[Relevant Documents: Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, on the Forensic Science Service, HC 855, and the Government’s response, Cm 8215.] Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Home Office—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £66,029,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1755,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £4,421,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £173,266,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mr Newmark.)
On behalf of the Science and Technology Committee, it is my pleasure to open the first debate we have held in the Chamber in this Parliament. Our report on the Forensic Science Service was published in June last year. It was prompted by the Government’s decision to wind down the FSS and the ensuing concerns from the forensic science community and, indeed, Members across the House. Before going any further, I would like to thank the outgoing members of the Committee—motion 4 on today’s Order Paper identifies their replacements, who are welcome—for their contribution to the report and the work of the Committee. I would also like to put on the record my thanks to our scientific specialists and the Clerks for their sterling work.
I point out to the Minister that the report was unanimous, with all Committee members being dissatisfied with not only the situation we found ourselves investigating, but the Government’s response to it. To ensure the House understands the history of the situation, a few dates are relevant, and it goes back rather a long way. In 1991 the FSS became an Executive agency of the Home Office. In 1999 it gained trading fund status. In 2002 it stopped being the preferred supplier of forensic services for the Association of Chief Police Officers. In 2003 a Home Office review recommended that it become a public-private partnership via a government-owned company, a GovCo. The transition to a PPP was never completed. In 2005 the FSS changed from a trading fund to a GovCo. By March 2011, as part of a transformation programme, three FSS sites had been closed. On 14 December 2010 the Home Office announced that the FSS would be wound down and that there would be
“no continuing state interest in a forensics provider by March 2012”.
I will go through the Committee’s case—hopefully reasonably forensically—but one of the concerns we express is our worry that this could lead, in the worst cases, to miscarriages of justice. At the time the Government made their announcement, the FSS’s operating losses were claimed to be about £2 million a month and the projected shrinking of forensic markets was cited as the reason for the decision.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, does he agree that one of the appalling things about the Government’s decision was that there was no consultation? There were discussions afterwards about how to wind down the FSS, but no consultation either to look at the finances or, in particular, to determine what impact that would have on the science base.
I not only agree with my hon. Friend, who plays a sterling role in the Committee, but think that the Government, had they undertaken the kind of consultation he envisages, would have made savings by approaching the problem in a different way. There was undoubtedly a problem, because the GovCo would technically have been trading illegally if it had carried on trading at a loss, but for reasons I will set out there were solutions to that.
Before venturing any further, I should say that I have an indirect family interest in the matter.
My hon. Friend says that there were other ways of doing this. One such way was the closure of laboratories at Chepstow and Chorley, which had been envisaged and was itself controversial, but the financial effects of which have not been seen. Therefore, the Government have effectively stepped in with both feet to make this radical change before seeing whether the FSS could have put its own financial house in order.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, I remind all Members that when making an intervention or speaking in the Chamber they must face the Chair and not turn their back to it, because otherwise it is very difficult not only for me, but for other Members to hear their contribution and pick up clearly the point from the microphones.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and I will demonstrate later that when we saw the next set of FSS accounts, the supposed £2 million a month loss had shrunk by a remarkable degree.
The FSS provided forensic services to police forces across England and Wales and to other agencies, such as the Crown Prosecution Service. It held about a 60% share of the market when the closure decision was made. We were told that the decision was based on commercial and legal grounds. The FSS had been struggling for many years, and it had gone through a series of status changes over the previous two decades, eventually becoming Government-owned.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I shall cover that issue in a moment, because the whole point of the Committee’s investigation is that the FSS is not simply a trading arm; it incorporates a range of other resources, and the Government now agree that it is necessary to protect some of them, such as the archive.
In 2008 the FSS transformation programme, funded by a Government grant, was designed to turn the service into a profitable and sustainable business. The FSS told us that prior to the 2010 closure decision it had been on track—this supports the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made—to reduce the headcount and to close three of its sites as part of that programme.
One suspects that had successive Governments—to respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti)—placed in a separate account the cost of primary research and the cost of maintaining the archive, the figures would be quite different today. However, the internal financial struggles of the FSS must be seen in the wider context of the changes to the forensic market.
Anyone who has ever run a business will know that, however much they restructure, the profitability and sustainability of their business ultimately depends on the size of the market. The market for forensic services is largely driven by the police customer, and it is worth clarifying that police forensic expenditure splits into “internal”, what they do in-house, and “external”, what they spend on external providers. External spend constitutes the bulk of the forensics market.
The peculiar factor in the Forensic Science Service is that its initial customer is the investigating police officer, but as time goes on the relationship transforms and ultimately the customer is the jury. This rather unusual transformation means that the customer is initially in one Department but finally in another, the Ministry of Justice.
Our inquiry found that between 2005 and 2011, police external forensic expenditure steadily decreased, and unpublished analysis of the forensics market in September 2010 expected the market to decline from £170 million in 2009 to £110 million in 2015. Ignoring the impact of the 2010 spending review, which had yet to bite on police resources, that analysis represented a 35% decrease in the market.
No, I will not.
The Committee’s report is not a partisan attack on the Government; it represents a Committee unanimously criticising the actions of a particular Department under both its current stewardship and its previous ownership. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I am taking a partisan view.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is entirely possible that the previous Government got things wrong, that this Government are also at risk of getting things wrong, and that what matters is not whose fault it is but what we can do to ensure that forensic science in this country is improved?
I agree. The important point is to get things right, and I hope to demonstrate that that is what the Committee achieved in its recommendations. Indeed, the Government seem to have acted on one of the substantial recommendations, and we welcome that.
Police internal spend on forensics generally increased between 2005 and 2011, but although we have had explanations, such as increased efficiencies, reduced demand, competition and driving down prices, for the decrease in external spend, we have not been able to obtain from the Government a satisfactory explanation either for the increase in internal spend or of how the money was spent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) had a very unsatisfactory response to a series of freedom of information requests, and I raised that with the Minister on 19 December 2011. In answer to my question about whether it would be reasonable to add together revenue and capital to make sense of the figures that the police forces gave us, he rightly said that that would be mixing apples with pears—but that is exactly what the Metropolitan police did in response to my hon. Friend’s inquiry.
Let me put on the record what the Scrutiny Unit had to say about the period covered by the FOI requests. During that period only £10.6 million in total was classified as capital, and that was only by fewer than half the police authorities that provided data. That accounts for less than 2% of total expenditure, but the low level of expenditure might be down partly to how capital expenditure is recorded. The Scrutiny Unit notes, for example, that the Met police stated:
“The budgets for forensic science are revenue budgets and any expenditure incurred would have been through these revenue budgets. This includes any equipment purchases or building works.”
That is not in line with normal accounting practice, whereby expenditure over a pre-determined level on items with a lifespan of more than one year is classified as capital expenditure. That normally covers items such as building works and expensive laboratory equipment, so we agree with the Minister about not mixing apples with pears.
It remains the case, however, that there is no overall control of forensic budgets, and I think the Committee proves beyond doubt that the Government’s case remains seriously damaged. This situation also demonstrates the cavalier attitude of police authorities to a reasonable request from an hon. Member making an FOI inquiry.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is laying out the ambiguities in the finances, but on the two deep issues as the police changed from an FSS customer to a competitor: first, some bodies are not accredited to the right level in forensic science; secondly, the experience from the United States of America is that when the police do their own forensic work they end up with a conflict of interest.
My hon. Friend’s first observation takes us right back to the first intervention that I took, on the risk of miscarriages of justice. His second point is interesting. Some laboratories that are currently up and running do not meet the standards that the regulator wants, and police authorities that have thought about that have started to bring some of the resources together in house. If we are not careful we will reinvent the FSS, and find that we have wasted a huge amount of money in the meantime.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are already a number of concerns about this? For example, a survey by New Scientist earlier this month found that 28.6% of analysts said that they sometimes or always feel pressured to produce a particular result. There are problems now, and there is no reason to believe that they will be resolved.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I hope that every senior official of the Home Office is required to read that New Scientist article, because, first, it would do them good to read some science, and secondly, it underlines an important point about the quest for justice that this should be all about.
Looking forward, one of our key recommendations was that the forensics market must be stabilised. Police in-sourcing must be regulated to ensure that there is a competitive market for remaining providers; otherwise, the UK’s forensic science capabilities could be further damaged.
We also considered the implications of closing the FSS in terms of the risks to the skills base available to the criminal justice system. Our primary concern was whether forensic analysis would be taking place in unaccredited laboratories. Forensic services provided to police forces by the FSS and private companies had to be accredited to the standard of ISO 17025, but police laboratories do not have to be so accredited, and that seems to be an anomaly. That standard assesses the competence of an individual scientist and the organisation in which he or she works, as well as the validity of methods used and impartiality. Adherence to the standard is therefore crucial in maintaining the confidence of the courts and the public in the scientific evidence used in criminal cases.
We concluded that transferring work from the FSS to an unaccredited laboratory would pose significant and unacceptable risks to the operation of criminal justice. We specifically recommended that the forensic science regulator should be given statutory powers to enforce compliance with quality standards, and we remain disappointed that the Home Office has not committed to that. To the regulator’s credit, however, since our report was published we have not heard of any work being transferred to unaccredited environments.
The FSS has maintained an archive of materials, case files and notes—a rich resource that has proved valuable in cold case reviews and investigations of miscarriages of justice. To give a flavour of the scale, the FSS estimated that in May 2011 its archive held 1.78 million case files. We were deeply concerned about the uncertain future of the FSS’s archive, and strongly considered that it should not be fragmented, whatever the future of the organisation. I am pleased to say that the Government agreed with that recommendation. This underlines the fact that both Governments should have dealt with the GovCo’s accounts in a different way. About 21 staff will maintain the archive, and the Government’s estimated running costs are stated to be approximately £2 million a year. It would not be appropriate to put on a side wager with the Minister, but I predict that that cost will inexorably rise significantly, because the bigger the archive gets and the more complex the science gets, the more expensive a project this will become, albeit one that we ought to maintain in the interests of justice.
The long-term future of the archive remains uncertain. There are still several archive-related activities previously undertaken by the FSS that must be picked up elsewhere. In particular, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice, will need in future to pay a private forensic service provider for the services previously provided free of charge by the FSS. I would be interested to know what assessment has been made of the impact of these changes. This again illustrates my point about the fact that the issue crosses Government departmental boundaries.
Another facet of our inquiry was to examine the impact of closing the FSS on forensic research and development in the UK. The FSS spent £3 million to £4 million a year on R and D. Private sector players also spend on R and D, but often more towards the development end. Basic forensic science research in universities and other institutions has long struggled for funds, and this area has not been supported by the research councils with the degree of priority that it deserves. We therefore recommended that the Home Office and research councils develop a new national research budget for forensic science. Alas, while there have been some soothing noises, we have not yet seen any real commitments. If this is not the job of the research councils or the Home Office, then whose responsibility is it—or are we just going to leave it in the air?
Last but not least, the strength of any organisation is its people. That is why we took a particular interest in what would happen to the highly skilled forensic scientists facing redundancy. This country is a world leader in the field, having pioneered DNA forensic technologies, for example. One does not become a forensic scientist overnight; it takes years of training and experience. Much of the UK’s intellectual wealth in this area resides within FSS scientists, and once it is lost, I fear that it will not be easily regained. We recommended that transfer of FSS staff to other forensic service providers be conducted under TUPE regulations, which provide the necessary employment protections. Reflecting our concern that forensics expertise may be lost altogether, we were keen for forensic scientists to be retained within the profession and within the UK.
The FSS had over 1,000 staff, about 840 of whom have left since December 2010. Unfortunately, while 103 staff have moved via TUPE to the Metropolitan police service and another 11 staff will move via TUPE to Government agencies, no staff have transferred to other forensic service providers via TUPE. Furthermore, because the FSS is a GovCo rather than a non-departmental public body, FSS staff have thus far been unable to access internal civil service vacancies. I am awaiting a response from the Government on this point, having written to the Minister for the Cabinet Office on 9 February.
Adding this all together, we are talking about the loss of skills to the UK; the damage to the UK’s reputation from closing a world-class service; the cost of running the archive; the fact that what the Government estimated to be a £2 million per month loss was in fact £1 million; the lack of understanding of expenditure in this important area and of the way in which it spills over to other Departments; and the impact on justice. That combination of factors makes this matter far too important to be dealt with on an estimates day, and I regret that this debate cannot take place on a votable motion.
The picture is looking bleak overall. Last week the FSS suggested that the vast majority—up to 80%—of forensic scientists from the FSS have left the industry, with an even larger percentage, closer to 90%, of research and development scientists moving to a different sector. Although there are not yet any definitive data, it appears that the UK is losing that intellectual wealth. We often talk about the brain drain in science. This could be a mass exodus of talent.
I hope that Members will agree that our inquiry into the Forensic Science Service was both necessary and timely. Before I conclude, it is worth mentioning that we put on the record criticisms of the way in which the FSS has been handled by both the previous Government and the current Government. What I would like to see from the Government is a proper well-considered strategy for forensic science in the UK. It is important that this matter be addressed well before the imposition of police and crime commissioners. It is also imperative that the strategy be based on the delivery of justice, not just on the interests of the police as a customer, as important as those are.
My hon. Friend has made an extremely powerful speech on behalf of the Select Committee. He mentioned justice. I advise everybody in the Chamber to read the oral evidence that Dr Tully gave the Committee, in which she made it absolutely clear that there will be cold cases, and perhaps current cases, in which murderers and rapists get off free because of the changes that have been made.
I repeat what was going to be my final point. It is imperative that the strategy be based on the delivery of justice, not just on the interests of the police, important as those are. I noticed the Minister nodding at that point; I am sure that it is one on which he and I would agree.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). To continue the forensic analogies, it is an unquantifiable pleasure.
I want to start by recognising the excellent work that forensic scientists do, no matter where in the country they work. It is often painstaking work and it is often undertaken in unpleasant situations. Much of the work that they do is unsung and they remain largely anonymised within the system. I therefore praise the work of the forensic experts and scientists who do so much to support the criminal justice system in this country.
The Forensic Science Service has been making a significant loss for a considerable period. This is not a new situation that has materialised suddenly in the 18 months since this Government came into being. The Forensic Science Service has had 20 years of fiscal decline and difficulties. It has lost about £2 million a month. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is signalling that it is more like £1 million a month. Even if that were true, and it is not accepted that it is, £1 million a month is a great deal of money to lose, particularly in these straitened times of austerity. One cannot lightly brush aside such significant monthly losses.
The overwhelming client of the Forensic Science Service is the police in England and Wales, although there are some other clients. The money is therefore being paid by the police service. If the contracts are adjusted, as they may well be by commercial providers, all that will happen is that the police service will pay more money. These notional losses are a consequence of the way in which the system is set up. What parts of the criminal justice system does the hon. Gentleman think should make a profit?
The Government have supplied £20 million to maintain operational continuity and some £8.7 million to cover staffing costs in recent months. There is no point in Opposition Members taking the anti-privatisation and anti-capitalist approach and saying that the best approach is for the Government to run everything from the centre. That is not the best approach. We know from numerous examples over the past 20 or 30 years how the commercial sector has driven better results and circumstances for the Government and for the individual.
The hon. Gentleman will find that neither I nor any other member of the Select Committee from either side of the House has ever criticised the principle of having private sector providers. LGC and other providers are first-rate scientific laboratories. However, that does not make the economic case.
It was Sir Robert Peel who set up the Laboratory of the Government Chemist in 1842 to analyse alcohol and tobacco products. It remained in situ until 1996, when it was privatised. There has, in effect, been a managed decline of the Forensic Science Service for years, including under the previous Labour Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituents who work as forensic scientists for LGC that since 1991, when the market was opened up, there has been more innovation and investment, quality has been driven up, and prices and turnaround times have been driven down?
I do agree with that.
In Germany and the United States, both of which are first-world countries and in the group of the 20 leading industrialised nations, it can take up to six weeks for routine forensic results to come through, whereas in this country, as the LGC managing director has confirmed, similar results can be obtained in two to three days. That has been the case for years. Opposition Members express concern about the private sector and ask, “What price justice?” I say to them that the private sector has been used in forensic services for years.
To support my hon. Friend’s point, I cite Cellmark Forensic Services, which is based in Abingdon in my constituency. It was established in 1987 as the world’s first commercial DNA fingerprinting service. It was involved in presenting the first DNA evidence at the Old Bailey. It highlights the fact that private companies can establish a reputation for quality and for technical evidence. It has had the ISO quality accreditation since 1990 and is fully accredited to submit crime scene profiles and profiles taken under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to the DNA national database. I am concerned that some of the contributions to this debate will undermine public confidence in forensic evidence that comes to the criminal justice system from private companies. I hope that Members wish to avoid that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) spoke about criminals getting off free. Such scaremongering is not acceptable. One has to juxtapose such suggestions with the fact that the private sector has been involved in forensic science for years and is currently responsible for up to 50% of the work.
There is no dissent across the Chamber on the fact that the private sector has a role and performs it well in some instances. If we are going to talk about management structures, I understand that 20% of LGC is owned by its management and staff, and that all its staff have phantom shares. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a great argument for employee share ownership, because it drives companies to care about their staff and staff to care about what they are trying to achieve?
The hon. Gentleman referred to what I said earlier, and I should like to clarify two points. First, the private sector does an extremely good job on many occasions. It has sped up DNA analysis, and it has improved things where there is a regular scientific progress to go through.
Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman reads the evidence, he will see that there is likely to be a problem with the interrogation of the database. That service of the FSS is likely to disappear for ever. That was why some of the evidence given to the Committee indicated very strongly that cold cases would not be solved and that in current cases guilty people would go free.
I do not accept that at all, but I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to give his view.
Private companies already provide 35% of forensic services to the criminal justice system. To counter points that Opposition Members have made about a potential conflict of interest in the police analysing forensic evidence, I point out that there are already numerous examples of constabularies up and down the country being responsible for analysing forensic evidence such as footprints, fingerprints and the like. They farm out some areas of forensic science, but there is no suggestion that there have not been numerous examples of the police analysing evidence themselves. I see no reason why we should fear impropriety.
The archives will be retained, which is right. It is also right that staff are being moved prior to the controlled shutdown of the FSS and that work is being safely transferred. I note with some interest that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Keir Starmer, who I believe was appointed by the Labour Government, remains satisfied that the closure is orderly and that things can be properly managed. The financial service regulator has also—
Forgive me. The Forensic Science Regulator has said that laboratories, prosecuting authorities, professional bodies, the judiciary and the Association of Chief Police Officers all feel that they can support the Government’s measures. The concerns being expressed by one or two Opposition Members are not duplicated by those authoritative organisations.
Twelve new service providers have already been contracted, and some already have vast experience of dealing with particularly significant cases of public fame and notoriety. They already have the type of experience that the FSS has under its belt.
Getting forensics right is important to the defence as well as the prosecution. One tends to hear the argument that it is important to secure prosecutions, but forensic results can also exonerate people who are suspected of criminal offences. They therefore serve the wider public interests of justice. The defence should be factored into what is done, and there is no reason to think otherwise.
As I alluded to in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the managing director of LGC Forensics, one of the larger companies doing private work in the field, has pointed out that privatisation has provided and will provide capacity where the Forensic Science Service cannot necessarily cope. As in many other fields of privatisation, that greater capacity will provide faster turnaround times, which will be in the wider interests of justice. That gentleman gave the example that it takes six weeks in Germany or the United States to get some results that we in England and Wales can obtain in two to three days.
The private sector can invest in the future and in innovation in a way that Governments tend not to be able to do, or to be as efficient at doing, because of the sheer size of government. Commercial entities must innovate or die, and the private sector companies involved in the field of forensic science will be looking to innovate in certain areas. That will have a beneficial effect on the wider interests of justice.
I give as examples two inventions in the forensic science field that have been credited to LGC. Automated fibre analysis and the analysis of minuscule amounts of DNA are new fields of forensic analysis that were invented by that private company, and apparently both were used to aid the prosecution of the killers of Stephen Lawrence. I do not wish to focus only on that company, but it is right to point out that it has some 650 forensic scientists or experts in its employment and turns over £170 million annually. Such companies can expand, advance and examine what advances are being made internationally. That is another signal reason why privatisation can be in the wider interests of justice.
It has been my experience in the courts of England that juries are not particularly interested in what company a scientist comes from. If anything, they are more focused on their qualifications or experience. They are particularly impressed by how long a scientist has been working in a particular field and what his or her qualifications are. In my view, they are not likely to focus on whether the scientist comes from company A, company B or the Forensic Science Service. That will not influence juries.
No, I do not think I do agree with that. Of course I accept that a laboratory must be accredited, but it is most unlikely that a judge, never mind the prosecutor or the defence, would accept without question evidence from unqualified scientists. The scientists will be highly qualified to give persuasive evidence to a court, but it is of course necessary to ensure that scientific laboratories are properly accredited and qualified.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s last point—that is critical in the interests of justice. The Science and Technology Committee has said that whether laboratories are in the private or the public sector, work should be done in accredited laboratories; otherwise, justice could be at risk.
There is a very big difference there. Hon. Members will do well to recall that under the McFarland review the previous Labour Government effectively accepted a move towards privatisation but botched the job. There is no point in trying to get away from the fact that the FSS is urgently in need of change, and the Government’s move is the right one for the wider interests of forensics.
Does my hon. Friend agree—perhaps this has not been understood—that before a so-called expert can give written or oral evidence to a court the judge has to be satisfied that they are indeed an expert in the field in which they say they are an expert? It matters not where they have come from. What matters to the judge is that they have qualifications, experience and so on, so that it can be determined that they are an expert in the field in which they are giving evidence.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend—I have made that point already. The reality is that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service would not seek to put a case before a judge and jury that relied on someone who was not actually an expert. Therefore, pursuing that argument is clutching at straws.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again—he is being incredibly generous—but may I take him back to the point that he was edging towards making? By proposing a £50 million subsidy in March 2009 for the transition arrangements, did the previous Government send a message that they were not interested in the private sector? Does he agree that that did more damage than anything else to their scope for investment at that time?
I agree. When the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was Home Secretary, he accepted the recommendations of the McFarland review into the future of forensic science services. The then Government said that the review
“makes a number of helpful observations and recommendations aimed at improving FSS performance, but the most fundamental is that it should be transformed from a trading fund into a government-owned company as a precursor to development into a private sector classified public/private partnership…I am confident that the proposed change will stimulate and broaden the market”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 July 2003; Vol. 651, c. WA167-168.]
The proposals are an extension of that position. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) said at that time:
“The status quo is not an option, and it is clear that we need to act to ensure that the FSS remains a leading-edge forensic organisation.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2011; Vol. 412, c. 280WH.]
That is what will happen now. The Forensic Science Service needs to provide an excellent service, but it need not be in Government hands to do so. Farming it out to the private sector is simply an extension of the current position, to the tune of between 35% and 50%, depending on whom we listen to.
The Committee report states its
“disappointment at the historical inadequacies in government decision-making that brought the FSS to its current dire financial situation.”
I recognise that, but the Committee wished to place
“on record that we consider much of the responsibility for the current problems facing the FSS to lie with previous administrations.”
I am happy to accept that point. I happen to agree with it, but I would go further and say that the FSS is in its current position almost solely because of how it was run down under the previous Labour Administration.
I note that the Committee agreed with the Government that allowing the FSS to go into administration would have been undesirable. I presume that Labour Members agree with that, because allowing the FSS to go into administration would not have been good for the criminal justice system or for FSS staff.
It is clear that the wider interests of the criminal justice system in this country are best met by the actions that the Government are taking. They are taking the bull by the horns, which has to be done to provide the continuation of the excellent service from forensic scientists and experts, who have given such excellent support to the wider criminal justice system in this country for many years.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) not only for his Committee’s review, but for his explanation of its position. The Committee, of course, is impartial—there is a majority of coalition Members on the Committee, so it is clearly not biased in any way.
I come to this debate with no scientific expertise, but with some knowledge as a criminal lawyer. I can see on the Government Benches very eminent members of the Bar, for whom I have a fair amount of respect. I understand that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) sits as a recorder in the Crown Court, and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—she is clearly not in the same party, but we get on particularly well—is a barrister.
I had suspected, although I did not know this until he spoke, that the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) was probably a member of the Bar too. I was confused about parts of his speech. He seemed to suggest that Opposition Members had said there was no room for the private sector in the FSS. With respect, I suspect that he was reading a speech that he had written in anticipation of what my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston might have said, rather than speaking in response to what he actually said.
I am concerned. The loss of the FSS is short-sighted and could lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice. My hon. Friend’s first criticism in the review was of the lack of consideration to the future of the FSS and of the Government’s failure to consult scientific experts. The Committee also expressed concerns about the loss of expertise—top scientists exiting the profession—and research and development work. That must be a concern for all Members on both sides of the House.
I echo those concerns, but I shall concentrate on the possible implications for the criminal justice system. Provision could be fragmented, which cannot be positive. Formerly, the FSS would independently deal with evidence from a crime scene, oversee tests and co-ordinate different pieces of evidence. I am concerned that the introduction of a number of different private providers—I do not instinctively dislike private providers—will fragment that process.
Having different providers dealing with different pieces of the jigsaw is fraught with dangers for justice and might lead to miscarriages of justice. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Northampton North, who seemed to say that the proposals are all about money, which is fine. Of course, at times of austerity, we need to be careful about how money is spent, but hon. Members will not think I am a raving lunatic if I suggest that £24 million a year is not an awful lot of money for justice, which is my chief concern.
We need joined-up, experienced teams to deal with those pieces of evidence from a crime to ensure that scientists have the complete picture. My concern is that fragmentation will mean that that will not happen as it does now.
The hon. Gentleman does not think that £24 million is a lot to spend, but it is a £24 million loss when areas of the private sector can function without making such a loss. Does he not think it would be better if the cost to the Government were not a £24 million loss?
Of course I do—it would be marvellous if money was not lost—but there are two sides to the argument, and I understand that the FSS says that some of that cost can be put down to the restructuring of the service.
I am also concerned about the potential for police bias. I am worried that moving forensic work in-house could undermine public trust in our judicial system and create a significant risk of police bias. There will be a clear conflict of interest if the police have to decide what evidence to test while under pressure to secure a conviction. We can see examples of that. The public must have complete trust in our judicial system, but that trust might be compromised by convictions based on forensic science that is no longer perceived to be truly independent.
The hon. Gentleman was kind in his opening comments, and I respond to him in equally warm terms, but does he not agree that the police already conduct all sorts of scientific analysis—for example, relating to fingerprints, footprints and the taking of hair samples for DNA analysis? He is right to be concerned about fairness in such circumstances, but the record shows that the police are perfectly fair when it comes to such scientific evidence.
Of course the police conduct all sorts of inquiries and investigations—the hon. Lady makes a reasonable point—but my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has told us that his Committee had concerns when conducting its review, and it was right to point out those concerns.
I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the concerns of a constituent of mine about the changes in the FSS that led me to talk to Humberside police chiefs about what was happening. It was clear to me that they were determined to do a good job in the circumstances but that they were concerned about the change and felt that the previous system worked very well.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is worth noting that we are to hold elections for police commissioners in November, which might cause further problems.
Historically, prosecutors have relied on independent expert evidence from forensic specialists who have personally examined evidence collected in police investigations. The closure of this respected major research institution will, I think, lead to the loss of the most experienced forensic scientists. To be honest, I have heard little criticism of the FSS in robing rooms in Hull, and I have not heard members of the judiciary particularly—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Broxtowe looks at me with complete dismay.
This should not be a competition for anecdotal evidence but, in my experience, there is growing concern about the FSS’s ability to deliver its findings swiftly and efficiently. Those concerns have been growing for a number of years. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us with experience of this part of the criminal justice system take the view that the service, sadly, is no longer fit for purpose?
I do not accept that. Absolutely not. It is true that I have heard grumblings about aspects of expert evidence put before courts, but I do not think that there is a major problem. I have certainly not heard members of the judiciary complain particularly about the service.
One of my major concerns is about the Government’s rushed decision. As with many of their policies, this policy has been rushed and is fraught with difficulties. Their desire to create a market for the provision of scientific support is putting police authorities under unacceptable pressure. The closure of the FSS will have major implications for the criminal justice system and could result in miscarriages of justice.
I start by paying tribute to the work of forensic scientists, who do a wonderful job, whether on national cases, cold cases or, indeed, on the new activities, such as analysing drugs in people’s blood by the roadside, that we should be encouraging. These are all extremely worthwhile activities. However, despite the Opposition’s protestations of support for private companies, that does not come across in what they say; what comes across is that the FSS is the linchpin and only player in the whole sector.
I mentioned in my intervention that LGC Forensics is based in my constituency. It is the largest private sector provider of forensic science services to UK police forces, and it employs 200 people at the Culham science centre. I visited it, and its scientists are exceptional. They are extremely disciplined and dedicated. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) mentioned a private sector provider in her constituency. She is my parliamentary neighbour, and it is perhaps fortuitous that we have a little cluster of forensic scientists, given that our constituencies cover the area of Midsomer. Indeed, probably more television forensic scientists than drinkers have crawled over the tables of my local pub. That is an encouragement to people to drink.
I am grateful for those comments, Mr Deputy Speaker. I intended to head in that direction anyway.
In 1991, we had a major change with the FSS that attracted new entrants to the market, including companies such as LGC Forensics. It ushered in a period of investment and scientific innovation that has driven up quality and ensured that prices and turnaround times have reduced dramatically. That move has resulted in a safer and more secure society together with better value for the police and taxpayers. That is an important combination of factors.
But what confusing signals the previous Government sent to this emerging sector! We had just encouraged the sector to be innovative and to invest, but then, as I mentioned in my intervention, in March 2009, the Labour Administration agreed to a £50 million subsidy to support business transformation. That was a major subsidy for a company that existed in a competitive market, and it sent a very confusing signal. No one in the private sector wanted to see the end of the FSS. Indeed, some of those private companies have said that they wanted the FSS to continue because a healthy competitive market is good for all. However, doing that through this sort of heavy-handed subsidy was not the way to go.
There are good private sector providers, as even Opposition Members agree, and they have a crucial role to play. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) mentioned the Stephen Lawrence case, because it illustrated the importance of the current investment in technology. It was not available at the time, and I do not think we would have had that result otherwise.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would also recognise that one of the crucial points about the Stephen Lawrence case was that we were dealing with accredited laboratories. The defence would have had a powerful line of attack had those laboratories not been accredited. That point is agreed by the regulators and the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. From the point of view of my constituency, nobody is suggesting that LGC Forensics is anything other than a leader in the field whose reputation extends not just to this area of police work, but to a number of other areas where forensics can play a major part.
The only other point I want to make is about how the transition from the FSS is going. My feedback from the market is that the transition is going very well. Therefore, I do not accept that we will lose any of the skills or that the transition will in any way dumb down results or the activities that are undertaken. I am looking to ensure that we continue to bolster the sector. It is a sector that we can be proud of and that offers potential for even more exports, in terms of the scientific discoveries that it makes.
The only other thing I want to do is make an apology. I am grateful that you kindly called me to speak so early in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I have another engagement. If I do not make it back for the wind-ups, I apologise.
Let me first place on the record my thanks to the Science and Technology Committee for its report and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) for the excellent leadership he has shown and the way in which he introduced the debate.
I hesitated to speak in this debate for two reasons, both linked. I had responsibility for the Forensic Science Service in the very last months of the previous Government. Therefore, there is inevitably a hesitation when one rises in such debates, not only to say something positive about what we did, but to talk about one’s successor, because the second point is this. I do not think it is fair when Ministers have left office if they jump up at every opportunity to criticise or comment on what their successors have done. The Minister deserves my support, in exactly the same way that he gave me support when I was honoured to hold the position that he now holds. However, I want to make some brief observations, not from the perspective of a criminal lawyer by any means, but from the perspective of what I think is good or bad public policy.
Whatever else has been said, the reality is that the fortunes of the Forensic Science Service have proved difficult for every Government, and would have done for any Government—both for this Government and the previous Government. They have been difficult for all sorts of reasons, not least because of the changing nature of forensics in recent times, particularly with the proliferation of DNA testing, but also because of a market—if one wants to call it that—that has been complex and in which both the Forensic Science Service and a number of private providers have played a part. When I say that in my experience some of those providers proved to be fickle, that is in no way a criticism of those who do an excellent job and are an integral part of the market; indeed, nothing that we did was about undermining what they were trying to do. However, it is true that some companies put their toes in the water and tended to look for the cheap things they could do to make a quick profit before moving on. This particular aspect of the criminal justice system deserves better.
Where I would disagree fundamentally with the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) is that we should not take an either/or approach to the forensics sector. There is no reason to believe that it would be better just in private hands or just in the hands of Government-run bodies. That was the approach that we took, and that is why the transformation programme was necessary. It was not a subsidy, as he suggested; rather, as the name suggests, it was meant to transform the Forensic Science Service from being a loss maker—which we all acknowledge it was—to being a player that could continue in the forensics market. I believe that the FSS brought, and still brings, something of great value to the forensics market. It helps to be a guarantor of the highest standards, which are not simply necessary for criminal justice in our country, but well regarded and well respected elsewhere.
The transformation programme was radical in what it intended to do. It aimed to close four laboratories around the country—not three, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said. Crucially, however, in the seven that remained, work was to be done differently, because it was entirely unacceptable that an organisation such as the FSS could continue to make a loss. That was the whole point of the transformation programme as we saw it.
The Government’s defence, in their response to the Select Committee’s report, is that the FSS was continuing to lose £2 million a month. I dispute that figure, not least because the numbers were coming down. Also, in answer to a point that was raised earlier, the intention was not to have a Forensic Science Service that was continually indebted to the Government and the taxpayer; it was to have one that could stand foursquare on its own two feet. In that sense, therefore, I do not think the transformation programme has been characterised properly. The Government’s response to the report warns:
“Without funding from the Government, the FSS would have entered administration in early 2011.”
I have news for the Minister, although he already knows this: all the discussions that we had throughout the transformation programme took that for granted—not that the FSS would be in administration, but that it would always be on the edge of difficulty. Again, that was the whole point of the transformation programme: to ensure that if we wanted a Forensic Science Service, things would have to change, and they did.
Let me ask the Minister a question that I hope he will address. One of the issues that was in danger of tipping the FSS into difficulties was the black hole in the pension fund. Forgive me, but if the FSS is closed, I would imagine that there necessarily remains a commitment to the pension fund. Somebody will have to fill that hole at some point along the way, so how much of the money that the Government are using to close down the FSS will go into the pension fund?
The previous Government, of whom I am proud to have been a member, introduced a reform programme. However, contrary to what we have heard this evening, we started from an assumption that at one point in the future the FSS would be—could be—privatised. My only concern was that it would have to be demonstrated that it was better to put the FSS into private hands than for the Government to continue to have an interest in it. In my view, that needed to be demonstrable, and the evidence was simply not there. However, as far as I remember, closure was not an option that was seriously considered—or, indeed, seriously sought. I wonder where it came from, because it is quite a major step from where we were. Will the Minister confirm that the Home Office scientific adviser played a key role, not in responding to the decision, but in formulating it? What was the role of the forensic science regulator? The report talks about Andrew Rennison in excellent terms—he is indeed a fine man—and about how he has been reappointed, but was he consulted before the decision was made? Or again, has he simply been asked to make the best of a bad job? What did the police say? We can only really know that once the Government have published ACPO’s response—I refer not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston did, to how the police will cope, now that the Government have already made the decision, but to whether they said it was a good idea or not.
We were criticised for how we introduced the transformation programme. I still have the scars on my back, not least those inflicted by a Deputy Speaker who was, and remains, a doughty fighter for his constituents in Chorley, over one of the labs that was to close. Let me say this. On looking at the decision, how it was announced and the consultation, it makes me think, although Mr Deputy Speaker will not agree, that what we did was a model way of doing it. I am afraid this Government’s response is not acceptable.
I want to pay tribute to the excellent men and women of the Forensic Science Service. They have given, in some cases, decades of commitment, building up decades of experience not just for the service, but for our country. The reality is, as we have heard, that when the FSS goes, some of those people will leave forensics and some will stay in it but go to other countries, which will benefit from the experience that we built up over a long period. I simply ask whether this is the right decision.
They may do. It is entirely their choice if they want to do that, but let me ask the hon. Gentleman a question. When the Gulf states, which are running out of oil and are making investments for a modern state, wanted the very best forensic service for their country—indeed, the best in the world—who did they go to? They did not go to America or to Germany; and when they came to this country, they did not go to the private companies either. I will tell him who they came to and still have a contract with, as far as I understand it: they came to the Forensic Science Service. What is it that the Gulf states appreciate about this service that we apparently no longer do?
I have enormous respect for the police, for the science and, indeed, for the courts, but there is an issue about what will happen if forensics lies mainly or wholly in the hands of those working in police labs. They are doing their best, and we know that they will not cut corners or come up with the wrong decisions for whatever reasons people might suspect. The criminal justice system, however, is about more than that. It is about respect for people in that situation. I want some reassurance from the Minister, who has nodded his head when this matter has been raised, that when the FSS has gone, along with the expertise, status and respect that goes with it, we will not see miscarriages of justice or court situations where cases are thrown out because the police have not only caught the criminal and aided in the prosecution, but have provided the forensic evidence as well.
This debate is about whether we want a forensic science service in the future and what it will look like. We would have known what it looked like if the transformation programme had been given a chance. We asked some hard questions, so I ask the Minister whether those same questions were asked when he looked at the world beyond the FSS. For example, can he guarantee that in a major incident a forensic officer will be in there within four hours? It seems obvious that one will be, but is that the case? We asked that very hard question of the FSS, which sometimes struggled to give us an answer.
What will happen, God forbid, if there is a 7/7 or a 9/11? Is the Minister convinced that we will have the capacity in forensics to deal with that situation? At the time of the report, Durham, Cleveland and South Yorkshire constabularies not only did not have the necessary facilities, but did not have the contracts with external providers either. Yet we are told that the FSS is going to disappear this year. I wonder whether we are taking risks.
My final point is that this is a risky decision. I do not envy the Minister the decisions he has to take; I envy him his job, but not his difficult decisions. This is one decision, but what about all the other things happening across Government? What about the cuts in police numbers? What about the Justice Secretary’s acceptance that crime will inevitably rise in a recession? What about the changes to the rules on DNA that the Government are making in the Protection of Freedoms Bill? Add them together, and I am worried. Whatever the Minister’s motives, this is the wrong decision. I do not doubt that the Minister has gone to the nth degree to look at the issues, but I worry. This is my final question: why is it that instead of spending taxpayers’ money to get an FSS that is fit for purpose, we are spending the same amount of taxpayers’ money to end up with no FSS at the end of it all? It just does not make sense.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I have been approached on this issue by a number of constituents, particularly those who used to work in the Huntingdon lab. I also have an interest as a member of the Home Affairs Committee. In fact, I have a number of parliamentary questions on this matter tabled for answer today. Sadly, as I came into the Chamber, they had not yet been answered, but I am sure they will be during the course of our debate, and they will of course be published. As ever, the Government will respond, I am sure, in time.
I congratulate the Science and Technology Committee, and particularly its Chairman, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), on their work. It is a shame that the good and balanced work from the Committee—with one major exception, which I will come to later—has been let down slightly by the quality of the debate on both sides of the House. We have heard a rather tedious debate about who made what mistakes at which point in the past, and a rather odd debate about who is in favour of the private sector and who is in favour of public sector administration. My answer is that I am in favour of whatever gives us the best forensic science services, and I hope that all Members would agree with that.
It is important to have high levels of accreditation and standards. Otherwise, there could be concerns, although they might have been over-egged. It is certainly true that in 2009 the US National Academy of Sciences strongly recommended that forensic labs should be buffered from forces investigating crime. That is because pressures necessarily arise from working too closely with them. What that means is that we must ensure that the new scheme does not fall foul of those traps. We certainly do not want the same police officer who is leading on an investigation to be the same person who does the forensic analysis. I believe, however, that it is possible for the police to find a way around that, as, for example, with the good work done by the National Policing Improvement Agency in looking into serious injuries. It has a rather gruesome collection of images, and I do not believe that suggestions of bias have been made in that case.
It is important for the Government to keep an eye on this issue, and I hope they will consider reviewing the impact of the changes over the coming years, particularly in respect of the trust of the public and ensuring that we do not see miscarriages of justice. I do not think that they will happen, but I want to know that the Government will ensure that they do not. They must ensure that there is enough time to analyse samples. A huge number of analysts in the New Scientist report I mentioned earlier said that they were not given enough time to do that properly. I hope that the Government will make sure that we secure the trust of the public in that respect.
There is a related problem. Programmes such as “CSI” have led the public to believe that forensic science is far more powerful than it really is and much more clear cut. It is simply not as simple, powerful or clear cut as is often portrayed. That causes real problems in both directions when a case is being examined. It means that juries expect simple, clear answers, but also that they could be excessively concerned at the times when they are not given what they expect.
There is also a problem—I hope the Minister will find some way to tackle it—with a recent ruling. As far as I know, it has not been overturned, and I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong. The issue is how juries are taught to deal with the prosecutor’s fallacy and the statistical errors that can arise when looking at numbers. It was ruled in a recent case that Bayesian statistics could not be used in the court. I find that very worrying, because such statistics are key to the way in which data are interpreted. The premise is simple: the information that is available should be examined before a test is carried out. For example, if we hear the noise of hooves, we know that it could be being made by a horse, a zebra or a unicorn, but given our prior knowledge of which animal is most likely to be proceeding along Horseguards, we conclude that it is probably a horse. That sort of analysis is very simple, and it ought to be possible to employ it in a court. I hope that there will be a way of ensuring that juries know how to use such information, because the generating of information—which is what we are talking about—is useful only if the information is examined correctly.
I was shocked to discover that the regulator did not have the statutory powers that I think are necessary, and that that had clearly been the case for a long time. I had genuinely assumed that we would provide regulators with the powers that they need. I hope that the Government will think again, because providing statutory powers would provide some extra reassurance, particularly given the new world in which we are living. I also hope that regulators will have the resources that they need to do their job, because as providers become more disparate, the process of regulation will be increasingly important.
I had intended to ask what more would happen about cold cases and existing samples, but the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston dealt with that, and I assume the Minister will respond to what he said. Nevertheless, we need to think about how we are to ensure that there is continuity after the FSS.
One aspect of the Committee’s report causes me great concern. It involves the role of the chief scientific adviser, Professor Bernard Silverman. He was personally criticised in the report, and I very much regret that: I do not think that it was appropriate. I think that there is a problem with the way in which the Home Office looks at scientific advice, and with the seniority and the access that the chief scientific adviser is given in the Home Office. I have raised those points in the Committee with the chief scientific adviser, who has a slightly different perspective on the issue of the amount of access provided.
I think that chief scientific advisers should sit on the boards of their Departments, and should have access to information enabling them to deal with any concerns at an early stage rather than waiting to be invited to comment. There is a problem across Government in regard to their role, and that means that there will be similar problems in a number of areas in which advice is sought too late in the process. I fear that the Minister will not be able to tackle that problem alone, and I hope that the Government as a whole will ensure that chief scientific advisers are given an important role.
Surely it is up to the chief scientific adviser to put his spoke in at an early stage, rather than waiting to be invited to comment. He should have enough intelligence—I mean intelligence in the classic military-type form—to understand what is going on, and to say “Look, I want to comment on this.”
I will not make the standard jokes about military intelligence that would normally arise at this point. I entirely understand what my hon. Friend means. That is precisely why I think it essential for all chief scientific advisers to be provided with all the papers. The problem is how they can know what is going on, because some Departments are not as free with their information as others. I will not single out the Home Office in this instance, but I think it right for chief scientific advisers to have the information at an early stage. It is difficult to comment on things that you do not know about until it is too late.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was as surprised as I was when I read the evidence from the chief scientific adviser, who had said that he did not think it appropriate for him to be consulted about the decision to close the FSS because he thought that it was merely about finance and the possibility that the service would go into administration. Was that not a rather shocking approach for him to take?
I think the key point is that chief scientific advisers should be consulted, as a matter of routine, at the beginning of the process. That is much more important than raking through the question of exactly what counts as a commercial and hence legitimately non-scientific issue, and what counts as a genuinely scientific issue. Chief scientific advisers should be given more access, and their roles and seniority should be elevated.
Professor Silverman conducted a review of research and development in forensic science, and the findings were published in June 2011. They make a very interesting read, and raise a number of issues. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government will respond to some of the key points.
The report says that, when it comes to forensic sciences,
“improvement in the degree of linkage and communication would drive forward innovation most effectively”.
Will the Minister consider whether the forensic science regulator should have a duty to improve the linkages that are necessary, in order to fill the role that was formerly occupied largely by the FSS?
The report also recommends that there should be a regular cross-disciplinary forensic science conference, and I hope that that will be possible. Perhaps the regulator should be able to deal with it as well, because there are problems with fragmentation of the field.
Another issue that has not been touched on so far is training, and ensuring that the right people enter the forensic science sector. I had a very interesting time when I visited the Laboratory of the Government Chemist. One of the issues that we discussed was the poor quality of the vast majority of training courses in forensic sciences at universities. If I remember correctly, there were only two courses that the LGC considered to be of a sufficiently high standard. I will not test my memory by attempting to remember which two they were, but it is a problem if the right people are not being employed in the sector.
The LGC believes that it should generally take people who have been trained in chemistry and a range of other subjects, and that people are being misled into taking forensic science courses that are not good enough to secure their employment in the sector. I hope that the Government will think about that, because it would be consistent with Government policy to try to steer people away from courses that will not enable them to achieve the expected goals.
Professor Silverman’s report also argued that
“the interdisciplinary nature and societal importance of forensic science, as well as the opportunities that would be created by better communication, make it an appropriate candidate for particular attention by the Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board.”
In other words, he recommends that we should be investing in it as part of our general science spend. Although I am, of course, aware that there must be limits on how much the Government can tell the research councils what to do, has the Minister had any conversations about whether that recommendation could be implemented?
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that the final point we made was that
“we would certainly welcome any further thoughts from you, Professor Silverman, about the relationships with the TSB, the Research Councils and HEFCE. We would be grateful if you, Mr Rennison, would flag up to us any concerns you have about the quality of the science that you see during this very difficult process, because the one thing that we can all agree on, despite all the arguments about whether this was right or wrong, is that the interests of justice have to come first in all of this.”
The Minister then closed the meeting by agreeing with that. I therefore think we can all agree on this point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Although I have tried to follow what his Select Committee does, I do not necessarily manage to follow every nuance.
How assessment is conducted is also an issue. In respect of the research excellence framework, there is a table in the Silverman review detailing the units of assessment that might apply to forensic science, an approach that creates the risk of falling between many cracks. I do not intend to dwell on the REF, however.
What are the long-term prospects for research and development? When I visited the LGC the staff proudly showed me a field kit they were working on that is intended to enable DNA testing to be done out in the field and therefore speed up getting results. That would be very welcome. They said they had spent about £3 million on developing the kit thus far—it is not finished yet. The LGC is able to do that because it is a large organisation. I cannot imagine a police force being able to invest so much money in such a detailed and specific project. Research and development is not an area in which we can have 10 organisations each doing a tenth of the work. The LGC is clearly able to do that work, so it does not require the help of the FSS. I hope the Government will ensure that we have research and development with a long-term perspective. In areas such as low copy number analysis, there are risks of over-interpretation of data. There must be sufficient coherence in our research and development programme to address such issues.
I do not want to rehearse in detail who did what when. We are where we are, and we must now make sure we go forward in the right direction.
May I begin by referring to the declaration of interests that I made earlier in this debate? I also wish to praise the contribution—not only in today’s debate, but in leading the Select Committee—of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). He has framed the general discussion on this subject.
I could talk about the many aspects of the Government proposals that I consider to be short-sighted—the effects on the police, on the current staff and on the international reputation of forensic science in this country, for instance—but instead I shall focus on a central point, which the Select Committee report sums up thus:
“The primary consideration throughout must be the health of the criminal justice system.”
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Sir Alec Jeffreys—the inventor of DNA profiling—and senior members of the legal profession have all called on the Government to reconsider their decision, citing the serious negative impact it will have on criminal justice. The Government appear to be concerned only with the question of whether other people will do the work; they have not asked what the quality of that work will be.
I say that because the Government conducted no consultation on the wider criminal justice implications of this decision. Instead, they looked at the books, saw an organisation that cost more than it recouped—I shall say more about that shortly—and decided to close it. They did not consult the Director of Public Prosecutions, and they appear to have neglected to talk to the CCRC. Even the Attorney-General was consulted only in the “final clearance processes”.
The Government undertook no investigation. They looked at none of the wider issues. In the words of Sir Alec Jeffreys, this is “bean-counting”. It is no way to make policy, and this decision smacks, above all, of short-sightedness. The Government justify their decision by talking about saving money, yet the amount that could be saved is contested. As we have heard, the Government say it is £24 million, whereas the FSS, which perhaps knows more about its own budget, says that it is about half that—£11 million in the past year.
Surely the most important thing is the kind of service we will get. If the FSS is at a certain level and we do not get any other system up to the same level, there is no question of abolishing it. We must have a service of at least that level or higher; otherwise we are wasting our time. Justice must be done, and if necessary we will have to pay for it. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman’s points about the worldwide reputation.
I most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his point clearly and forcefully, and I hope that the Minister will address it head on. However, given that other Government Members have constantly referred to the figure—the £24 million, or the £12 million —I fear that the cost argument is the best the Government have. It is not a good argument, and it is not even very valid. As I said when I intervened on the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), although not every piece of FSS work comes from the police services, the overwhelming majority of its work does. So what we are saying is that the FSS is subsidising police services at the moment.
Perhaps the police services have got a good deal. For example, if a particular police force negotiates a fixed fee with the FSS for complex cases and an hourly rate for simple matters, clearly that police service will have got a good deal, as it will get a fixed fee for important and complex cases with many pieces of evidence, and where it thinks that there is not much involved in a case, it will pay just for what it wants. If that is right, it may actually be the right way to do things, as it may take the pressure off the police in terms of not submitting items of evidence. If a police force was paying by the hour or for every piece of evidence, and a complex crime scene had 100 pieces of evidence to be submitted, it might think, “Do we really need to submit every piece of evidence?” Perhaps the police are not expert enough to make those decisions and the systems works well, even if it produces a notional deficit for the FSS.
If that is also right, and the service is running at a deficit now, will commercial companies be prepared to allow such a situation to continue? Will they not renegotiate contracts with police forces over time that ensure that they not only cover their costs but make a profit? At least one Government Member has said, “Good luck to forensic scientists if they go off and earn more money in the private sector.” If that is right, who is going to pay for it? If, instead of working in the FSS, former senior members of its staff are hiring themselves out as consultants at a substantial daily rate, that sum will be picked up by the police and by the taxpayer. The argument about finance really does not hold water.
Let me pick up on the point made in the intervention by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Dependability and expertise do cost money, and without them in criminal justice we would be in the realm of appeals and retrials, which also cost money. We have all received briefing notes detailing the many criminal cases in which the FSS has made a real difference, but the Minister has given us no reassurance that the new arrangements will produce the same essential level of dependability.
Let me set out the practical problems, in terms of criminal justice, with what the Government have proposed. First, although we are told at the 11th hour that the archives have been saved, they are now detached from the FSS—or what will replace it—as indeed is research. We used to have a unitary body that had its expertise not only in its written archive but in its expert staff. It would also have its research arm, and its investigatory and reporting arm. That is the right way to go about things.
Secondly, we must deal with the non-applicability of section 17 powers. Under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, the Criminal Cases Review Commission has the power to obtain material held by public bodies. It has requested material at least 150 times from the FSS since 2005, and has indicated that the contractual power to obtain material that will be included in contracts for the provision of private forensic science services is clearly not as satisfactory as a statutory power.
Thirdly, there is the potential for loss of expertise as top scientists exit the profession. That, and the loss of Government funding, will mean a major loss for research and development. Some 75% of forensic scientists have said that the new arrangements will lead to more miscarriages of justice, and there is the potential for that. The Government have provided no reassurance whatsoever on that point, so I hope that the Minister will do so.
On my hon. Friend’s point about the skills base, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys said in his evidence to the Committee that the closure
“will scare off the new people coming into the field…So, yes, I think it will choke off opportunities and developments in forensic science in the future.”
I can only agree.
The Government say that police labs can pick up the slack, but even if the police behave with complete propriety there will be scope for defendants, through counsel, to allege that pressure could have been brought to produce certain results. The Home Office Forensic Science Service was set up as a successor to the Metropolitan police forensic science service, in part for that very reason. Miscarriages of justice—not necessarily in the Met area—in the ’70s and ’80s were the reason why there was seen to be a need for an independent forensic science service. In the Library debate pack there is a quotation from an expert in cognitive behaviour at University college London, Itiel Dror, who says:
“The fact that more forensic work is going to be done by police doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but it means you have to take extra measures such as buffering examiners from police detectives, so they are not breathing down their necks saying ‘we think it’s this person’”.
What assurances will the Government give today that such protection will be in place?
Then there is the question of disparity between the resources of police forces. The Met probably will have the resources, given its size, but will Cumbria? Will Suffolk, or Devon and Cornwall, have the ability to run the same sort of operation? I doubt it. We are losing a comprehensive service that is serving the police, the courts and the public well. The FSS does painstaking work in ensuring that perpetrators of serious crimes are brought to account.
I am sorry that we had to wait for my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) to hear proper tribute paid to the people in the FSS—although, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston paid such a tribute too. That, essentially, is what this debate should be about. In terms of reputation, independence and the flexibility and ability to deal with everything from major complex cases to routine work, as well as the comprehensiveness of the service they can offer, we are losing key points. What are we losing? Expert staff and continuity. It is not even certain whether, from next month onwards, forensic scientists who have gone abroad, left the profession or retired, as a consequence of the break up of the FSS, will be available for ongoing cases. We are losing that continuity in the archive and research facility as well as in the operational service. We are losing a huge body of knowledge, and we are wasting equipment as well as human resources, by closing down the service so quickly in such a short space of time.
What is the alternative?
I think we might also be losing the ability to have seriously world-beating research and development in FSS-type matters. That is what worries me; we must not lose that R and D ability. If we are going to change, things must be just as good as they were before. If they will not be, we should leave them as they are.
I wholly agree, and I ask the Minister, even if he is going to rely on the argument about money, to balance that consideration against the opportunity cost—the risk of losing the services that the FSS provides, which are in some cases easily quantifiable but in others are intangible, in terms of both its archives and its research and development.
I am not going to fall into the trap that some hon. Gentlemen on the Government side have fallen into, of playing the private and public sectors off against each other. I regret that one or two Government Members denigrated the FSS, saying that it was not working, and had to go for that reason. They implied that Opposition Members do not see a role for the private sector, but on the contrary, as the Select Committee report—and, I think, every Opposition Member who has spoken—has emphasised, there can be individual scientists and levels of expertise in the private sector. However, private sector companies are profit-making and will have to look at their bottom line. The way in which the changeover is happening means a mass outflow of experienced staff—often near to retirement age, often on a higher grade and often higher paid—who will be replaced, if at all, by the lower-paid and less experienced staff who come into private companies. That process might possibly work over time, but if it happens in a period of months, that will set up real problems in terms of the confidence that the criminal justice system can have in the quality of advice that it is getting.
We are going from a system in which we have a world-respected organisation to one with a very fragmented system made up partly of private sector organisations of different sizes. We have mentioned one of those, LGC, because it is the biggest, but not others that might be taking over some staff or resources from the FSS. On the other hand, we have the 40-plus police authorities that will each run, to a greater or lesser extent, their own operations, no doubt to different standards and with different ambitions and intentions. We are asked to believe that that system will provide the same quality and level of consistency of service as now. A recent survey by the New Scientist showed that more than 90% of forensic scientists, including those in the private and the public sector, thought that the abolition of the FSS would have a negative effect. Also, more than 75% thought there would be an increase in miscarriages of justice. The New Scientist also said:
“forensic science is not so much a coherent discipline as a collection of science-based techniques brought to bear on idiosyncratic questions of guilt and innocence. Since crime scenes are the very opposite of controlled environments, the answers provided by these techniques inevitably require interpretation.”
That is saying, in effect, that forensic science is sometimes as much an art as it is a science. That means—I think this is the point that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) was making—that when someone, whether they are appearing for the prosecution or the defence, is trying to talk to a jury and pull out of very disparate and sometimes contradictory pieces of information the best case that can be made, in fairness, in looking for a way towards the truth, the more expertise and experience that can be brought to bear on doing that, the better. That is what I fear we are losing with this precipitous and hasty measure. We are also losing a service that has been respected around the world, and has built up its reputation over many years. It is irreplaceable. For that reason I ask the Government to think, at this stage, about what they are putting in place instead of the Forensic Science Service that has served the country so well for so many years.
Let me start by making a declaration that for the best part of 21 years I was a criminal barrister. In that time I prosecuted about nine murder cases, was involved in the defence of certain cases, and prosecuted and defended well in excess of 150 Crown court trials. Certainly, I will have done 30 to 50 forensics-based cases and worked with the Forensic Science Service a great deal. Like others, I praise the Forensic Science Service as a large body of individuals who work very hard, sometimes for long hours to keep to their deadlines. We have to acknowledge, though, that the system that has developed—I will not play the blame game—is such that there are financial and logistical difficulties that any Government would have to resolve.
I urge the Minister to take on board one point. As one who has studied the work done in the Birmingham six case and the famous Griess test that never was; as one who worked on the great Guildford cheque fraud that never was, when I learned to my detriment while trying to prosecute a case that people sign their name very differently when drunk than they do normally; as one who successfully prosecuted the bigfoot burglar of Blunsdon—I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) in his place—who was apprehended thanks to the good efforts of the FSS and his size 12 boots, whose prints were identified in a large flower patch; and as one who has prosecuted many cases where hair and fibres, especially in sexual offences, as well as drugs and human anatomy, were relevant, I share Opposition Members’s concern about what assurances can be given on pressure brought to bear and on the transfer of exhibits, so that in future no shadow of a doubt can be cast, by those who defend, on the propriety of the process. I do not believe that such difficulties will arise, but it is vital for the Minister to give such assurances and explain how he will deal with that significant concern, which it is legitimate to raise.
I share that view because in the time I spent at the criminal Bar—from about 1989 onwards—I saw the development post-1990 of private contractors’ involvement. It is well known that the killers of Stephen Lawrence, Joanna Yeates, Milly Dowler, Vikki Thompson, Colette Aram, Rachel Nickell and Damilola Taylor have one thing in common: all were convicted with the help of evidence provided not by the police but by scientists working for privately owned suppliers of forensic services. Commercial companies have been providing the majority of the UK’s forensic science services for a considerable time, and I see no difficulty with the quality of their work. Even when, as a prosecution service, we were using the Forensic Science Service—and certainly on every occasion when I was a defence counsel—we would also commission a private report, authorised by the legal aid board, whereby a private company did exactly the same assessment. I see no reason why that will not continue.
I accept that accreditation is important, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that, but to a certain extent the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Prosecution teams and police teams will go to organisations that have proved their worth in past cases, but that is not to say that such organisations will always get it right. We have all seen, whether in shaken baby cases or in other cases where there is alternative forensic evidence, how the fact that an organisation may have performed perfectly in a previous case does not mean that it cannot make a mistake in the current case.
I will move on from the Forensic Science Service itself to give a topical example; I ask you to indulge me for a couple of minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have a constituent, Tony Pickering of Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, whose son, Aidan, died in Delhi on approximately 8 March 2010. Aidan was only 24 and had only recently gone to Delhi. If there is an example of a forensic science system that is not working, where private organisations should be brought in, the Indian system is that example. A post mortem and toxicology tests were carried out in India in March 2010, and Aidan’s body was subsequently brought home. The coroner cannot carry out an inquest in Newcastle, however, because the toxicology results have not been assessed. I regret to say that it took more than a year for the samples to be sent from the local police station to the Rohini central forensic laboratory in Delhi. Another year has now passed, and the family of young Aidan Pickering still do not know what their fate is.
Sadly, this is not an isolated example. The high commission in India tells me that as of November 2011, it had 64 cases awaiting toxicology and forensic analysis. I urge the Indian authorities to look into this matter. In the context of this debate, this is a good example of how the involvement of private organisations could be a good thing, and could have assisted. I shall be visiting India in April to raise that case personally, and I should say that I have been assisted in this by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who has been an assiduous Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. He has raised the issue of forensic science very successfully, not only here but in other places. He raised this particular case not only with the high commissioner for India but with the Home Minister of India, Mr Chidambaram, and I am grateful for his assistance.
I support the decision that has been made on the Forensic Science Service, although I seek certain clarifications that I hope the Minister will be able to provide. I urge him to move forward on this matter. I also urge him to enable the Home Office to assist in any way it can in the case of my constituents who are struggling with the forensic science laboratories in India.
Like all other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I want to congratulate the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), and all its members on the report we are discussing this evening. It has been described by many as a comprehensive and accurate outline of the key issues relating to the closure of the Forensic Science Service. I believe that the report gives a fair account of the history of the FSS and of the background to the decision announced on 10 December 2010 to close it by 31 March 2012.
The Forensic Science Service has a world-class reputation and is recognised as a pioneering body, especially in the field of DNA. It has been responsible for the training of many scientists in other jurisdictions and other forensic science services around the world, as well as being noted for playing a vital role in national emergencies such as the 7/7 bombings. Professor Niels Morling, president of the International Society for Forensic Genetics, has said:
“'So many of us have benefited from the research, development and education offered by the FSS—a worldwide network of scientists is grateful to the FSS and to British society”.
Of course, the most important part of the FSS is its employees, who have a deserved reputation for excellence. Their skills and experience are second to none, and we should pay tribute to all the commitment and hard work of the scientists and staff of the FSS as it faces its final month in operation. I have had the privilege of visiting two of the FSS sites. I visited Wetherby last February, and the site at Lambeth just before Christmas. I met the chair of the FSS with representatives of the trade union, Prospect, which represents many forensic scientists. I have also met representatives of the Law Society in relation to this matter, and many forensic scientists who care about and are committed to forensic science.
As I understand it, following the decision to close the FSS, England and Wales will be the only countries in the world without an independent, accredited forensic science service. We will still have a centrally provided service in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. I am also aware that the United States believes that this decision to close the FSS is a backward step, as it starts to examine the creation of an independent forensic science service of its own. William Thompson of the University of California has said:
“At a time when the deficiencies in forensic science are increasingly apparent, to lose one of the major research institutes is not just a loss for Britain, it’s a loss for the entire world”.
Returning to the Select Committee report, it is clear that the history of the FSS has not been a happy one under successive Governments, and the Chair of the Committee set out that history in his opening speech. We heard a candid, powerful and well-informed contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), who was a distinguished Home Office Minister with responsibility for the FSS. He talked, in particular, about the decision by the Government in 2009 to make a grant of £50 million available to the FSS to restructure the business so that it could modernise and become more competitive, for example by closing forensic science sites and laboratories and reducing the number of staff. However, it is now clear that before that transformation could conclude the Government decided to pull the plug on the FSS.
The decision seems to have been taken in a hurried way and with a failure to consult all interested parties. The Government seem to have been working on a set of assumptions that have little evidence to back them up, as the report confirms. I say to the Minister, for whom I have great respect, that that seems typical of the way they are making decisions at the moment. They are making decisions quickly and then finding that they have failed to consider all the issues they need to address as a responsible Government, as we are now seeing with the Health and Social Care Bill.
In the light of the excellent Select Committee report, I would like to draw out a number of issues and highlight the concerns of the Opposition and many others who care about forensic science. First, there is huge concern—it has been voiced this evening in the Chamber—about the way the Government decided to close the FSS when they did. The decision was of course announced in a written statement to the House and there was no opportunity at the time to question the Minister. It is clear from the report that only ACPO was consulted before the decision was made, and ACPO provided a report on the planned closure of the FSS to the Home Office through the work of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Unfortunately, the Government have blocked the public release of that report, which is extremely unhelpful, despite their claim to want open and transparent government and to allow proper and effective scrutiny of their decisions.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) said, a number of experts from the fields of forensic science and criminal justice have recently come forward to express concern that the closure of the FSS will lead to an increase in the number of miscarriages of justice and wrongful acquittals. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister explained why he did not consult the Director of Public Prosecutions, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service or the Criminal Cases Review Board before making his decision. Surprisingly, neither the FSS, nor its regulator, was consulted.
Like the Committee, I was astonished to read the evidence of the chief scientific adviser to the Home Office, who was also not consulted. However, what is even more astonishing in this case is that in his evidence to the Committee he did not seem to think that there was anything wrong with that. He said that the decision to close the FSS was about matters of finance and the FSS possibly going into administration and so apparently had nothing to do with him as the chief scientific adviser. I believe that he failed in his professional duty and agree wholeheartedly with the report’s scathing comments about his approach to his duties.
It is expected that the 60% of the market share that the FSS currently has will transfer seamlessly to the private sector. I am concerned that there appears to have been little attempt to obtain market intelligence about what private sector providers could provide if the FSS closes. The underlying assumption is that the market is fully elastic, which I argue is not the case, as can be seen when looking at the instability recognised by all parties in forensics at the moment. It is also unclear whether the private sector will be able to deal with the volume of work available or has the specialist techniques that the FSS has.
I shall highlight one area in which I think we are going to lose a particular technique. It is known as direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry, or DART-MS, and when I visited the Lambeth site in November I was shown how the FSS uses it. The technology allows chemicals to be analysed very quickly—indeed, it was used in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings—and substances to be identified within hours instead of days. The FSS was the only UK provider able to do that analysis, and no private provider has come forward to pick up the process.
When I asked a written parliamentary question about the matter, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), stated that it was
“not stipulated in any of the work packages of the National Forensic Framework Agreement”—[Official Report, 5 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 237W]
so no information was held on what would happen to it. Does the Minister before us, in his role as the counter-terrorism Minister, feel comfortable with that important technology being lost to the UK?
It is not clear whether the Minister, when making his decision, gave any thought to the broader issues regarding the FSS. They include the research and development for which the FSS is world-renowned, the role of the archive and how important it is to the criminal justice system.
It is generally accepted that the forensics market is currently unstable, especially when police budgets are being cut by 20% and there is the knock-on effect of the police choosing to commission forensics services in-house. The spend on forensics is costed at about £150 million but is mooted to decrease to £110 million by 2015. That might happen much sooner, however, with the police in-sourcing forensics. The budget is being distorted by the police customer becoming increasingly the competitor, so what modelling has been done on the effect of such in-sourcing and on the establishment of a stable market?
The Minister is committed to opening up the market in forensics, but how will that happen in practice? Owing to instability in the marketplace, it is difficult for new providers to enter, and there is no targeted support for new entrants. LGC and Cellmark dominate the market, and LGC, because of the additional work it has been able to attract, has subcontracted some to Key Forensics, but owing to market instability that is unlikely to carry on for long. Key Forensics has had to expand quickly, but that work might dry up just as quickly. That leaves companies with a difficult position in which to operate.
Businesses throughout the economy are finding trading hard, and investment is even harder to come by, so it seems to me that the Minister’s hopes of being able to provide forensics services seamlessly after 31 March are pinned on a very unstable position. Has he given any thought to what would happen if there was a change in the forensics market with, perhaps, one main supplier withdrawing? How would the Government be able to protect the supply of forensics to the criminal justice system?
We all agree that forensics plays a very important role in the criminal justice system by ensuring that bad people are brought to court and convicted. A forensic scientist told me:
“The FSS has always proudly provided all types of forensic discipline in order to best serve the criminal justice system, whether profitable or not. Private sector providers have however carefully selected only profitable areas of forensic science and left specialist, costly disciplines to the trusty supplier of last resort, the FSS. Inevitably, the FSS has therefore suffered financially where other private companies may seem to have succeeded. Clearly, overall forensic science is not a profitable or sustainable business arena. It is an essential service, requiring government support, in order to serve its sole function: to contribute toward a successful criminal justice system”.
Finally in this section, I turn to the financial issues, which appear to have been the only matter that the Home Office and the Minister looked at when reaching their decision. There is some confusion about the rationale that the Government used to take the decision, claiming that the FSS was losing about £2 million a month and that, therefore, a decision had to be made urgently to close it.
The Science and Technology Committee queried that figure in the light of the changes that the service was undergoing as part of the £50 million transformational grant it had been given to reduce its costs. For example, were the savings resulting from the disposal of FSS sites factored in, and were the one-off redundancy costs of staff leaving the FSS treated as just that—one-off costs? The FSS has pointed out that, at the time of the decision, it was in the middle of restructuring, including a transition to a new computer system for processing and assessing work and the introduction of a new DNA analysis technique. Little consideration seems to have been given to the additional costs that the FSS carries in its budgets regarding the compulsory levels of accreditation that it must have, the cost of its archive, and its work in research and development. The FSS claims that its losses for 2010-11 were about £11 million. The Home Office has announced that, after the closure, it will continue to provide funding for the archive, which costs approximately £2 million a year, plus £1 million for drugs and explosives provision. The Home Office is also bearing the cost of the areas that it brought in-house, such as international co-operation on drugs profiling, and police forces are now likely to incur higher costs for complex cases.
The second issue is the employees of the FSS. It is often thought that equipment is the key thing for forensic science but, in fact, it is the analysis, interpretation and contextualisation provided by expert forensic scientists. Many people at the FSS have had decades of experience. I am sure that the House will recognise that forensic scientists cannot be trained overnight. It takes five years to become a fully accredited fingerprint expert and approximately five years to be able to carry out crime scene investigations of serious crimes such as rape and murder. A key recommendation of the Committee was that the Forensic Transition Board must ensure that forensic scientists employed by the FSS are retained within the profession, yet the Government did not introduce any measures to help staff to stay in it, and evidence suggests that up to 90% have left. Does the Minister regret that loss of expertise to the forensics market? Will he update the House on the numbers of people with many years of experience who are leaving the FSS? It is estimated that the redundancy costs are between £100 million and £200 million. Will he update us on the budget for those costs?
I want to highlight a couple of matters that have come to my attention during the transition period in which staff are being TUPE-ed over to other positions or leaving the profession. In Yorkshire, 147 staff were aligned to LGC under TUPE, but in the end only 44 people transferred to LGC under different pay and conditions; the rest took redundancy and were then invited to reapply for their jobs. Can the Minister confirm that the Government, and not LGC, ended up paying for these redundancies? I have been contacted by many employees of the FSS with concerns about what is happening and about the protections that are offered by TUPE, which are apparently being sidestepped. In particular, what pension provision has been given to those who have been TUPE-ed to other companies? My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth asked about the Government’s ongoing pension liability, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.
The Metropolitan police service TUPE-ed in hundreds of staff from the FSS but says that it will still outsource its analytical work. That means that it will have taken on highly qualified staff who are on higher salaries but whose skills are not being utilised. Does the Minister think that that will improve efficiency? In addition, the sexual offences team from the FSS has been excluded from employment by the Metropolitan police service, which has decided to outsource that work. That loss of very skilled scientists is a worrying development. Will the Minister comment on it? I know that his Secretary of State is greatly concerned to ensure, particularly in rape cases, that more perpetrators are brought to court and convicted. I wonder whether getting rid of these experienced people will assist in that aim.
The third issue that I want to raise is about the police. As we all appreciate, the police are the pre-eminent customer who control the market in forensics. We also know that they face cuts to their budgets of 20%, meaning that their spend on forensics will reduce. Alongside that, there is an expansion in the internal provision of forensic science services by police forces that are banding together. That will mean a loss of access for non-police organisations that in the past could access the FSS. While I have the greatest of respect for the work of the police, there are genuine concerns about criminal justice that have to be addressed. There must be impartiality and the perception of independence in the forensic evidence that is presented to the courts.
The main concern about the Government’s approach, with the new forensics world and the idea of police commissioning, is what it will all cost and whether we will get value for money. It is difficult to get a national picture of what the police are spending, in terms of both revenue and capital. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, my freedom of information request on this issue resulted in a lot of very confusing answers. As the Select Committee report pointed out, it is regrettable that the Home Office does not collate spending on forensics by police forces centrally, because there is no way of knowing what is happening up and down the country. The budget being spent by the police is an important part of the forensics jigsaw puzzle. It would show how the forensics market fits together and what the total cost will be to the taxpayer. I was asked by an FSS scientist whether the money that the Home Office pays for the FSS is different from the money that is paid by the police. The answer is that it is all taxpayers’ money and so needs to be looked at together to get a complete picture of the total spend on forensic science services.
I will now turn to the concern over accreditation in relation to the police, which has been raised by many Members. In the main, the laboratories that have been created by the police do not have accreditation. As we all recognise, accreditation is designed to ensure that all forensic science providers operate to agreed standards and with agreed methods. Of course, all the leading players such as LGC and Cellmark have labs that have been accredited or subcontract to labs that have been accredited. The vast majority of police labs do not have ISO 17025 accreditation, which is the kitemark for standards in forensic science. It is worrying to think that police labs are not at that level. I understand that the Minister has said that four police forces have that level of accreditation. I would be grateful if he confirmed whether that is true of every science lab in each of those four force areas. Will he also confirm that all private sector and police crime scene investigators have ISO 17020 accreditation?
The Minister has said that the 60% of the market that the FSS has will all be transferred to accredited labs. I hope that that is happening. I am concerned about the attitude of the Government, who appear to be relaxed about getting accreditation for police labs before 2014 or 2015. I was told recently that the Metropolitan Police Service was one of the few police forces that had accreditation, but that it relinquished it voluntarily when it moved the lab to the Lambeth site. Why will the roll-out of accreditation for police forces occur after the closure of the FSS? Would it not have been more sensible to ensure that the police labs had accreditation before closing the FSS?
The fourth issue that I will raise is about the Forensic Science Regulator and his role in accrediting labs. As many Members have said, the regulator is powerless to enforce any codes of practice or standards as he has no statutory powers. The Science and Technology Committee report called for the Forensic Science Regulator to be given statutory powers to enforce a code of conduct. Nearly 80% of forensic scientists surveyed by the New Scientist magazine did not feel confident that the regulator had sufficient resources to ensure that standards were adequate and consistent between providers. Although the regulator was content with that situation, he has now changed his mind and wants powers to allow him to do his job effectively. I understand that he has little staffing support. How will the regulator adequately address accreditation with this huge upheaval in the market? Will all providers be accredited, and by when? Will that include independent specialist firms and sole traders, and how will it be funded?
I wish to make two other points about the role of the regulator. First, what role will he play in dealing with the real concerns that have been raised today about the fragmentation of forensic science? My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), in particular, set out his concerns about that. One example of which I have been made aware is a recent stabbing. Blood pattern analysis was sent to seven different analysts in four different organisations. That evidence should have been analysed by one individual who could contextualise it, interpret it and present it in court. Instead, the jury will have to piece together a narrative from seven different expert witnesses. Does the Minister accept that that has made a conviction much harder to achieve? Would it not be appropriate to give the regulator powers to address fragmentation? An anonymous response to the New Scientist survey from a forensic scientist at a private lab said:
“More and more cases are being broken into component parts and incomplete examinations are requested of private laboratories because in-house police laboratories believe they are saving money…This makes the interpretation of the evidence within the context of the whole case very difficult because the scientist does not have a complete picture.”
Secondly, what will happen if a whistleblower comes forward? What procedures are in place to deal with that, and would the regulator take responsibility for dealing with the concerns of whistleblowers in either a private provider or a police force provider?
I turn to the FSS archive. We have heard about the importance of the national archive and how little thought seemed to be given to it when the decision to close the FSS was made. For many victims of crime and families who have lost a loved one, the Government’s cavalier attitude to the archive is frankly shameful. We know that, with advances in forensic science, there have been cold case reviews and, thanks to the integrity of the national archive, opportunities to bring to justice those who have committed horrific murders and rapes.
The president of the Law Society wrote to the Home Secretary on 21 December expressing concerns about the closure of the archive and what would happen to its funding. I now understand that funding of up to £2 million has been made available, but the Minister has indicated that the business case is still being examined. There is no clarity about how the archive will operate, despite his saying to the Select Committee in December that he would write with full details in the spring.
The FSS closes on 31 March, just over a month away, and we are still none the wiser about what will happen. For example, will all forensic providers be able to contribute to the national archive in years to come? That is a really important issue that needs to be addressed by 1 April. Does the Minister recognise that particular skills are needed to run a national archive properly, which need to be factored into the budget?
Perhaps the Minister could spell out his thoughts on the value of the archive in general. Does he not think that a statutory power needs to be introduced for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to obtain files from private forensic providers? At the moment, it has the power to get files only from public bodies.
Finally, I turn to research and development. I noted from reading the Select Committee report that that seemed to be considered only after the decision on closure had been taken. A month later, a review was set up asking for some analysis of what would happen to research and development in forensics with the closure of the FSS. I understand that the regulator believes he has an agreement that if a private company produces some new advancement in forensics, it will share it. I am sceptical about that, because in a commercial environment any investment that a company makes will surely be on the basis that it will be in a position to reap the rewards of innovation.
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee asked the Minister to address whether there will be a strategy for forensic science in the UK, and whether it will be in place before the election of police and crime commissioners in November. He also asked him to put the delivery of justice at the heart of that strategy. I hope the Minister will address those points.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth that the Government’s decision is very risky. Coming alongside the changes to DNA retention and the cuts to the police budget, I believe it was hurried and ill considered. It will mean that we may well see miscarriages of justice and cold cases not being effectively reviewed in future. We are also losing the hugely experienced staff group at the FSS. The Government may well come to regret their decision.
I welcome the opportunity to wind up this debate and I welcome the introduction to it by the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller).
This has been a wide-ranging debate on a number of issues. Clearly, there is not agreement across the House on some aspects, but one note that we can agree on is that forensic science is an indispensible tool in fighting crime. It is the means by which physical evidence finds a voice. In some cases, forensic science is the only source of information on which a court can rely to ascertain guilt or innocence.
At the outset, and in the context of a number of points that were made, I should say that the Government are absolutely committed to safeguarding that central pillar of our criminal justice system. I underline that clearly, and I want to put on the record, in response to a point that was made, that we fully recognise the importance of a healthy forensics situation for the criminal justice system, which is not limited to the police.
Learned Members of the House have made various contributions on the relevance and significance of forensic evidence. Each has underlined that forensic science is an important and effective tool in seeking to prosecute and convict, but that it is equally important in analysing evidence to ensure that those who are not guilty of crimes are exonerated. That is an important part of the Government’s approach in ensuring that there are clear safeguards and quality thresholds, which I will come to in a moment.
I was struck by a number of hon. Members’ contributions because they almost implied that there had been no competitive market in forensics prior to this Government’s decision. To be clear, there has been a competitive market in forensic science for a number of years. In some ways, the creation of the forensic science market has been a success. Turnaround times have been faster, prices have been lower and quality standards have increased, I believe because of the competitive tensions that have been created, which some hon. Members sought to highlight.
I hope I can say with confidence that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that there is an important role in forensics for private sector providers, although there has been a debate on the role and function of such providers. However, it is fair to say that the creation of a market created problems for the FSS. The Committee recognised in its comments that the problems for the FSS did not suddenly appear on the horizon on the arrival of this Government.
In recognising why the Government had to act as they did, it is important to understand the context. Several hon. Members referred to the McFarland review, which recommended that the FSS should become a Government-owned, contractor-operated company, as a staging point to becoming a public-private partnership. The previous Government accepted the McFarland review and sought to establish the FSS as a Government-owned company as part of a transition towards a more fully commercialised situation. Even the previous Government, in accepting the review, did not see the GovCo arrangement as an end in itself.
The plan was to take the FSS down the path to being a GovCo with the intent to take it to a more commercialised basis. In many ways, the decision in November 2005 not to proceed and, in essence, to say, “So far but no further,” led to the fundamental problems and challenges that the FSS has faced. It was left in a halfway house, having been taken down a path to market but then stopped in its tracks and left in an extraordinarily difficult situation. I respect the contribution from the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell). He and I have debated this issue before, and I remember the Westminster Hall debate to which he referred and from which he still, I think, nurses a few scars on his back. However, the investment made was never going to fulfil the FSS’s full potential because it was stuck in this stasis.
When the FSS was transformed into a Government company in 2005, it was left with higher costs than its competitors as a legacy of its previous status as a Government agency. Clearly, as a result, the company’s ability to compete was hampered. It is important to note that the FSS’s share of the market reduced with every tender held to provide forensic science services to the police. The previous Government were tendering out these services as part of a continuing process, but the FSS was, in essence, left at a competitive disadvantage as a consequence of its structure.
I will update the House on the situation relating to transition, but when the decision was made in December 2010 about one third of the forensics market was in the private sector, and about 60%—[Interruption.] The Select Committee Chairman, I think, is querying those figures, but my clear recollection is that, when we were considering the matter, the figure was about 30% to 35%—unless he would like to correct me.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that confirmation.
I hear some of the points that have been made about whether there has been a reduction in the overall forensics market as a consequence of police in-sourcing. Indeed, I remember the Westminster Hall debate in which the hon. Member for Tynemouth was clear that there was no evidence of a vast swathe of police in-sourcing. Even at that time it was being postulated that it was the cause of some of the challenges facing the FSS.
Does the Minister not accept that since that debate—of which we both have memories, and certainly not fond ones—the context has changed? We were talking about the police making decisions when they had budgets that were rising year on year. How much does he believe the decisions that the police are now making about forensics are driven by the cuts they see coming down the line?
The police have been looking carefully at their forensics spend and how to ensure that it is used effectively. Indeed, I congratulate ACPO and a number of police forces up and down the country on how they have approached this issue, which in many ways is about the ability to focus on the delivery of forensics spend. It is also worth highlighting the fact that, I would argue, the market was stimulated to a huge extent by the DNA expansion programme and how it unwound over that period. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the impact that that had on the market was not sustainable. Indeed, the development of DNA technology has moved on further, and I am sure that it will continue to do so, with innovations such as the concept, even, of “DNA in a box”, as it is sometimes described, which enables people to undertake DNA testing immediately, at scene.
By December 2010 the FSS was in serious financial difficulty, with significant operating losses and the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensics services, as the police continued to drive efficiencies in their use of forensic services. We judged it vital to take clear and decisive action to protect the supply of forensic science services to the criminal justice system. Without funding from the Government, the FSS would have entered administration in early 2011—that was the clear statement that the company was making to us at the time, and that was the situation with which we were presented. That would have seriously damaged the forensics capability available to the criminal justice system. We were not prepared to expose the criminal justice system to that level of risk. I note that the Select Committee, while critical in other ways, agreed with the analysis that simply letting the FSS go into administration would not have been the right thing to do.
We maintain that the managed wind-down of the FSS was the right choice, both financially and for the criminal justice system. The orderly wind-down of the company ensures that the police and the criminal justice system as a whole continue to have the forensics capability that they need to protect the public and bring criminals to justice. The transition process has underlined how that has been achieved. The costs of closure are being carefully managed, and obviously this estimates day debate underlines the costs that have been provided for. We are clear, and we maintain, that costs are not escalating and will be delivered within the provision that has been made. The National Audit Office has reviewed the calculation of the Home Office’s provision and is content that it is reasonable.
Will the Minister tell the House what he believes the total cost of the closure of the Forensic Science Service will be, including costs arising from any obligations for redundancies, pensions or other matters? If he cannot give a ballpark figure now, will he write to Members who have taken part in this debate to give them the figure?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the provisions made in the estimates. As we reported previously to the Science and Technology Committee, the likely total cost in cash terms is about £100 million, and this remains the position. In 2010-11, £28.7 million was provided to allow the FSS to continue to operate while the transition was managed, and for staff redundancies. Provision has been made subsequently for a further £71 million of costs. That has been clearly stated on the record.
If that is right and the cost is £100 million, while I acknowledge that the Minister might not accept the FSS figure that the “lost losses”—to put in those terms—were about £11 million last year, does he accept that the £100 million would cover the current deficit for a number of years in the future, before the effect of other cost savings and contractions have been made? That being the case, does he still think that this is a sensible use of public money?
Yes, I do, for this reason. We considered the options carefully, and determined that allowing the FSS to go into administration was simply not acceptable. We considered the prospect of making a further capital injection to follow on from the £50 million injected a few years previously. Against the backdrop of the structure and the situation that we saw, however, we were not convinced that such an injection would prevent the FSS from being in the same situation 12 months, 18 months or two years later. We thought it was better to provide certainty for the criminal justice system, and to take the action that we did.
It is notable that although the Select Committee report made comments about process and timing, it did not criticise the decision itself or postulate that we should have made a different decision. I thought it was interesting to note that from the Select Committee report. I see that the Chairman of that Committee is seeking to catch my eye.
What concerns me about what the Minister says is that some of these costs are going to be borne by the public purse for some considerable time. Contrary to what was said earlier, the Crown Prosecution Service was not 100% happy with the situation. What it said was:
“None of the suppliers are…accredited in all forensic disciplines, and thus can only take on a limited range of forensic work”—
until, of course, they are accredited. The CPS went on to say:
“Gaining accreditation in these fields is a time consuming and potentially expensive process and the appetite of the suppliers”—
including the police—
“to undertake this exercise is not yet known.”
The regulators are going to have to make that happen. The point I am making to the Minister is that we need to keep an eye on those burgeoning costs, including in police forces, because we do not want money spent on this that could otherwise have been spent on front-line policing.
I do not accept the analysis relating to burgeoning costs. If the hon. Gentleman talked to ACPO about how the transition and retendering processes have been created, he would find that savings have been delivered through a real focus on the manner in which forensics are used. It is important to view the concept of further burgeoning costs in that light—by recognising that forensic providers are already accredited and by looking at the process undertaken by the police and at the clear statements made at the time that there would be no transfer of services to a non-accredited environment.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) talked about the Metropolitan Police Service handing back its accreditation. I tell her that this would happen to a commercial provider in that situation as well. It is not a reflection of any delinquency or limitation in the Metropolitan police’s standards, quality or approach; it is simply the fact that if new personnel and new arrangements are taken on, a process of re-accreditation has to be gone through, following on from all the processes and procedures that have previously been accredited. I wanted to give the hon. Lady that reassurance.
We have been working closely with key partners throughout the criminal justice system during the transition. A forensics transition board has been overseeing the process, and includes representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Policing Improvement Agency, with a wider advisory group whose members include the forensic science regulator and the Ministry of Justice. The regulator has attended a number of meetings to offer his input.
I believe that, thanks to the hard work and commitment of FSS staff and partners across the criminal justice system, the transition has been successful. It has ensured the continued supply of effective forensic science services to the criminal justice system, and has created a stable and competitive market for forensics that will provide cost-effective and innovative forensic services to support the criminal justice system.
Over the past 12 months there has been a significant amount of work and operational planning to manage the transition of services from the FSS to alternative providers in a controlled way, in order to reduce risk and ensure continuity of service. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency have re-procured forensic supply across the midlands and the south-east, and for the 14 forces making up the west coast consortium. The transfer of evidence recovery, interpretation and reporting of forensic science examinations from the FSS to the Metropolitan Police Service has been successfully completed, and in parallel the MPS has also re-procured its analytical forensics services.
It was suggested earlier that appropriate arrangements had not been made for the north-east. I think that that is partly because continuing contractual negotiations at the time of the publication of the report did not allow us to be entirely open. What I can say, however, is that there is a separate transition process in the north-east. Negotiations were concluded in December for a managed transfer of work to a new supplier for the north-east and Yorkshire. That followed close working between the FSS and the north-east forces. In the interim, the FSS has continued to provide forensic science services for the north-east forces to ensure that continuity of supply is maintained. The last new cases will be taken by the FSS on 1 March. That is the final part of the transition of its services to other providers.
I can say that one of the fundamental parts of the process, and one of the things on which I was absolutely clear throughout, was the need to ensure that there was continuity of supply of forensic services to the police and the criminal justice system, and I believe that that has been maintained throughout the process. I am hugely grateful for the considerable contribution of ACPO, the NPIA and the FSS to the reaching of these milestones, and for the way in which the process has been managed at national and local level. This has been a challenging time for FSS staff, who I believe have behaved with complete professionalism throughout. I want to record my, and the Government’s, appreciation for and recognition of their dedication and commitment throughout this difficult process.
The Government continue to support the orderly transition of work from the FSS. As part of that process, some of the current staff are moving to a range of other forensic services in the private and public sectors. We have pursued options to transfer elements of FSS business, including staff whenever possible. I have committed myself to providing an update for the Select Committee in June, following the completion of the process. We intend to conduct a survey of the private sector forensic service providers so that we can give a clear indication to the Committee, and therefore more publicly, in relation to the transfer of FSS staff from the FSS to other positions.
Will the Minister add to his list of commitments for that period the making of a clear statement on how the dialogue with the research councils and the Technology Strategy Board is progressing? We must ensure that the science base is protected so that we avoid the negative consequences that I described earlier.
I gave evidence before Christmas in conjunction with the Forensic Science Regulator and the chief scientific adviser at the Home Office, Bernard Silverman. He is an excellent CSA. He and I have regular meetings, not only about the FSS but on Home Office science issues in general. I want to put on record my appreciation for his work and expert input.
There are various recommendations on research and development in Professor Silverman’s report, one of which addresses questions to do with the various funding councils and the different available options. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) highlighted interdisciplinary issues, and there might be a conference to address some of them. I will take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston about providing updates and following through on Professor Silverman’s report. I will consider how best to do that for his Select Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) highlighted a constituency case. I do not necessarily think there is a direct role for the Home Office in that, but I have no doubt that colleagues at the Foreign Office will have noted his comments.
Forensic findings can mean the difference between guilt and innocence. It is vital that forensic conclusions are reliable, error-free and beyond doubt. Forensic scientists must work to rigorous and robust scientific principles, methods and evaluations. That is why we have made sure that all new and transferred forensics work by commercial forensic service providers must be carried out by accredited laboratories.
Commercial forensic service providers have provided high-quality forensic science services for the criminal justice system for a number of years, and there is no reason why the closure of the FSS will reduce impartiality or affect the accuracy of their work. The extensive and detailed forensic work by LGC Forensics that formed the core of the evidence in the recent trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence is an example of the good work being carried out by commercial forensic service providers. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made that point.
I have made it clear from the outset that any FSS work taken in-house by police forces must be carried out to the same high standards as the work of accredited private sector laboratories. I utterly reject any suggestion that the closure of the FSS will lead to miscarriages of justice.
I have two minutes left and I want to address a key point about fragmentation, which both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) raised. Dr Gary Pugh, head of forensics at the Metropolitan Police Service, and Chief Constable Sims of West Midlands Police said in their evidence to the Committee:
“it is not general police practice to send exhibits from the same crime scene to different providers. There are a very small number of exceptions in rare cases where a highly specialised piece of analysis is only offered by a niche provider. In such cases, care is taken to ensure continuity is maintained.”
Roger Coe-Salazar confirmed that if fragmentation were taking place,
“it is not creating an operational delivery problem”
from the CPS’s perspective. It is important to put that clearly on the record.
I also wish to highlight the work taking place on the archive. I have made clear all the way through this process, even before the publication of the report, the importance that I attach to the continued availability of the archive. That work is ongoing and is clearly being undertaken. We have made significant progress since the announcement in December 2010—
Debate interrupted, and Question deferred till tomorrow at Ten o’clock (Standing Order No. 54).