Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report

2  Background

What is forensic science?

4. Forensic science is science used for the purposes of the law. We have adopted a broad definition of the term and include the full spectrum of forensic science from basic research to applied technology. Thus, the term "forensic science" here refers not only to the typical services offered by the main forensic science providers, such as toxicology, DNA, hair, fibre, footwear, toolmark, firearms, drugs and document analyses; but also to the research that underpins the development, testing and introduction of new forensic technology. Forensic pathology, the examination of human bodies to determine the cause and manner of death in criminal or suspicious circumstances, is also included within this definition. Fingerprints (usually referred to as fingermarks) are obviously part of forensic science as well, but we have not considered the arrangements for their effective use separately in this Report.

Key organisations


5. The Forensic Science Service (FSS) is an Executive Agency of the Home Office. The Agency, through its seven laboratories and more than 2,500 staff, delivers forensic science services to the 43 police forces in England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service and HM Customs and Excise. The four main services through which the FSS supports the criminal justice system are:

In addition, the FSS carries out R&D, fulfils advisory functions to Home Office Ministers, and undertakes some private sector and international work. In 2003-04 the FSS had a turnover of £149 million.[3]


6. The Home Office is the Government Department with responsibility for the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system. Effective use of forensic science will be required to enable the Home Office to meet at least three of its seven Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets:

Figure 1: Science and technology in the Home Office

Source: Home Office

7. Our 2003 Report on the scientific response to terrorism noted the "weak scientific culture in the Home Office" and we heard in this inquiry that there were "black holes" in its understanding of forensic science.[4],[5] The Government, in its Response to our Report on terrorism, "accepted the need to continue developing the use of science within the Home Office" and told us that it was "confident that the scientific culture across the Home Office will continue to improve through the work of Professor Wiles [the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office] and the Home Secretary".[6] We have been surprised by the conspicuous absence of input from Professor Wiles during this inquiry. In response to our inquiries, the Home Office told us that Professor Wiles was "clearly aware of the way in which corporate policy is being developed and will have been copied into quite a lot of material".[7] The Home Office subsequently noted that one of his advisers had also been part of the project group overseeing the transformation of the FSS.[8] Nevertheless, the low visibility of the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser is a source of concern, particularly in view of the history of weak scientific culture in the department.


8. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) forms a single point of reference for the 43 police forces of England and Wales. ACPO is the professional association of the chief officers of these police forces and has responsibility for the following:

9. Each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales employs scientific support staff. The titles may differ slightly, but typically a police force will have a Scientific Support Manager (SSM) and a number of Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCOs). Scientific Support Managers serve as heads of the administrative departments that co-ordinate the work of SOCOs, manage budgets for forensic science and fingerprints, and assist in the development of forensic science policy within the forces. They may have a scientific, business or police background but very few are police officers. SOCOs are employed to visit scenes of crime to look for DNA, fingerprints or other traces; again, very few of them are police officers. Some will be graduates, others will have come from a variety of backgrounds. They will all have attended training courses both locally and nationally. Training for police staff is discussed further in paragraph 104.

Use of forensic science by the criminal justice system

10. Forensic science is critical to the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The main contribution that forensic science makes to the criminal justice system is the generation of intelligence to assist investigations: the provision of actual evidence to convict the guilty or exculpate the innocent represents a small, although very significant, part of its role. DNA profiling, sometimes called DNA fingerprinting, is perhaps the most well known forensic technique and an increasing number of investigations rely on DNA evidence. Data are not available on the numbers of convictions that have been aided by the availability of DNA evidence. However, it is known that in 2002-03 there were more than 21,000 detections in crimes where a DNA profile had been obtained, a 132% increase since 2000.[9] HMIC has described DNA analysis as "by far the most significant breakthrough in crime detection since the inception of fingerprint identification".[10]

11. An overview of the process by which forensic evidence is obtained and used by the criminal justice system is provided in Figure 2. In summary, once a crime has been identified, potential evidence at the scene (or on the victim or suspect) is identified and recovered, usually by SOCOs, although in more serious cases forensic scientists from the forensic service providers may also be involved. Fingerprints found at scenes are checked against national databases directly by police forces. Other potential evidence, some of which will be recovered in the laboratory rather than at the crime scene, is subjected to detailed examination and analysis using a range of techniques. (e.g. DNA tool marks, glass, shoe prints etc.). The value of any forensic evidence is critically dependent on the interpretation of the scientific test result, necessitating an awareness and understanding of the particular circumstances of the case in question. The choice of items to be submitted for testing, and the priority awarded to them, also has a major impact on the benefit to the investigation that is derived from forensic analysis. Furthermore, appropriate action needs to be taken by the police once the forensic test results become available. The power of forensic science to facilitate the administration of justice is therefore entirely dependent on the ability of the police, and others, to use it effectively.

12. The Thematic Inspection Report, Under the Microscope, and its follow-up, Under the Microscope Refocused, carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in 2000 and 2002 respectively identified a number of problems with the use of forensic science by police forces.[11],[12] These included the failure of senior officers to "champion" the scientific support function, a lack of performance data on volume crime and scientific support, and difficulties associated with crime scene attendance and in managing the process of turning identifications into detections. See paragraph 109 for further discussion of best practice in forensic science in the police force.


13. Since Under the Microscope and Under the Microscope Refocused, police forces have put significant effort into improving policies on scene attendance by SOCOs to help them manage and cost their work more effectively, and into measuring performance. It is now increasingly realised that scientific support staff are more effective when fully integrated into the whole intelligence and investigative process. This in turn reflects the recognition that forensic science can play a key role in the intelligence-led approach to policing enshrined in the National Intelligence Model that was adopted by ACPO in 2000. The Model represents the collected wisdom and best practice in intelligence-led policing and law enforcement and has played an important part in police reform, helping senior managers to provide strategic direction; make tactical decisions about resources; and manage risk.[13] The growing exploitation of forensic evidence for intelligence purposes is a key factor in the effective operation of the National Intelligence Model.[14]


14. The increasing emphasis on forensic intelligence stems, in part, from the availability of large searchable national databases of forensic evidence. The Metropolitan Police Service, for example, told us of the "strategic shift" that had "taken place in the use of forensic science following the development of forensic intelligence databases that identify suspects rather than provide evidence for the courts".[15] The most significant database in this regard is the National DNA Database (NDNAD) which has undergone a substantial expansion programme over the past five years. The Home Office DNA Expansion Programme provided £186.2 million to the police forces in England and Wales between April 2000 and March 2004.[16] The aim of the funding was to enable the police to take a DNA sample from all known active offenders and to increase the retrieval and use of DNA material left by offenders at scenes of volume crime e.g. burglary and vehicle crime. There are now more than 2.7 million criminal justice samples on the NDNAD and 243,627 crime stain records.[17] The National DNA Database and DNA Expansion Programme are discussed further in chapter four.

Figure 2: The use of forensic science by the criminal justice system

Forensic services market

15. Total forensic provision is estimated to cost the police service in the region of £400 million annually, amounting to 0.04% of police expenditure (central and local) in England and Wales.[18] Within each police force, expenditure on forensic science is estimated to comprise approximately 20% of the force's scientific and technological spend. £210 million (or 52%) of police forensic spend is on services provided in-house by police forces—mainly fingerprinting and SOCOs.[19]

16. The remaining £190 million (or 48%) reflects expenditure on services provided by external suppliers of forensic services.[20] The major external providers are the FSS and the private companies, Forensic Alliance Ltd and LGC Ltd. There are a number of smaller companies engaged in analytical and testing work, particularly drug testing and document analysis, and a small percentage of services is provided by individual forensic practitioners (see figure 3). The FSS accounts for around 85% of the external forensic services market, but this market share has been declining.[21] The main services provided by external organisations (as opposed to services offered in-house to the police) are forensic analysis and more specialised and labour intensive casework.

Figure 3: The market for forensic science in England and Wales (2004 estimates)

3   FSS Annual Report 2003-04 Back

4   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2002-03, The Scientific Response to Terrorism, HC 415-I Back

5   Q 375 Back

6   Cm 6108 Back

7   Q 538 Back

8   Q 535, footnote by the witness Back

9   Home Office, DNA 21st Century Crime Fighting Tool, July 2003 Back

10   Home Office, Under the Microscope, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, July 2000 Back

11   Home Office, Under the Microscope, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, July 2000  Back

12   Home Office, Under the Microscope Refocused, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, June 2002 Back

13 and  Back

14   Ev 113 Back

15   Ev 113 Back

16   Forensic Science Service, The National DNA Database Annual Report 2003-04, 2004 Back

17   Hitting the mark, Jane's Police Review, 18 February 2005 Back

18   Ev 95 Back

19   Ev 95 Back

20   Ev 95 Back

21   Ev 95 Back

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Prepared 29 March 2005