a crucial role after the 7/7 London bombings. Do we really believe that the FSS in London alone could deal with major bombings? The work was distributed among the centres in England and Wales. Unfortunately, the UK is likely to suffer major bombings again, or to help other countries where they have taken place. We need a plethora of Forensic Science Service sites to fight terrorism. Capacity within the system is essential. If sites are closed, the service will not be able to deal with incidents like the 7/7 bombings. I am pleased that notes keep coming from the henchmen behind the Minister.
It is a sad situation. Forensic scientists at Chorley worked on the case of Rhys Jones—a young boy who happened to be walking back from football at the wrong time and was tragically shot. Chorley played a role in the forensic science of that murder as well.
Who played a part in the case of the gangsters in Manchester who have just gone to court? The Forensic Science Service at Chorley. We cannot underestimate that work. We must get on with what we do best. The FSS also deals with drugs and delivers lectures to the police. It works so well, yet we are willing to throw that out.
FSS staff inform me that they are very busy. They are full up with work. It is not a question of spare capacity; the FSS does not have any. It is a busy organisation. The effects will be serious, if we are not careful. The police place great demand on the drugs team at Chorley in solving crimes and putting a value on drugs. It is not just about analysing whether something is cannabis. How strong is it? What is its street value? Is it for a deal or for home use? That information does not come easily; it takes true analysis. Forensic material must be investigated at an early stage.
The FSS does fire scene examinations. In a recent attack in Bolton in which, tragically, someone died and a fireman was seriously injured, the FSS came down from Chorley. Where is the nearest site? There are only two centres: Wetherby and Chorley. Fire scenes must be dealt with quickly. We cannot say, “Oh well, we’ll do the analysis tomorrow or the day after”; it must be done immediately. We are risking that.
I mentioned the benefits of having an FSS site near the university of Central Lancashire so that the two can work together. Students can come to the Forensic Science Service at Chorley to build skills for the future. The private sector will not do that for us. Links will be torn apart if the Chorley site closes. We must ensure that that severe blow to the north-west is not allowed to fall. It also threatens the future viability of the national Forensic Science Service team as a whole. An organisation cannot compete successfully with private operators by simply withdrawing from a region the size of the north-west and allowing the private sector to cherry-pick the work. Then people will wonder why the necessary results are not being delivered. We must ensure that we are in the best position for the future.
The closure flies directly in the face of the foundations of the criminal justice system. Evidence should be gathered to prove conclusively an individual’s innocence or guilt of a crime. That is what comes from the Forensic Science Service, because that is what it specialises in. Having spoken to staff, I am told that they find increasingly that cases are being dropped not because of lack of evidence but purely because of the cost of analysing it. That is a problem. It is not just small cases; it can involve more serious ones. That will happen even more if the Forensic Science Service is not there. At what point does it become acceptable to say to a person seriously traumatised physically and mentally that it is not worth the cost to bring their attacker to justice? We cannot put a price on that. Although I acknowledge the need to achieve value for money and reduce costs if possible, forensic science should never be about making money. It should be about investigation, discovery and confirmation of facts with a view to bringing those who commit crimes to justice.
Turning to the process leading to the decision to close three sites, I would like to ask the Minister what consultation he has had with the police, the coroner’s office and the Isle of Man, and what has come back. Will he share that information with us? Let us not hear, “Not me, guv; it’s somebody else.” Have the police been alerted to the original proposal for a headcount reduction or the new proposal for the closure of three sites? He might be able to help us with that. What have the police been consulted on—reduction in head count or closure of sites? I have mentioned the importance of the coroner’s office and its work.
I made a point earlier about drugs work and the need for a speedy response. It is crucial. Have the police been told about the closure and what effect it will have on the need to turn around forensic science information quickly? It is imperative that there is a detailed impact study that involves the police and all other partners before this decision is taken forward. If not, we will be simply signing a criminals’ charter that will reduce the effectiveness of the FSS in responding to the needs of the police when solving crimes.
I turn to the implications for the staff if the restructuring takes place. Staff have been told that career development opportunities will be available as a consequence of reorganisation. I am confused by that statement because they are facing a severe reduction in numbers. Staff will be invited to reapply for their jobs if they wish to remain in the service. That leads to growing uncertainty and will mean that even if their applications are successful, their terms and conditions will change—the decision really is about money. What guarantee can the Minister give that staff will not have to move from one part of the country to another to maintain their jobs? Why would someone based in the north-west move to London to carry out their work? Is there room for them on other sites? The answer is no. Chorley is one of the few sites where the Government owns the land around the facility and could expand it. That should be considered seriously.
This is no way to treat the highly skilled people who have so much to offer and who provide a first-class service in the field of forensic science. The Chorley laboratory has consistently met and exceeded its targets. The management have been informed that staff loyalty will be rewarded. How will it be rewarded? There is no more loyal and dedicated professional work force than those at the Chorley site. Despite that, they are faced with the awful prospect of redundancy.
The Forensic Science Service provides a mission statement on its website:
“To retain and reinforce our leading position as the principal provider of forensic science to the UK criminal justice system, and use this platform to become the leading provider worldwide, thereby enhancing long term shareholder value.”
I am sure that we all share that vision, but the closure of three sites, including at Chorley, is not the way to go about things. I therefore urge the Minister to look carefully at the forensic science proposals and to realise the damage that will be done to the service and to the north-west if the Chorley site closes. I urge him to instruct the FSS to assess its future plans and to abandon its current proposals. As I said, this decision is a charter for criminals. It is about providing work for the private sector.
I hope that the Minister will be honest, answer the points and not hide behind other people. The Government have only one shareholder—we are the shareholder. If they are serious about putting criminals behind bars, they should not proceed with this decision, and they should answer the questions. Thank you, Mr. Amess, for your patience.
I am grateful for your chairmanship and guidance, Mr. Amess. I will be as brief as possible. I certainly do not intend to speak for more than five minutes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing this debate. If I were a Minister, I would think that with friends like that, who needs enemies? Luckily, I am not. After today’s outing, I intend to attend any debate that the hon. Gentleman opens or plans to contribute to.
On the Forensic Science Service, there are a number of independent practitioners in my constituency: Dr. John and Kathy Manlove run Manlove Forensics in Grove technology park; Mr. Tiernan Coyle, who lives in my constituency, is the managing director of Contact Traces; and Mr. Roger Robson is the managing director of Forensic Access in Wantage. Those three companies met on Monday to discuss the ongoing saga of the difficulties created by the Government’s reorganisation of forensic sciences. I have corresponded with the Minister and asked parliamentary questions on this issue.
To add to the woes of the hon. Member for Chorley, he should be aware that the Government have also got rid of the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners. It was closed even before the consultation on the matter was concluded. It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that when the Minister stands up to make his concluding remarks he will say, “Not me, guv,” about that, too. He will claim that the police refused to continue to fund the organisation. However, the registration of forensic practitioners is as important to forensic science as the continued success of the FSS.
In effect, there is now no registration system for individual practitioners of forensic science, including those who work at the FSS. The National Police Improvement Agency is in charge of registration and is using the United Kingdom Accreditation Service to accredit forensic science. However, UKAS will accredit only companies, not individuals. Individuals who work in the FSS cannot get individual accreditation.
The impact of that on small companies, including the three companies that I mentioned, has been massive. Mr. Roger Robson, who runs Forensic Access, says that overall it will have cost him about £35,000 to achieve UKAS accreditation. It cost £1,200 just for his company to apply and £24,000 to get the qualification. UKAS charged £900 a day for consultation work. Such an accreditation service will put many small practitioners out of business.
Another problem is that the National Police Improvement Agency will allow outsourced forensic work to be applied for only in bundles. Therefore, only companies that cover a range of forensic services will be able to tender for such work. To pick up on the remarks of the hon. Member for Chorley, that is a charter for big business. I suspect that his sympathies lie more with small, individual expert practitioners, rather than with huge, multinational private companies that are owned by shareholders. That change is a huge problem for companies such as Contact Traces, which specialises in fibres, and Manlove Forensics, which specialises in entomology.
Those companies have been in contact with Andrew Rennison at the Home Office, and I must put on the record their gratitude to him. The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the lack of response from the Minister, but my constituents have said that they have had good access and constructive discussions. However, I do not wish to create a divide between the Minister and his official. My constituents were told that a “procurement lite” framework was forthcoming on 4 June. Has it come forward? Such a framework is incredibly important as it would allow small, independent practitioners to continue to tender for forensic science work.
Thank you for allowing me to make that short contribution, Mr. Amess. I want simply to get one message across to the Minister: the changes in the FSS have turned what was a world-class service on its head. The hon. Member for Chorley talked about the catastrophic effect they have had on the FSS. I want to emphasise the effect on the hundreds of small practitioners, many of which are based in my constituency, who provide a valuable service, important competition and the narrow expertise that is vital to the ecology of forensic science. I ask the Minister to please not lose sight of those practitioners in carrying out the reforms.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), I declare a constituency interest. There is a Forensic Science Service laboratory in Wetherby in my constituency. My hon. Friend has covered the ground well. He is right to say that MPs have been treated shabbily. However, the work force has been treated in an even more shabby manner. The trade unions have been frozen out of many of the discussions as this shambolic process has proceeded. I pay homage to the work force in Wetherby. As he said, they are a loyal and dedicated bunch.
This debate points to the absolute failure of the new Labour political ideology. There is a wonderful symmetry between that market ideology and that of the Conservative party. I argue that the introduction of the market has destroyed the FSS. The starting point of that was the McFarland review of 2002-03, which stated that the FSS being the national supplier of forensic science services created a fundamental market distortion. It recommended that competition be stimulated to increase investment. It stated that, in effect, the police form a monopoly customer, which also distorts the market. New Labour’s love affair with the market allowed it to go along with such distorted thinking. I am not a believer in the market. I believe that there are areas of our public life, such as education, health and the criminal justice system, that have no place in the market.
Obviously, I have had contact with my constituents in Wetherby, and they want me to flag up some particular concerns. They are concerned that redundancies will result in the loss of many experienced staff from forensic science and that those staff will leave the industry altogether, leaving a skills gap in the future. Will the Minister address that? The staff who will be made redundant are mostly career specialists who have committed many years to forensic science and are going to find it very hard to find comparable employment. What I am really arguing is that all this is bound up with our idea of the public and the private, and about consumers and citizens. I am willing to argue that staff in the existing FSS go the extra mile and spend the extra hour because they feel committed to that public service. That will not be replicated with the great desire to introduce the market into forensic science.
There is a tradition that Ministers run Departments, but I fear that it is the other way around in the Home Office. I have experienced Ministers coming along with crackpot ideas about building a super-prison in my constituency. There were no rational arguments behind those ideas, and it seemed as though there was a force, somewhere behind them, driving that process. I can only presume that the unelected civil service, which we are never supposed to criticise, actually determines the agenda on such matters, so we have got to ask whether Departments are running Ministers. [Interruption.] That may be open to debate.
I am aware that several people want to take part in the debate, so I shall end with a few questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley has mentioned that we seem to have a new chief executive, Mr. Bennett, and that there is a connection or relationship with QinetiQ. We have to be careful about this—and let us have some honesty, because, since 2003, when we first met the then Home Secretary, there has been a bad smell about this whole process. If we are absolutely honest, this process has, from day one, been about fattening up the FSS to sell it off eventually as a privatised business. Let us be honest about it. No matter how polite Ministers have been in telling us about things and updating us, that was behind the process.
If we got a bit of honesty, perhaps the Minister would be able to explain a few things. I am looking at something that I got from the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, which contains some of the information that went to the interview panel for the chief executive position—this is from our Government. It says:
“In order to respond more quickly to the changes in the forensic science market, increase customer focus and improve its commercial competitiveness, the FSS was in 2005 transformed into a Government-owned company. This is intended as a precursor to evolution into a private sector entity, the timing of which depends on FSS’ ability to transform itself into a viable, commercial entity.”
That is what was laid down before the chief executive, so let us have some honesty. Without honesty, we are going to finish up with the service being sold off to the private sector. It is another QinetiQ waiting to happen.
Let me remind hon. Members that on the day of the QinetiQ company’s flotation in 2006, the top 10 managers held shares worth £107 million—
They received £107 million for an investment of just £540,000. They made £200 for every £1 invested. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was mentioned earlier. He has said that
“senior public servants managing QinetiQ behaved dishonourably. They sold the idea to the MOD of privatising the business without explaining they stood to benefit.”
I think there is a horrible smell about this whole process. There is subterfuge and dishonesty, and I think we should stop the whole process and reconfirm our commitment to the FSS staying firmly in the public sector, and to creating a protected market within that sphere.
It is delightful to follow the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). I was a director of QinetiQ before coming to this House. I am not a millionaire and I was not part of the seniority to whom money was doshed out, but it is important to bring that experience to bear in this debate because I have seen it before.
The previous speakers are absolutely right—in all my days, including the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when people talked about Tory privatisation, I have never seen a worse privatisation than that of QinetiQ. I can tell you how it starts, Mr. Amess—it starts off with the Treasury, which wants the money. Its fingerprints are all over this, just the same as with QinetiQ. Then a bit of part-private assistance is brought in; that is what they call it. There is a bit of public-private partnership, or the status of the body is changed. Once those people have been brought in, the first thing they do is take the axe to the real asset of the organisation. The only real asset of such organisations are the scientists, whether they are in the defence research laboratories, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency or the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.
But how do people get those departments to become private? They do not incentivise the scientists. They go along to the civil servants, some of whom in QinetiQ had absolutely no qualifications to develop radar or invent some of the amazing things that have kept our country safe, and they give them huge amounts of money. I remember that the marketing director walked away from QinetiQ with more than £1 million, and I think that all she had ever been was a basic civil servant who had never been in the world of advertising or marketing or anything else. They said, “Have a bit of cash and off you go.” That was appalling.
It is the Ministry of Defence’s fault—there was no conspiracy here; it was the Government’s fault—that Ministers allowed the chief executive of QinetiQ not only to negotiate the terms of his and his colleagues’ pay package on the winning bid, but to do the negotiations. In the private sector, the shareholders do the negotiations and when they have decided on a preferred bidder, they hand over to senior management to negotiate. With QinetiQ, we had the chief executive recommending to the MOD, “My preferred bidder is the Carlyle Group, and by the way, I have just negotiated a wonderful package that made it important that I choose Carlyle.” Those civil servants got 19,000 per cent. in exchange, and who were the casualties at QinetiQ? The same casualties as there are about to be at FSS—the scientists. The casualties were the boffins and brain boxes who had invented so many important things that keep our soldiers safe, that keep our criminals off the street and that our police now use.
These matters cannot be rushed. I know that the Government have been criticised for the way they have handled things, and I am not ideologically opposed to the concept of privatisation per se, but I am a Conservative who believes in pragmatism. That is one of the greatest strengths of conservatism in the world in which I live. Whatever we say, the FSS is not ready to be privatised now or even in the next five or 10 years, and I can tell the House why. The Government have failed to make it a more efficient and better organisation before they have come to privatise it. They have done this the QinetiQ way, thinking, “Let’s get somebody in.” That person is Dr. Simon Bennett. I am not aware that he, as an individual, was among the equity snouts in the trough. He is a renowned scientist, unlike some of the people who were previously brought in, and I hope that will go some way towards giving comfort to the employees of the FSS. He understands science, and he is internationally renowned, so I hesitate to criticise him.
However, there are ways in which the FSS could be made better. We could encourage the better funding of our police so that they can use its service. We talk about serious crimes, such as rape and paedophilia, but it upsets my constituents that there is no longer any forensic investigation of boring and mundane crimes. If someone’s house gets broken into, or their car is vandalised, the response is either, “Do it yourself,” or, “Have a crime number for your insurance.” That is because the police do not get sufficient funding to allow them to engage in that forensic debate unless it is a murder or a terrorist event. That would help to make the FSS better value for money, and would mean that more of its facilities were used so that it would not be so much under threat.
Police procurement is another issue. We are looking in the wrong part of the Home Office. The way in which the police procure technologies is completely Victorian. Each police force buy their own batons and bullet-proof vests. That is a total waste of money and I do not know why we carry on doing that. It would not be done in any other police forces and it certainly would not be done in the armed forces. We should look at saving money in that area. That would help the FSS to use all its skills, which I know that it does, and would give it a sound base on which to do business.
The reality is that the service is not ready to be privatised and it will not be ready for a long time. I have a number of constituents in Lancaster and Wyre who work in the lab in Chorley. In terms of the awful phrase, “Well, they’ll be offered a job in the new location, but if they can’t, they’ll be made redundant,” the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and I both know that relocating from Lancaster or Chorley is not an option—it is not like there will be a job down the road. Let us compare this situation with that of those who work for the BBC. When they were offered the option to relocate to the north—to Manchester—a large amount of public money was thrown at them. It is sad that, when it comes to the Forensic Science Service, we will leave these people out to dry.
I say to the Government that the service is not ready for privatisation and that the mistakes of QinetiQ are being repeated. In the end, the loser will be our scientific skill base, which cannot be reinvented or imported over night. If we lose that skill base, the winners will be the criminals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. The matter is extremely important to my constituents who work at the site at Chepstow, which is actually in the constituency of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). He has kindly allowed me to make a few remarks on behalf of my constituents.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the future of the site at Chepstow, which has been earmarked for closure along with two other sites in the west of the country. If Chepstow were to be affected, it could result in the loss of the only public sector forensic laboratory in Wales, which houses 170 skilled scientific jobs. The site in Chepstow provides a first-class service and serves the west of the country. Frankly, south-east Wales can ill afford to lose such high-quality skilled jobs in science. It would be a huge shame if Wales were left as the only part of the UK without a base for the Forensic Science Service. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Assembly Government on the issue?
Staff in Chepstow tell me that the office has always performed extremely well within the service. That is demonstrated by the fact that they currently deal with overflow cases—in effect, lab work—from other offices, including from 10 boroughs in the Met, because London labs are often overstretched and cannot meet the turnaround time. That comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley about there not being much spare capacity in the system. That certainly seems to be the case from the discussions I have had with constituents who work at the site in Chepstow.
I know that Welsh police forces like the local knowledge that results from the site being based in Chepstow and that they appreciate the ability of staff to be on site quickly when urgent work is needed at sensitive crime scenes because time is of the essence when collecting evidence. For example, it is crucial that there are services on hand to deal with items that need to go back to the lab within a day. Such services would be affected if the changes went ahead in Chepstow. If the changes proposed in the consultation were to go ahead, presumably forensic scientists from London would be asked to travel to crime scenes in the west of the country—not just Wales—and attend court cases and case meetings with the police in the west of the country. That would add considerably to their travel times, costs and so on—not to mention the already explained difficulties with evidence.
In its presentation to staff, I believe that the FSS said it wished to see a good geographical spread of services, but if the proposals go ahead, that will clearly not be the case for wide sections of the west of the country. My constituents feel that the office in Chepstow has been singled out because it does not have DNA analysis facilities—even though they have explained to me that they could easily house those on site. As my hon. Friend said, there is plenty of room there and they already have the key factor: staff who are highly skilled in DNA analysis on site.
Finally, the constituents to whom I have spoken talk continually about the heavy work load that they have in Chepstow, which is demonstrated by the fact that, as I said, the lab takes on work from other parts of the country. They are also continually offered overtime. Given the excellent service that staff at the FSS provide, they fear that the consultation casts doubt on the ability of remaining staff to maintain the high standard of work because they would be so thinly stretched. Will the changes not simply result in the criminal justice system getting a worse service and more eventually being paid for the service, whatever happens to it in the future? That will be a huge loss, because at the moment we have a world-class operation with a reputation for excellence. I genuinely feel committed to my constituents who work in the service. They are not interested in profits, but are committed to public service and putting criminals behind bars, as my hon. Friend said.
[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]
I shall make only a couple of comments because my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) has made a good case for the preservation of the forensic science laboratory in Euxton in his constituency.
The point I want to make is that we have a skills cluster in central Lancashire formed by the university forensic science courses, a forensic team of 30 at Lancashire police headquarters in Hutton, and Euxton forensic science labs, which are a few miles away. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) made a key comment: we cannot simply close down the labs and assume people will move elsewhere. Forensic science is a specialist area and there are not many areas in the country where people live and do such a job. They cannot move elsewhere. Where there is a cluster of skills, as in Lancashire, it is completely nonsensical to throw that away as if it is meaningless and people can simply get other jobs.
The comment was made that the service is not ready for privatisation. The problem is that if it were privatised, in five or 10 years’ time, some accountant would look at it and would not care about the skill base anyway. They would simply say, “Well, eventually we’ll move everyone to one, two or three offices and they’ll do it all.” To them, it would not matter that people who have done 20 years service and who live in Lancaster, Leyland or different parts of Lancashire are not prepared to move several hundred miles away with their families. People do matter, and we must recognise that people who have dedicated many years of their lives to developing particular skills and using those skills to the service of the public have lives, families and partners. We cannot simply snap our fingers and expect such people to disappear from one end of the country because their place of work has been closed down and there are no alternative jobs in that area.
I cannot see any point at all in the closure of any of these sites. I am sticking up for my constituents who work at Euxton, and I will be doing all I can to stick up for the skills cluster that exists in central Lancashire.
I co-ordinate the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary groups. For the past six or seven years, I have been involved in some of the earliest meetings with Ministers to discuss the future of the Forensic Science Service, as have other hon. Members in the Chamber. The issue goes back to when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was Home Secretary, and we have gone through a number of Home Secretaries since then.
The original problem occurred because of lack of investment in the Forensic Science Service. That was a long-term issue during successive Governments. A further problem was that deep in the heart of the Home Office there was an ideologically driven desire to privatise.
The Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers lobbied to replicate the Forensic Science Service within police authorities themselves, partly for budgetary reasons and partly because of issues relating to practice. Our concerns then were to secure long-term investment and stability for the service. At the same time, we opposed the relocation of the Forensic Science Service within police authorities because of the potential conflict of interest and the professional issues that would occur.
We had successive meetings with Ministers and gained what we thought was a commitment to the investment and the development of GovCo, which would enable the Forensic Science Service to stand on its feet and demonstrate its value. Unfortunately, there were delays even in setting out the processes by which GovCo would be assessed. There have been subsequent delays in delivering the investment and ensuring that GovCo can operate effectively. It is really disappointing that we have yet another threat and another programme: the transformation programme. There will be large job losses and key strategic sites will be lost. I echo all that has been said about the potential loss of an important collective build-up of expertise in the area.
I urge the Minister to recognise the disappointment felt by members of staff—as well as by individual MPs who have been involved in the matter. I am grateful that the Minister gave the PCS a half-hour meeting yesterday, and for his commitment to meet the PCS parliamentary group in July. However, I am worried about the attitude of management.
As has been set out, the management were appointed with the specific purpose of following a privatisation agenda. A human resources director—Nick Jones—has been appointed from Cable and Wireless, and I believe that the Burke Group has been appointed as a consultant on human relations matters. However, it has been exposed as a union-busting company. The TUC undertook a report on union-busting companies and included the Burke Group. The report claimed that
“the tactics used by union-busters are designed to frighten and intimidate workers away from any union attempt to recruit them at work.”
Such tactics were also used at Cable and Wireless to try to isolate the Communication Workers Union and to undermine trade union representation in that company. I am hoping that the appointment of the Burke Group is a rumour and not a fact, and I would welcome the Minister’s investigating the matter.
I am grateful for the meeting that the Minister had with the PCS yesterday, and for the commitment to meet us in July. I hope that we can establish a working relationship with him that maintains a commitment to investment in and organisation of the FSS in the public sector, and that we can now put aside the threat of privatisation that is undermining staff morale and the viability of the service itself.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on his coruscating condemnation of the Minister for the lack of consultation and for the way in which the recent announcement was made on a good day for burying bad news. We heard a tour de force exposition of the tremendous track record of the Forensic Science Service in general and of the Chorley laboratory in particular. We heard examples of the damage to crime detection that will result from closing three of seven centres around the country—Chorley, Chepstow and Birmingham—and from the loss of scientific expertise and the institutional memory of the organisation, as well as the individual job losses, the loss of geographical coverage and the effect of losing, in total, 40 per cent. of the FSS staff, or up to 800 posts.
How have the Government arrived at their position? As we heard, in 2003 they decided to take the competitive route. We heard comments about the ideological drive for privatisation, regardless of the merits in individual cases of going down that road. In 2005, the FSS was turned into a Government company—a GovCo—and, in 2009, a new chief executive was appointed.
The information provided to people applying for the job, part of which was quoted earlier, was not published, but it was acquired by the Public and Commercial Services Union. We have already heard an interesting quote from the notes for candidates, which stated that
“the FSS was in 2005 transformed into a Government-owned company. This is intended as a precursor to evolution into a private sector entity, the timing of which depends on FSS’ ability to transform itself into a viable, commercial entity.”
The document went on to say that among the key responsibilities of the new chief executive was a requirement to prepare the FSS
“for its successful transition to the introduction of private capital at the appropriate point if agreed by Ministers”.
Clearly, in 2003, 2005 and again in 2009, when the new chief executive was being appointed, Ministers saw privatisation as the end goal. There can be no question about that. The result, as we have already heard, was that in 2009 we got Dr. Simon Bennett of QinetiQ, and, as we heard in great detail from both the official Opposition and from Government Back Benchers, the track record of that privatisation is not one that we should be proud of or seek to emulate. QinetiQ is an example of a taxpayer-funded organisation that was already very successful—as the FSS is—being privatised at huge personal financial gain to the managers involved while the taxpayer simply lost out in every direction. Taxpayers lost out financially and they lost out on the quality of the service that the organisation had previously provided as a public sector body.
In the short term, the taxpayer loses. The Government would argue that in the long term, the public will benefit from the effect of the market and the privatisation of the FSS, which is why they set out on that road back in 2003. We have already had some debate about that. Clearly, the market is best at providing all kinds of goods and services. It is best at providing widgets, fashion clothing, designer jeans and mobile phones. I believe that no one would seriously argue that the telecommunications services we enjoy in this country today are worse than they would have been if we had left British Telecom as a monopoly, as it was more than 25 years ago. I do not believe that anyone would disagree that telecommunications services are better now than they were then.
Clearly, however, there are areas where the market has no place. There are areas where arguments about social equity, the social good and the public good are far more important than the profit-driven motive of the market. We have already heard examples, with which I concur, from health and education—as a former teacher, I have long made that case during the eight years that I have been in Parliament. The FSS is another obvious example where the argument that the market knows best, that it will produce the best results, is clearly a fallacy. It will be interesting to hear the Minister clarify exactly why the Government are so clear in their own mind that bringing market forces into the FSS will be of benefit to the public.
The driving motive of the market is profit. The driving motive of the FSS and the justice system should be catching criminals, as we heard eloquently expounded in examples in the opening speech by the hon. Member for Chorley. I have an example from The Times, a newspaper that is not exactly noted for its defence of the public interest and the public good, or of delivery by public services. As a champion of the free market, it would like to see the market operate in most areas of life. However, on 21 July, The Times gave an interesting example in an article about some of the market-oriented moves that the FSS is taking to try to keep business that it is losing to other areas. The article stated that it is now offering the police a service with variable fees so that, for example, if a test on a piece of forensic evidence leads to conviction, there would be a higher charge than if the test were negative. The Times stated:
“If a positive DNA or blood or fibre match is found, the agency says, then the fee would be higher than for negative results. For example, if dozens of cigarette-ends were found at a crime scene, the police may not think it worthwhile to test them all”,
because of the cost of testing every one of, say, three dozen cigarette ends. But if the police were told that they would have a small fee to pay for a negative result but a larger fee to pay if one or two of the cigarette ends led to the conviction of the criminal involved, the services of the FSS would be more attractive.
Surely we should not be looking at a system whereby when the police and the justice system are investigating a case, they are driven to decide not whether they can catch a criminal by testing the evidence, but whether it is cheaper not to test the evidence or whether the FSS or private competitors would offer cheap rates for doing it this way or that way. The driving force should be catching criminals, not the accountant’s bottom line in a profit-and-loss ledger. It would be interesting to hear the Minister explain exactly why the Government appear so confident that taking the accountant’s cost or profit-motive approach is better for criminal justice than the current or the previous workings of the police and the FSS.
I have three explicit questions for the Minister. Can he explain why the Government are sure that just four geographical centres, after three of the seven have been closed, can cope without affecting response time, which is crucial when dealing with a crime scene? We have heard many detailed examples of that. What detailed assessment has been undertaken to justify the clear assessment that four geographical centres can cope, when previously there were six or seven?
Secondly, how will the 40 per cent. job losses—800 people—be decided? Will the jobs be those of staff who are involved in marketing, business development, account management, logistics, quality and policy, or will they be those of precisely the expert scientific staff who do what the FSS is supposed to be all about—catching criminals? Thirdly, has any evaluation been carried out of the deterrent effect on crime investigation of applying cost factors to what should be a decision to investigate based purely on evidence and the chance of catching criminals, rather than on cost?
The FSS has played an essential role in our criminal justice system. It should be above making profit and outside commercial interference. The job losses will have a large impact on the FSS’s ability to do its job. Large swathes of the country will be left without public sector service provision. The FSS has rightly played a valuable role in our criminal justice system. Any attempt to move it from the public to the private domain is likely to have a drastic impact on our criminal justice system and on public confidence in it as a whole.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) not just on securing the debate, but on the passionate, powerful way in which he highlighted the concerns of the 200 members of staff at the Forensic Science Service base at Washington Hall in his constituency, and the concerns about the wider issues arising from the changes to the service and the proposed cuts that will, potentially, lead to the loss of 800 jobs over the next two years.
The debate is important, not only in terms of the jobs at risk, and not only because of the future of the FSS, but because of the questions that it raises about the forensic science capabilities for law enforcement to solve increasingly complex crimes, where the use of forensic data is becoming ever more essential in bringing serious crimes to justice.
As we have heard, the FSS has a proud history, tracing its roots back to the 1930s, when the use of forensics in dealing with certain types of material was in its infancy. I pay tribute to the FSS for its work in bringing crimes to justice and ensuring that serious crimes are solved. However, its position in recent years has become increasingly challenged and challenging, with its turnover slumping by £70 million, based on its last audited accounts.
The catalyst for the debate was the Minister’s written ministerial statement on 8 June 2009, and the proposed changes that underlay it, which raised more questions than it answered. Given the scale and seriousness of the proposed changes, it is incumbent on the Minister to answer the questions raised by hon. Members, including my questions about the strategic approach that is being taken. In his statement, the Minister confirmed that the FSS is embarking on a Government-backed transformation programme after six months of wranglings between the Home Office and the Treasury, which he elegantly described as “rigorous consultation”. The upshot is a reduction of 40 per cent. of the skilled work force, the closure of a number of facilities and the adoption of what is described as a new business model. As we have heard, there has been a lack of discussion and certainty surrounding the announcement.
Will the Minister provide further details of the new business model, because it is at the heart of finding out about the intentions? How will that business model deliver the same integrated service more quickly and efficiently, as was claimed in the announcement? The key issue is to find out how the ability to provide the same services will be advanced by the proposed changes. Will he confirm that there will be no diminution in the speed, quality and capabilities of forensics facilities available to police and other law enforcement agencies?
In its 2007-08 financial statement, published in January, the FSS executive chairman, Bill Griffiths, described the uncertainties faced by FSS employees, saying that
“we have maintained that we must motivate and nurture our staff, since they are in effect ‘our business.’”
The financial statements also highlight one of the key challenges in the company’s successful transformation, which is
“retaining key skills and maintaining staff morale”.
Will the Minister explain how the reorganisation proposals that he has announced help to deliver those goals and how those key skills will be maintained as a consequence of the changes that are envisaged?
In a statement to the Press Association on 8 June 2009, an unnamed Home Office official was quoted as saying:
“The forensics market is changing with increased competition, reduced business volumes and a higher cost base.”
The key is in the words “reduced business volumes”. Does the Minister agree with that analysis and, if so, is he therefore expecting cuts or other reductions in police budgets on forensics, giving rise to the expected reduced volumes? We need to understand how the market and the demand may change in the years ahead and from where the reduced business volumes will come.
The Minister’s statement on 8 June had a number of other important points wrapped up in it. He confirmed that the FSS would remain as a Government-owned company “for the foreseeable future”, but added:
“GovCo status has provided a suitable platform on which the FSS can transition to a commercially effective and robustly competitive organisation.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 22WS.]
We need to understand the Minister’s intentions. Will he confirm that it remains the Government’s intention that the FSS should eventually transfer to become a private-public partnership or some other more arm’s length vehicle, as was previously suggested?
The Minister reaffirmed his commitment to the criteria established by then Under-Secretary of State, now the Secretary of State for Health, in December 2005 on the potential for transition to a public-private partnership. It should be noted that the needs of the Home Office as shareholder were to be considered as part of that requirement. In his written ministerial statement of 29 March 2006, the right hon. Gentleman clarified the matter further stating:
“As a Government-owned business, the FSS has to compete with other calls on public funds and consequently the Home Office's investment in it needs to demonstrate an appropriate risk/return profile.
In coming to the relative merits of GovCo vs PPP, the Home Office will need to consider: (i) assessment of the financial value of the FSS; (ii) the financial risks to the Home Office associated with ownership of FSS; and (iii) Home Office’s funding priorities.”
What assessment has the Minister made against those tests and what agreement has he reached with the Treasury about financial value, financial risk and Home Office funding priorities? Again, the key to all that is where the policy priorities lie and the direction of travel.
The right hon. Gentleman argued that delivery of the vision for the FSS’s business would require
“substantial investment, both in physical and human capital, development of new and existing capabilities and exercising strong implementation skills.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 69-70WS.]
Will the Minister confirm how his proposals for the FSS will advance the vision outlined, which underpins the approach to the future of the FSS, and from where he expects this investment to come?
The future of the Forensic Science Service is also closely linked to the regulatory environment in which it sits. A new forensic science regulator has been appointed in the last year and a Forensic Science Advisory Council has been established. Will the Minister provide an update on the work of the regulator and the council and say how he sees those roles developing? The FSS, in its report and financial statements in January, described the developing role of the Forensic Science Regulator as a contributory factor in providing continued uncertainties surrounding the development of the competitive forensics marketplace in the UK. Will the Minister explain why those uncertainties persist and what urgent steps he is taking to provide the necessary clarification? Will he confirm that we will not end up in some parallel situation, where in-house capabilities are built up within police services at the cost of the FSS, because we would not be creating the market that the Minister appears to want to create, which obviously underpins the direction of travel?
One of the uncertainties in the market relates to the future regulation of forensic practitioners. The regulator is currently considering proposals for a new regulatory scheme. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, it is ironic that the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners, which the Government established as the regulatory body for those giving forensic evidence in court, was allowed to collapse nine days before the end of the consultation period. Why was support withdrawn from the CRFP at such a critical time? Will the Minister confirm reports that the regulator may take up to four years to implement the new regulatory scheme? Will he confirm that the regulation of the conduct of forensic science evidence will include the independent regulation of individuals involved in the provision of such services?
For the sake of the future of the FSS and the livelihoods of the constituents of many hon. Members who have spoken, I trust that the Minister will be able to provide answers to the real questions that linger about the Home Office’s commitment to, and vision for, the future of forensic sciences in this country now and in the years to come. It is important that those issues are put on the record today, so that all of us involved in the debate can understand better where we are going, because it is clear from the comments made that people simply do not know.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing this debate. Let me say briefly what I will not do. First, I do not intend to say, “Not me, guv.” Secondly, I do not intend to be anything other than honest in my comments, and you would expect nothing else, Mr. Jones. Thirdly, I stand by what the Home Secretary said—that my hon. Friend and others could have expected better service when the announcement was made, but I will give the context of how it happened.
The announcement on 8 June was an attempt by the Forensic Science Service to bring Members of Parliament and others into the loop of consultation and to seek their views on management’s proposed model for the future of the FSS which has been discussed with Ministers. It was not about informing Members of Parliament or anyone else about decisions that have been made, because no decisions have been made. That is the point of the consultation exercise.
I am trying to explain that the FSS tried to involve Members of Parliament in the consultation, and I hope not only that the comments that have been made today will inform that debate, but that every hon. Member, whether or not they have a laboratory in their area, will take part in the consultation.
Will my hon. Friend allow me to continue for a moment?
The matter has continued not for months, but for years. It would be wrong to give the impression—I am sure that my hon. Friend was not trying to do so—that the FSS’s transformation is a surprise. People might have been critical if there had been no consultation and we had moved to a decision, whether by the FSS or the Government. Phrases such as “bully boys in suits” are not only depressing, but misplaced. I want to put on the record the fact that the Government’s record in tackling crime and dealing with paedophiles, murderers and so on is second to none. The suggestion that that would be put at risk in any way, shape or form by not addressing the FSS’s needs is ludicrous. This is not about saving money. The FSS’s losses must be addressed, because they involve taxpayers’ money, but I assure my hon. Friend and others that that is far outweighed by the Government’s investment in the FSS.
In a telling and measured speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said that investment has been delayed for a long time. We are trying to bring that investment forward, and the consultation is about management proposing the model that it believes is the way forward, and testing that.
I was coming to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because he made it as if the decision on privatisation were a fait accompli. His questions might be relevant in that context, but that is not what we are talking about. I shall explain where we are in the debate about the FSS’s future if he will allow me to do so.
The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and others referred to the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman asks for and secures a debate on that, because I would be happy to respond to it. He referred to a scheme that was entirely voluntary, that never reached the targets that were set for it, and from which, in its latter days, the police pulled their funding. When members of the CRFP came to my office to talk about its future and asked for a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money, I turned them down, because that would not have been the best use of taxpayers’ money. We should be investing in, for example, the Forensic Science Service. The hon. Gentleman may ask about the regulator’s role, but he praised Andrew Rennison, the regulator, who is charged with putting a better scheme in place.
I suggested that the hon. Gentleman apply for an Adjournment debate so that we would have more time. That matter is not central to the issue that we are debating today.
I want to set out the background to the many issues that have been raised and to where we are today. The FSS has for many years provided a first-class service to the police and the wider criminal justice system. It is our ambition that that continues. Until 2005, it was an Executive agency of the Home Office, and had been largely the monopoly supplier of forensic services, but the reality was that other suppliers were offering competition and it became clear that that trend would continue. An independent review in 2003 warned of the consequences of that process.
A commercial market dominated by a Home Office agency was not right for the FSS in the long term, nor was it right for competitors and the police. It was not right for customers, predominantly the police service, which is responsible for obtaining best value for money from the grants provided from public funds. We took the first step towards the creation of a market by changing the FSS’s status to a Government-owned limited company or GovCo. That change affects the dynamics of the relationship between the company, whose board now has statutory and fiduciary Companies Act responsibilities, and the Home Office shareholder.
I am looking into that, because it has already been raised with me. I am told that it was made absolutely clear to the chief executive when he was appointed that there is no presumption that the FSS will move to privatisation, that that policy has not altered, and that that was the basis on which he would take the job. Time has moved on since my hon. Friend’s quotation.
The company has lost 20 per cent. of its market share and, frankly, it must change. It must address its cost structure to reflect the changed market. Its current business model of linked laboratories that are distributed largely geographically is not efficient. Nor, as several hon. Members said, is the link between some laboratories and local forces always the best way forward, because the reality is that some forces do not use their local laboratory, but put their contract elsewhere. In some areas that works well, but in others it does not.
One purpose of the consultation is to suggest a new business model, and to brigade its various forensic disciplines by crime type so that resources for each discipline are clustered in particular laboratories. That raises the issue that some jobs and sites will be lost. When the consultation started, the FSS had to inform the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it envisaged a maximum of 800 redundancies. But let me make it absolutely clear that that is the maximum number, not a foregone conclusion. The first steps in implementing the plan began with the announcement on 8 June. Let me also make it clear, as the company’s chairman and I have been with each other, that we are in consultation and no decisions have been made. That includes decisions on the future of each and every site.
An issue that is of wider importance to many of my hon. Friends is the future direction of the FSS. I do not believe that efficient and effective companies are a monopoly of the private sector. I want public services to be delivered to the highest possible standard.