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Forensic Science Service

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2011

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I am also pleased to secure this debate on the future of the Forensic Science Service.

My interest in this subject began with a visit from one of my constituents, who works as a senior forensic scientist at the northern firearms unit in Manchester. It was at his invitation that I was able to visit that facility, which is part of the wider FSS. I intend to say a little more about the unit later in my speech, but first I want to say that my constituency owes a wider debt to the work of the FSS.

I am sure that Members are familiar with the crimes of Dr Harold Shipman. He was a trusted family doctor in my constituency who murdered more than 200 of his patients in what remains this country’s worst case of a serial killer. Without the detailed toxicology evidence that the FSS offered to the courts, it is questionable whether the extent of his killings would ever have been proven. This single example is a powerful reminder of the capacity that the FSS gives to our law enforcement agencies.

The 1,100 highly trained staff in the FSS have the skills and expertise to identify an offender or unravel the chain of events that led to a crime, often from studying no more than a pattern of blood, a strand of hair or the tread-markings left by a shoe. Their unrivalled range of expertise includes the analysis of documents, mobile phones, toxicology, marks and traces, DNA, firearms, fibres and hair. Their analysis has helped to secure convictions in 220 so-called “cold cases”, and a further 600 cases are actively under review. Among their groundbreaking achievements was the establishment of the world’s first national DNA database. The FSS is now based in four laboratories across the country and it deals with up to 120,000 cases a year, regardless of their complexity. The quality of its meticulous work has earned the FSS the respect of experts from around the globe.

In December 2010, the Government announced that the FSS will close by the end of March 2012. As I understand it, the Government hope that the closure of the FSS will increase competition. They believe that the vacuum created by its absence will immediately be filled by private providers and in-house police force provision, and they hope that by creating a more commercial market prices will be driven down and turnaround times improved.

I have real fears, however, that the absence of the FSS will impact on the quality of justice in the courts. I know that no Member would want to back proposals that would directly result in our losing the ability to carry out this kind of work. I hope that raising these concerns today will lead the Government to take a second look at their plans.

Any changes to the FSS must have the integrity of our judicial system at their core. There are still too many questions about the scope and quality of the provision that will be available following the closure of the FSS. In my remarks today, I will consider whether the high standards, impartiality and scope of the current provision will survive under the Government’s proposals; I will question the financial argument being put by the Government; and I will ask whether the Minister is willing to risk serious damage to the quality of justice by implementing these reforms.

As I mentioned previously, my concern about this issue began when I recently visited the northern firearms unit, which is part of the FSS. My visit was at the invitation of a constituent who has worked in this sector for more than 24 years and is deeply concerned by the Government’s plans. He is one of several specialists at the unit who are called on to support the police at scenes of shootings around the clock, 365 days a year. Their laboratory analysis can shed important light on the circumstances surrounding a crime. By looking at wounds, blood patterns and bullet casings, they can determine how a person was shot, the number of weapons involved and even if the same gun has been involved in other shootings. The unit has played a major role in solving a number of high-profile gun crimes and in achieving the subsequent convictions.

The unit’s success relies, however, on the flexibility to devote the time necessary to each investigation. Staff at the unit fear that many of their successes might not have been possible within the financial constraints of a more commercial market. They also fear that private providers are unlikely to offer the guaranteed on-call service that is required. I am sure that private companies will bid for the work of the FSS, but the risk is that they will cherry-pick the quickest, least labour-intensive and most profitable parts, which could have a serious impact on the quality of justice delivered by our court system.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, and I agree with the points that he is making. Does he agree that another factor to consider is that the FSS, which I have also visited, keeps an awful lot of DNA samples taken from crime scenes, and that it seems that the Government have not given much thought to what will happen to all those samples when the FSS closes? The work done by the FSS is far too important for us simply to hope that something will be put in its place. The Government need to ensure that something is in place before they go ahead with the closure of the FSS.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I absolutely agree with him. I will address the point he makes later in my speech.

I visited the firearms archive in Manchester, which is truly something to be seen. It is important not only for cross-referencing crimes with other crimes but for the expertise that goes with that work. Using the archive properly is absolutely crucial, but I understand that the Government have not yet decided what will happen to it. The future of the archive is very important.

I will be cautious in my remarks because I am Chair of the Science and Technology Committee and we are in the middle of an inquiry into this issue. I am pleased to see that two of my assiduous colleagues on the Committee—the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) and for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe)—are in Westminster Hall for this debate; they both play an important role on the Committee.

One strand of evidence given by many people is about the Birmingham archive for the FSS, which is the central records store of the FSS operation. Everyone is arguing that the archive needs to be kept intact and protected and made accessible for the investigations that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) has referred to. Following his own research, does he agree that protecting the Birmingham archive is a necessary part of the process?

I agree absolutely and I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee, and indeed other members of the Select Committee for attending today. I have read through much of the evidence they have received. Given the limited time for this debate, it is not possible to go through all the evidence, but my hon. Friend’s point about the Birmingham archive is particularly important and I hope the Minister will be able to offer us some assurance about the archive.

The northern firearms unit, which I visited, is just one of many disciplines offered by the FSS. It is a small but significant cog in a much larger wheel. No private provider is currently able to offer the same breadth of forensic services and expertise as the FSS, whose holistic approach is a clear benefit to our judicial system. By offering such a comprehensive range of services, it is in an unrivalled position to determine what is required from a crime scene and to provide the data.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The FSS has a range of responsibilities and inputs. Does he agree that, given the unfortunate potential for a rise in terrorist offences—or at least the threat of terrorist offences—as well as the more regular criminal activity that the FSS deals with as part of the justice system, there are concerns about resilience in dealing with terror?

I agree. Our capacity to deal with an incident such as a major terrorist incident is one of the most pressing problems that we face. I think that we would all agree that, whatever the costs involved, we simply cannot be without the capacity to respond to such incidents appropriately.

By working across a range of services, the FSS offers a holistic approach that allows its specialists to evaluate the relative importance of any crime scene before a case goes to court. Without that holistic approach, the danger is that analysis of a crime scene would have to be delivered piecemeal by different providers. That would introduce unnecessary confusion and possibly compromise justice.

In addition, there is the challenge of maintaining standards if the FSS is closed. The ability to determine that current levels of accuracy are maintained will be crucial. At present, members of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, such as the FSS, must be accredited. However, with the exception of those dealing with DNA, there are no statutory requirements for forensic science companies or in-house police departments to comply with any published standards. Few of us would think that these plans to close the FSS could come into force until stronger requirements were in place to ensure that all providers must meet minimum standards.

Moreover, that step would have financial implications of its own. I understand that the Government have already made it clear that additional funds would not be available for police forces that wished to increase their own laboratory capacity. If the police choose to increase their in-house provision of forensic services, they will also have to address the issue of impartiality. We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the police have already taken a great deal of forensic science in-house, and that the trend in the marketplace, which perhaps has led to some of the current problems, has been caused by the police doing that and leaving less and less for people to fight over?

I recognise that point. The statistics show that income from the sector has decreased as functions have been taken in-house. A point that I would like to address later in my speech is that some functions can be taken in-house but others cannot, and we must maintain that capacity.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time in giving way. Further to the point my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) has just made, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, although the Government have to take some action because of the FSS’s financial situation, the market that their strategy seeks to create is being diminished each year by the increasing level of police in-house provision?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman’s point is crucial because, if the market is not rigorous and robust, there will be nothing there to fill the gap created by the absence of the FSS.

As well as being active in the immediate aftermath of a crime, the FSS also secures convictions in so-called cold cases. Over many years, it has built up archives of more than 1.5 million case files and a vast number of retained materials, including DNA, fibres and recovered debris. The application of advanced forensic techniques to archive material by FSS scientists has helped to secure convictions for more than 220 historical crimes. That work would not be possible without the archives, but we do not know what will happen to them when the FSS is closed. Other Members have made that point, and the Government dearly need to address it. In addition, we do not know what will happen to the unrivalled collection of firearms currently in the FSS’s possession.

The dissolution of the FSS will clearly require something to emerge to fill its place and continue its important work. The Government have claimed that there is no reason to think that the private sector would be unable to meet the demand for forensic services; but where, Minister—as the FSS itself might ask—is the evidence? As uncertainty continues to surround the provision of forensic science services in the UK, significant numbers of scientists are taking up jobs overseas or choosing to move on to other careers, and the coverage offered by the current private forensic science providers is broad in neither scope nor geography. I am told, for instance, that not one provider in the south of England specialises in firearms. Following the reduction in the market, questions have been asked about the financial stability of a number of accredited private providers. Can the Minister tell us what safeguards there will be to ensure that all the required forensic specialisms are available in the new marketplace?

We also need to ask what will happen in the wake of a major terrorist incident. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings and attempted bombings of 7 and 21 July, more than 100 FSS scientists were called on to analyse 4,500 items. Drawing on those experts in DNA, document examination, mobile phone analysis, toxicology, and marks and traces, it was possible to determine what had happened. Thankfully, such incidents are not commonplace, but the warning this week reminds us that we never know when the next incident might be—we know only that there is likely to be one.

The FSS is the only UK organisation with forensic experience of terrorist attacks. Without it, who would have the capability and capacity to provide the vital evidence that our judicial system requires? It is not acceptable to leave the UK unable to deal with the aftermath of a major terrorist attack, and if the Government cannot prove that their plans have the rigour to cope, they should withdraw them immediately and think again.

When there are so many unanswered questions and so many risks attached, I wonder why the Government have started down this path. I fear that they have made a mistake in reaching their decision to close the FSS, and that they will soon regret it. They have repeatedly insisted that the FSS—currently a Government-owned company—makes monthly losses of about £2 million, and I understand that they hope that a more commercial market will drive prices down and improve turnaround times. The Government’s plans, however, do not seem to add up.

In recent months, the FSS has closed down three laboratory sites and shed 750 staff as part of a drive to make itself more competitive. It is believed to be on track to make the required savings, yet the Government themselves admit that the £2 million figure they repeatedly use to justify their plans takes no account of the significant savings made by the restructuring programme.

We know that the service provided by the FSS is exceptionally good. I can say without hesitation that its work has made my city, my constituency and my community safer, and the same is true for other Members. I hope, therefore, that the Minister understands how concerned many of us are about the possibility of losing the FSS and is able to offer me some solid assurances in his response today.

I echo other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing this debate. I am aware of the importance of this issue and the sensitivities that surround it. Forensic science is clearly a vital tool of the criminal justice system and one which deserves proper consideration by this House.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Harold Shipman case, which is just one of the most dramatic—in many ways terrible, obviously—of the many cases in which forensic science plays a vital role. The Forensic Science Service has had a proud tradition of providing an excellent, professional service to the whole criminal justice system, but its financial circumstances meant that decisive action was needed to maintain the continuity of supply of forensic services to that system. In the end, I think that what all our constituents will most care about is that the system continues in an efficient fashion.

Let me go through why the announcement has had to be made and answer some of the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman and by other Members on both sides of the House. The situation that led to the Government’s announcement to manage the closure of the FSS last December is clear: the challenging forensics market put the FSS in serious financial difficulty. As the hon. Gentleman said, the FSS had monthly operating losses of about £2 million and faced the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensic services. The Government have invested significant amounts of money in recent years in restructuring the FSS, but the downturn in the forensics market unfortunately meant that further investment in restructuring the company was no longer a viable option.

We considered three options to resolve the financial difficulties faced by the FSS: uncontrolled administration, further restructuring of the company, and a managed wind-down. Without the prospect of further financial help, the FSS board would have been forced to place the company into administration in early 2011. Uncontrolled administration would have seriously damaged the forensics capability available to the criminal justice system, and we were not prepared to take that risk. From everything that the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, I imagine he would agree that such a risk should not have been countenanced in any way. Although further restructuring would have had less impact on the criminal justice system than losing the FSS overnight, it would not have solved the key underlying problem of reduced customer demand. The FSS had already received a £50 million grant for restructuring, and although it has significantly reduced the size of its business, the market has continued to contract. The FSS’s share of the market has also shrunk as other competent companies have won police contracts through the police procurement process. That, combined with EU state aid and competition law constraints, meant that further restructuring was simply no longer viable.

I strongly believe that the managed wind-down of the FSS is the right choice, both financially and for the criminal justice system. Several Members have asked about the attitude of other people within the criminal justice system. We consulted key partners across the system before making this decision, and their collective view is that a managed closure is in the best interests of the system as a whole.

I would be the first to acknowledge that the GovCo process had not been as successful as was hoped. What worries me about the position taken by the Minister and his colleagues is that no one can tell us what the economic facts are. Simply talking about the FSS’s expenditure is not adequate; we need to know the capital expenditure on forensic science—programmes past and present—of every police authority, but neither the Home Office nor the Association of Chief Police Officers can provide that information. Until that information is available, I am afraid that the Minister will have a hard job convincing people of what might be a meritorious case.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I have read the evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), a few weeks ago. He was pressed for that information, and undertook to go away and find it out. The hon. Gentleman said that he requires the full economic case. The starkest economic point is simply that the FSS is draining money away. Money has been put into restructuring, and it has not worked. As he said, the previous Government set up a GovCo in an attempt to solve the problem, but sadly, that has not worked. We knew that we could not carry on as before. The Government were faced with a set of options, and I am trying to explain why we chose what we did.

I understand where the Minister is coming from, and we have been told today that the Home Office cannot provide that information because it is impossible to calculate, but the starkest economic fact is that we do not know how we are managing public money that has been spent on forensic science. Surely it must be the Minister’s highest priority to work out that conundrum.

It is certainly a priority, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the operational expenditure of individual police forces is a matter for chief constables. [Interruption.] He makes a gesture, but it would be wrong for Home Office Ministers to try to detail every piece of expenditure by every police force in the country. By going down that route, we have over-managed police forces and other public services, to their detriment. I am afraid he will have to bite the bullet: allowing the police operational independence is an important way to improve the service.

On the operational independence of the police, the Minister will be aware that some of the fiercest criticism of the closure of the FSS has come from police chief constables, including the chief constable of South Yorkshire, who said that it would

“have a ‘disproportionate effect’ on forces in Yorkshire and the North East because they are more reliant on the service than constabularies elsewhere.”

If the views of the police are so important, will he bear in mind their views on the closure of the FSS?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend leads me neatly into what I was about to say. The Association of Chief Police Officers, in particular, is clear that the forensic markets can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS, and ACPO has been closely involved in the process being carried out by the Government.

To address the fears about uncertainty, the managed wind-down of the FSS will allow time for the restructuring of the timetable for tendering new contracts, for the re-tendering of existing FSS contracts and for other forensic suppliers to develop their capacity to meet any additional requirements. That approach will also enable the FSS’s business and assets to be transferred in order to build a healthy market around other existing forensic suppliers, which already account for about 35% of the forensics market. That is clearly a significant point. Some may think that there is no one out there and this is a leap in the dark, but more than one third of the market is already in the hands of other operators.

Does the Minister accept that many of the prices currently offered by private sector providers are the result of competition with the FSS? If that is taken away, there is a chance that the marketplace could consolidate or prices could rise, which would not be in our interests. Further to that, many of the people in that specialist area have been trained by the FSS. As I understand it, private sector providers’ prices do not take into account the increased cost base of training their own people to be as skilled as they need to be to cover all the specialisms currently being covered.

The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that competition drives prices down and makes industries more efficient. That is a universal truth. However, a competitive market exists, and the managed wind-down of the FSS will enable the individual players in that market to become more competitive and the market itself to become a more effective area of competition.

The Government want the UK’s forensic science industry to operate as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost. That will, inter alia, preserve police resources and maximise the positive impact that forensic sciences can have on tackling crime. A competitive market can help drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning that serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, I am sure that that is what we all want.

Research and development in forensic science is essential to ensure the continued availability of a high-quality, efficient forensic science capability for the criminal justice system. Historically, such research has been undertaken by a wide range of organisations, including the private sector, Government-owned laboratories and academia.

Our decision took into account the need to manage the impact on forensic science research and development in the UK. Unfortunately, the FSS’s financial position had already limited the capacity for research and development for which it had become renowned. During the managed wind-down, we are working closely with the police, the FSS, the Crown Prosecution Service and other forensic providers to consider how the industry can build on existing expertise and continue the UK’s renowned research and innovation.

The Minister outlined the options that the Government considered when taking the decision. Did they consider restricting the police’s ability to provide in-house forensic services? That might have given the FSS a larger market in which to compete. As he will know if he has studied the evidence received by the Select Committee, many private sector suppliers have expressed concerns about their ability to invest in the future in a declining market if police provision continues to increase.

I am aware of the evidence given to the Select Committee. Perhaps this is a good time for me to address directly the question of how objective the advice given to police forces on forensic science will be if the service is provided in-house. The evidential value and integrity of forensic exhibits is tested under the intense scrutiny of the courts—from the point of collection, through analysis to interpretation and reporting. Each step in the process must be able to withstand such critical review, not least because the first body that the police must convince in any prosecution is the CPS. That is now an independent function. Fears that something untoward will happen if an individual police force does its own forensics in-house can be overstated.

Keeping one eye on the clock, I will deal directly with one or two other points raised in the debate. On the question of what will happen to the FSS’s archives, the Government obviously recognise their importance in academic terms and, perhaps even more importantly, to the investigation of cold cases. The forensic transition board has set up an archiving project board with members from the Home Office, the FSS, ACPO and key partners across the criminal justice system to recommend options for the handling and retention of FSS records so that historical data remain available to the criminal justice system. As part of that, we will seek to ensure that the necessary expertise remains to work on the data and mine them in the future.

Doubt was expressed about whether private providers will be able to cope, particularly with a major incident such as 7/7. As I mentioned, ACPO has made it clear that the forensics market can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS. An orderly wind-down, which is what we are managing, will allow adequate time for the current forensics framework to be restructured, for existing FSS contracts to be re-tendered and for other suppliers to increase their capability. We are reviewing the FSS functions as part of the process of managed closure. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who is the Minister responsible for crime and security, has kept Members informed of the Government’s plans so far and will continue to do so, particularly those Members who have forensic science sites in their constituencies.

The Government are aware that the decision to manage the closure of the FSS has put employees and their families in a difficult position. My hon. Friend has personally—