House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2005 - 06
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates

Forensic Science Service Trading Fund (Revocation) Order 2005

Column Number: 1

Seventh Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Mike Weir

†Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
†Burnham, Andy (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
†Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
†Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
†Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
†Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
†Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
†McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
†Miliband, Edward (Doncaster, North) (Lab)
†Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
†Mountford, Kali (Colne Valley) (Lab)
Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
†Ryan, Joan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Streeter, Mr. Gary (South-West Devon) (Con)
†Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Viggers, Peter (Gosport) (Con)
Geoffrey Farrar, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Gibson, Dr. Ian (Norwich, North) (Lab)

Column Number: 3

Wednesday 14 December 2005

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Forensic Science Service Trading Fund (Revocation) Order 2005

2.30 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Forensic Science Service Trading Fund (Revocation) Order 2005 (S.I., 2005, No. 3138.)

I welcome you to our proceedings, Mr. Weir. I am delighted to see so many Government Members here. I welcome and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), whose position on the Back Benches today is merely ornamental, as she is now a member of our Front-Bench team, and I am very pleased about that. Of course, it is only in this Committee that she is merely ornamental; she is a hugely welcome addition to the Conservative Front Bench. And the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is always welcome.

Now that I have woken up the Government representatives, perhaps I could seek your advice, Mr. Weir. It might be more useful for the shape of the debate if, now that I have moved the motion, the Minister were to give the Government response, so that other Committee members could come back to it. If that is not the normal way, I should be happy to advance my argument first.

The Chairman: I am quite happy to proceed in the way suggested, if the Committee is.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham): I am happy to outline the Government’s position in detail, and it is important that I do so, particularly for staff of the Forensic Science Service, but I seek your guidance, Mr. Weir. Would that be my only opportunity to contribute in detail to the Committee, or could I respond to comments later?

The Chairman: If we are to follow the procedure suggested, I would allow the hon. Gentleman to come back in on the debate and comment on it; that would be only fair. If it is the Committee’s wish, it would perhaps be useful to hear the Minister’s outline of the order first.

2.32 pm

Andy Burnham: I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is not getting me to do his work for him, and that he seriously considered the issues behind the order before coming to Committee.

Column Number: 4

The order is important for the staff of the Forensic Science Service, people who work in the criminal justice system and the country as a whole. It took effect on Monday 5 December and signifies an important step forward for the Forensic Science Service and the delivery of forensic science in this country. It allows for the creation of the FSS as a 100 per cent. Government-owned company, with the appropriate powers, freedoms, structures and resources to operate in the market at arm’s length from the Home Office.

The Government are fully committed to ensuring that forensic science is given due prominence in the fight against crime. Committee members will be aware of the investment made by the Government in the DNA expansion programme, for instance. It is absolutely essential that we continue to make the case for change where that would deliver obvious benefits to the criminal justice system.

The FSS already leads the field in an increasingly challenging and dynamic market, and the change of status will provide it with the agility that it requires to compete effectively and remain at the leading edge, both in the UK and internationally, while continuing to serve the public interest. The creation of FSS GovCo is about maintaining the right balance between the strong public service ethos, of which the service is rightly proud, and the ability to respond quickly and in a businesslike way to a fast-developing market.

On the public service ethos issue, with the Committee’s indulgence I shall say a word about the staff of the FSS, who, as the Committee will know, have been working in the aftermath of the London bombings to analyse the forensic evidence from those incidents—and there was a considerable volume of it.

Yesterday I visited the FSS in its Lambeth lab. I want to put it on record that I was hugely impressed by the efforts that staff have made: they have worked through the night and gone well beyond the call of duty in order to respond quickly to the demands placed on them following the London bombings. All of us in this Committee owe them a debt of thanks. At times, their work in responding to emergency incidents is behind-the-scenes work, and not the work that is most noticed by the public. It is nevertheless crucial, both in establishing what happened and in bringing to justice those responsible. I hope that the Committee will join me in paying tribute to them for the work that they did, and that it will join me in wanting to making sure that the public service ethos continues into the FSS’s future as GovCo.

The change to GovCo status equips the FSS with the governance structures and commercial freedoms needed to enable it to make the necessary business and cultural changes required to ensure that it develops into a long-term, sustainable business that is able to adapt.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Is it my hon. Friend’s preference, and that of the Government, that GovCo and the service’s new status become so successful that there is no need to proceed to the further involvement of the private sector? Also, will
Column Number: 5
new starters joining the FSS as GovCo, when that is created, be on the same terms and conditions as existing employees?

Andy Burnham: Those are important issues, and I assure my hon. Friend that I will get to the detail of those points later. First, I want to assure him in a clear and unequivocal way that the debate is not really about structures; it should be about the quality of service provided to the criminal justice system. That, and serving the public interest by meeting the needs of the criminal justice system, should be the most important factors. We have said that GovCo will have a chance to succeed in its own right—that is the commitment that we have given, and we stand by it—but to me, “succeeding in its own right” means providing the highest possible quality of service to the criminal justice system. I am sure that my hon. Friend and I agree on that.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I join my hon. Friend the Minister in complimenting members of the service. The temporary mortuary was in my constituency. I visited staff there after the 7/7 bombings, on a day when all the staff and a number of police teams were there, debriefing. It was one of the most moving experiences that I have had. The dedication of those people is quite something. I will not go into all the details now, but we sat and talked about just how difficult their job was. They deal with one of those aspects of life that people want to forget, but without those staff, our whole system would come tumbling down. When I was elected Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, I never thought that part of my brief would be to thank people for doing such a terrible job in such awful circumstances, but I was given an excellent opportunity to thank them on behalf of my constituents.

Andy Burnham: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has put that on the record; it is absolutely crucial that we pay tribute to the people who worked in the aftermath of the London bombings. I pay tribute to all her constituents who work for, and are proud to represent, the FSS.

Yesterday, I got a flavour of the painstaking work that the service has been doing—and it really is painstaking. There are huge quantities of evidence and objects and materials that staff have been examining to see whether information can be gained from them that will be useful in helping us to understand the background and the wider picture when we come to investigate the incidents. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; at times, there are hellish conditions and challenging deadlines, but there were staff who literally worked through the night to meet deadlines. It is right that we take this opportunity to pay tribute to them.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I most certainly join the Minister in that tribute. The quality of the work of the Forensic Science Service is unsurpassed in the world; it is extremely good indeed, which is why it is difficult to understand exactly what advantages are expected, in terms of the improvement
Column Number: 6
in performance to which the Minister referred. In answer to the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), the Minister said that he wanted to see how GovCo performed in order to make a proper and objective assessment. How on earth will he do that in the abbreviated time scale of a single year?

Andy Burnham: My predecessor and I have said that we want to give GovCo a chance to succeed in its own right. I ask the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome to hear me out. I want to get on and discuss some of these issues in detail. I am also keen to hear the Committee’s views. It is true that the FSS has been subject to considerable scrutiny over some time, but one thing that the order does is bring to an end the chapter that the service has been going through. It gives the staff some certainty, as I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises. I take issue with him as he seems to be suggesting that it is not possible for the FSS to improve. Of course it is possible for the service to improve. It is important that it continues to invest in technology that enables it to deliver an even better service to the criminal justice system and the police. The hon. Gentleman looks puzzled by that, but techniques are changing all the time. There is the ability to take testing facilities closer to crime scenes. A range of things could be done to improve the service provided, so it would be wrong of the hon. Gentleman to say that the FSS is perfect and does not need further investment.

Mr. Heath: I am sorry; I did not mean to look puzzled and I do not want to mislead the Committee unintentionally. Of course every organisation can improve, particularly if there is extra investment in new technologies, but how on earth will the Minister assess any improvement within a year so as to be able to say, “This is the answer” or rather, “We’re going to stick to the original plan of privatising the service”? I think that that is the Government’s continuing intention, and many of us find it quite the wrong approach to the FSS.

Andy Burnham: That is a complete misrepresentation of the Government’s position. There was no recommendation in the McFarland report to privatise the FSS. That was ruled out and has never been an option on the table, so the hon. Gentleman misrepresents the Government’s position and does not help the debate that we have been having about the FSS. I will talk in detail about the time scale allowed to assess the service properly, but first I want to make it clear that the debate should be about the quality of service provided to the police and the criminal justice system; it is not necessarily about structures. The question is how we can improve the service. If it is decided that the service can be improved by making further structural change, I am not prepared to rule that out. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred to a two-tier work force, and I shall return to that point too, but first I shall make some progress.

As the Committee is aware, the decision to transform the FSS into a GovCo was not taken lightly, but followed a rigorous independent review—the
Column Number: 7
McFarland review—which highlighted the substantial risks of its remaining as a trading fund. The review recommended GovCo as a first step in its evolution to a public-private partnership. We have made it clear in the past that PPP is likely to offer considerable advantages, particularly in terms of access to external investment. I stress, however, that a move to PPP is by no means a foregone conclusion. Indeed, my predecessor made it clear at the start of this year that the original timeline for change had been modified to allow time to test the merits of GovCo in its own right. I repeat that commitment here today. Only last month, before the Science and Technology Committee, I again explained that no decision on the organisation’s future status had yet been taken and that no irrevocable decision would be made before December 2006.

I know that the delay in vesting the service as a GovCo at times led to frustration and uncertainty for FSS management and staff, but we always recognised that the process of transforming the FSS to a GovCo would be complex and time-consuming, in that it involved restructuring an entire organisation and setting up new contractual relationships. Our view was always that, rather than committing to a specific date, it was more important to get the process right, to start the service off as a GovCo on the right foot and to ensure that all the requisite building blocks were in place to ensure that GovCo would be given every chance of success. I believe that we have done that in the time we have taken to establish the service.

I appreciate that critics have claimed that December 2006 gives the new organisation insufficient time to find its feet—that reasonable point was made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—and to determine whether it should face further structural change. We should not lose sight of the fact that, beginning with the review, the FSS has been subject to detailed and close scrutiny for more than three years. During that period both the Home Office, as shareholder, and the FSS itself have built up a far clearer picture of the organisation’s development needs and its potential weaknesses. That said, we envisage the testing process to be an ongoing one, rather than fixed at a single point. If the indications are that real benefits can be gained from further consideration, further time will be provided.

As I have indicated, we intend to be as open as possible about the criteria against which the FSS will be judged, and a framework for assessment will be published early in the new year. However, I would expect any decision on the future status of the FSS to take into account four clear factors: first, the business needs of the organisation as identified by the FSS board; secondly, the state of the forensic science market; thirdly, the requirements of the shareholder—in this case, the Home Office—and fourthly, and crucially, the best interests of the criminal justice system. We expect the FSS board to engage actively with the Government, as shareholder, to look at the options and timelines for any future change in status of the organisation and to be involved in any assessment or decision-making process.

Column Number: 8

The involvement of board members is crucial because not only are they best placed to determine what is best for the organisation, but it is they who will be responsible for justifying and carrying forward any proposals for structural change, in consultation with the work force and its representatives. The views of other stakeholders will also be taken into account when determining further steps, and I have given a clear undertaking, which I repeat again today, that Parliament will be given the opportunity to scrutinise any future proposal for change to the FSS.

In short, I understand the concerns of those who view December 2006 as premature, but we will be looking to the FSS board and the Home Office, in its shareholder function, to recommend what is in the best interests of the business and of the wider criminal justice system. If it appears that there are real benefits to be gained from further consideration, additional time can be provided.

Existing FFS staff have been transferred to GovCo on terms that are compliant with TUPE conditions. Those ensure that the staff’s terms and conditions of employment, except for pensions, are protected as a result of the transfer and that pre- and post-transfer employment is treated as continuous. It is important to note that the status of FSS employees has changed following the transition of FSS to GovCo. They have become public, rather than civil, servants. As such, they will no longer be entitled to accrue benefits within the principal civil service pension scheme. However, staff who transfer have been provided with a new, fully funded pension scheme offering benefits that are broadly comparable. They have the freedom to transfer the full value of their accrued civil service pensions into the new scheme, and existing benefits will remain protected, even if not transferred. I am pleased to be able to report that staff and trade union representatives have been fully consulted and involved in the development of the new arrangements.

Going forward, the FSS is expected to compete in an exciting and fast-changing marketplace. Its managers have been given commercial freedom where appropriate, and that includes setting future terms and conditions of employment, an important tool in any competitive environment. However—this is where I want to touch on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby—in the articles that set up FSS as a GovCo, it has been laid out that the FSS board will have due regard to the Government guidelines for organisations that have changed in that way, in that it will be obliged to ensure that new entrants to the service are offered broadly similar terms and conditions, so as to avoid the danger that a two-tier work force might develop.

It would be correct to say that that the board has agreed to have regard to that guidance, but is not bound by it. I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman by saying that it was binding. We would expect that the board would have regard to it, and it would be in the interests of the service going forward that the issue of a two-tier work force did not arise.
Column Number: 9
However, it is correct to say that the FSS has new freedoms in relation to the terms and conditions for staff.

The FSS recognises both Prospect and the Public and Commercial Services Union—the PCS—and that recognition is preserved by TUPE. FSS practice is to involve the unions in any significant changes, and we are confident that it will continue to consult and negotiate as appropriate when changes are proposed.

The Government’s ongoing commitment to the provision of high quality forensic science remains firm, but ensuring continuity of service and ever improving performance requires a significant change in the way in which the FSS is structured, to secure the agility needed to remain a world leader. That is why the Government concluded that the time had come to revoke the trading fund order and establish the FSS as a GovCo.

In concluding the debate, I hope that members of the Committee, and of the House, will join me in thanking the members of staff for the work that they do on our behalf, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) did so eloquently a moment ago, and that they will also join me in wishing the service well in its new status, now that it has certainty about the way forward. If we as a Committee can join together to support the order, that will send the strongest possible signal to the staff that we value the work they do for us.

2.52 pm

Mr. Garnier: I thank the Minister for his outline of the policy behind the change in the status of the FSS. I join him and the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury in recognising the valued and valuable work that the FSS does, not just in hideous and horrible disasters such as the bombings on 7 July, but overseas. I believe that a number of members of the FSS have been seconded to, or worked to assist overseas Governments, particularly in situations in which—sadly—British nationals have been killed. There is complete cross-party agreement in recognising the valuable nature of the work that the members of the FSS do on behalf of the country and, in particular, on behalf of the criminal justice system.

It was instructive to hear what the Minister had to say before Opposition Members rose to speak, although I suspect that what the Minister had to say then was exactly the same as what he would have said if he had spoken second. A number of questions arise from what the Minister said and from the Government’s response—dated 25 July—to the Science and Technology Committee’s report. The Minister appeared before the same Committee on 23 November this year.

I will not read out verbatim what the Committee had to say and how the Government replied. However, I refer the Committee to pages 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Government response, which deals with the change in status of the FSS. It seems to me that if one looks at, for example, items 2, 3, 4 and 5, and 7, 8 and 10, the Committee asked the Government some fundamental questions, to which the Government responded in a
Column Number: 10
fairly vague and general way. It may be that commercial sensitivities mean that the Government are not able to give much information, but there are a number of points that were drawn out by the Committee in its report that the Government have not got to grips with in a detailed way.

I appreciate that the modern jargon is to use expressions such as “agreement by all stakeholders”, but it would be interesting to know precisely what the Government thought a stakeholder was in that context—[Interruption.] Of course I give way. [Interruption.] I thought that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) wanted to intervene. Apparently I was mistaken.

A number of detailed points need to be dealt with in a rather more detailed way than the Government’s response so far. I do not suggest that we need to prolong today’s proceedings, but I urge the Government to take the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiries seriously and not simply to brush them off with a vague and generalised answer. I have a number of other points that I should like to raise in relation to this provision.

The Conservative party has no principled objection to the privatisation or any other de-governmentalisation, if I may use such a hideous word, of the FSS. I am interested in the provision of an expert service by qualified scientists in this field, which is of value to society as a whole and the criminal justice system in particular. It does not matter whether that is provided by a private company, a series of private companies, a wholly state-owned corporation or the present structure. What is important is the service that it delivers.

Through whichever guise that service is delivered, if there is to be a charging system and a provider and client relationship, the client, which in these circumstances is frequently the Legal Services Commission or other aspects of the publicly-funded justice system, must not be broken down by extravagant demands. When the Government are the provider and, in one form or another, also the customer it is tempting not to enter into accounting procedures very rigorously or to provide a proper pricing structure.

I want to be sure that when this operation becomes a 100 per cent. Government company it will not so set it charges that those who use its services in legally-aided criminal cases or those few legally-aided civil cases are not prevented from gaining access to the particular service by reason of the refusal or the inability of the LSC to write out a cheque for the invoice. It is a simple point, but one that could easily be escaped when one is moving from one aspect of Government spending to another.

The hon. Member for Selby who raised this point has temporarily left the Room. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised it too. Like them I am concerned about the Government’s time scale. As I said, I have no principled objection to and, indeed, I thoroughly encourage the privatisation of a great many more Government services. But if we are to do it properly it should be on a time scale that allows for
Column Number: 11
the changeover to be handled in an organised and effective way. There is no point rushing into something that leads to more problems than it would solve.

Certainly I accept that there is no point delaying simply because it is politically inconvenient for a party that traditionally has not supported the involvement of the private sector in a public service—[Interruption.] I do not think that I have uttered an untruth. In my 53 years of life I have understood that the Labour party has traditionally not welcomed private intervention in the provision public services. Of course they are changing now and I welcome that change. But my point is worth making.

I notice that the McFarland review did not recommend a total privatisation; the absence of that recommendation formed part of the Minister’s remarks. Have the Government considered floating the organisation as a private company on the stock exchange, despite the absence of that recommendation in the McFarland review? If so, why did they decide not to take up that idea? Or is that something that will emerge following consideration of the value, or otherwise, of the 100 per cent. GovCo? In terms of delivery of service and value for money for the public, how does the public-private partnership system compare with a full flotation on the stock exchange, and how do the Government estimate—

Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 19 December 2005