The Forensic Science Service - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 76-131)

Professor Jim Fraser, David Hartshorne, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and David Richardson

30 March 2011

Q76 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming in today. We have rather a lot to get through. With a panel of four, it sometimes takes a little longer. If you feel that I have cut you off at any stage and you want to add something subsequently, please feel free to add comments in writing after today. For the record, I would be grateful if you would introduce yourselves to the Committee.

Professor Fraser: I am Professor Jim Fraser. I am director of the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde.

David Hartshorne: I am David Hartshorne. I am the commercial director at Cellmark Forensic Services.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I am Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester. I am a human geneticist and developer of forensic DNA technology.

David Richardson: I am David Richardson. I am the chief executive of LGC.

Q77 Chair: Thank you very much. Can I, first of all, ask whether any of you were consulted by the Home Office prior to the FSS closure decision?

Professor Fraser: No.

David Hartshorne: No.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: No.

David Richardson: No.

Q78 Chair: That was fairly straightforward. In your view, did the Government give sufficient consideration to the impacts on forensic R&D before it decided to wind down the FSS?

Professor Fraser: No.

David Hartshorne: I don't know what consultation they did around R&D. Clearly, there is the ongoing inquiry to look into this. I am sorry, but I am not in the best position to comment on that, I don't think.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I would say no. There was a ministerial statement saying that the UK Government was not interested in funding forensic science.

David Richardson: They were certainly aware of the R&D work that was being done in the private sector, but beyond that I am not aware of any further consideration.

Q79 Chair: There does seem now to be a review of forensic science R&D that has come after the closure decision. Does it have any purpose and have any of you been invited to contribute to it?

David Richardson: We at LGC have contributed to that review. We had Professor Silverman round to see our facilities quite recently and we have put in a submission to that review. So we are involved in it, yes.

Professor Fraser: We have also submitted a response to that review. If I can make a couple of brief comments, that needs to be seen in the light of comparing research and development in forensic science with equivalents in the rest of the scientific community and internationally. The position is very bad.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I have not been approached to give evidence in this review.

David Hartshorne: Someone is providing a submission to the inquiry.

Q80 Stephen Metcalfe: One of the things that we have looked at and which is key to this whole thing is whether there is a market in forensic science. Do you believe there is a market?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Perhaps I could start. Obviously, there is a market, and a very good example of that is the work we do on DNA, which has generated an exceedingly large industry worldwide. The key thing with forensic science is the new transformative discoveries that will be coming over the horizon and whether the UK is positioned appropriately to be able to detect these and develop them, and specifically whether the type of organisation we have within the FSS is well positioned to make those transformative developments. I would argue that no, I don't think they are.

Q81 Stephen Metcalfe: Perhaps I should have added a "viable" market. Is there a viable market for forensic science?

David Hartshorne: There absolutely is a viable market, certainly from our perspective as a commercial provider. This is a market in which we provide forensic services currently and we are working with 50% of the UK police forces.

David Richardson: We would agree. There is undoubtedly a viable market. Not only are we also working with all the forces in England and Wales, but we have been able to do that in a way that we think has contributed significantly to improved service levels and improving quality, because we are all accredited to ISO 17025. Also, we have managed to drive costs down quite significantly. The paper that came out in December 2009 about protecting the public supports exactly that.

Q82 Stephen Metcalfe: Is that market totally driven by police spending or are there other factors?

David Hartshorne: The UK market for forensic testing is largely driven by police expenditure. Similar services are provided to other customers but, essentially, yes, it is driven by police expenditure.

David Richardson: That is very much our experience as well, although there are increasing opportunities overseas and also a number of opportunities outside the direct police market. It is important that that market has stability for the future if the private sector provision is going to continue to invest at the levels it is doing at the moment. I know the Committee looked at the issue of police insourcing of forensics work when it last met, and doubtless we will look at that again. That is an important factor in the sustainability of that market.

Q83 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you see it as a shrinking market, not necessarily the science itself but the amount that is being spent outside police forces? Have you experienced that and do you see it as a shrinking market?

David Hartshorne: We do see it as a shrinking market at the moment. This has been influenced by a number of factors. One is that the procurement exercise that has been ongoing for a number of years has been driving down prices. So the amount of expenditure is affected as a result of that. We also see that there is a restriction on expenditure as a result of public procurement and public expenditure restrictions at the moment. Overall, there has been a reduction. We are also seeing some in-house work provided by police forces, which, again, is restricting the amount of external expenditure.

Q84 Stephen Metcalfe: That is the same with the private sector.

David Richardson: Yes. The Minister said quite recently that the market had come down from around £170 million to about £110 million. That, of course, is simply the market that is currently outsourced by the police and not all the stuff that they already do in-house.

Q85 Stephen Metcalfe: Has that affected your businesses, and, I suppose, if it has, has it affected your profitability?

David Richardson: It has certainly affected our business in the sense that we are carrying quite a large amount of spare capacity at the moment that we have continued to maintain, initially, with the continuing tendering of work being expected and now, of course, in the light of the decision to close the FSS. So it has had an effect on us from that perspective.

Q86 Stephen Metcalfe: Has the National Forensic Framework Agreement caused fragmentation of provision and competitive pricing at the expense of scientific rigour?

David Richardson: We would absolutely say that it has not. LGC operates in a number of scientific markets. Forensics is not the only science market in which we operate. Scientific rigour is at the absolute base—the foundation—of everything we do, both in forensics and also as the National Measurement Institute, which we are also. No, it has not impacted.

David Hartshorne: With regard to the procurement exercise and concerns about it impacting on scientific rigour, absolutely not. The procurement exercise dictates some very good quality standards by which police forces and we need to be able to work. In that regard, you might argue that the procurement exercise is raising some of the quality standards in forensic science provision.

The other issue you made reference to is fragmentation. The procurement exercise has allowed police forces to procure their work in different packages. In so doing, it has opened up the marketplace to a broader range of service provision, allowing some organisations to specialise in particular areas and some organisations to provide a comprehensive range of services. Overall, we would say that that increased level of competition is bringing improved levels of service and improved levels of value for money for police forces.

Professor Fraser: We need to be careful about what we mean by the word "fragmentation" here. It may not be affecting the commercial aspects of the market. The dominant approach to using forensic science effectively in the past 10 years or so has been to integrate the science into the investigative process. It is clear that using multiple suppliers in a single case is fragmenting those processes.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I cannot add anything to that.

Q87 Stephen Mosley: Which forensic services are profitable and are there any services that are provided in the private sector that are not profitable?

David Richardson: It is right to say that, inevitably, the profitability varies between the services that we provide. To pick up on the point that has just been made, sometimes it is right that we would provide services at a lower degree of profitability because it is part of a comprehensive service to the police forces. We have over 70 different forensic science services that we offer, and some of those, clearly, we offer because they are part of an overall package.

David Hartshorne: I would agree with that. The procurement exercise requires us to provide a broad range of services. Some of those are more profitable than others, but they are all required to be able to provide a comprehensive investigation service. As a commercial organisation, we would hope that all the elements of a service provision provide a contribution, but it will be variable depending on the particular services being delivered.

Q88 Stephen Mosley: Mr Richardson and Mr Hartshorne, what sort of turnover do you have in the forensics market and what sort of profitability do you have on that turnover, if that is not sensitive?

David Hartshorne: We have just published our accounts for the last year. We turned over £26 million across our business and returned a profit of £4.5 million.

David Richardson: We have a total turnover for the entire group of £130 million. Of that, forensics is probably of the order of £30 million-odd, perhaps a little bit more than that. The profitability of that, clearly, has varied a fair bit over the years. It has been a difficult year this year, but it is still healthy.

Q89 Stephen Mosley: Professor Jeffreys, in one of your previous answers you talked about R&D. Do private companies have any incentive to invest in R&D at all?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: They certainly have an incentive to invest in R&D right down at the end of that translational line, from academic research right the way down to providing a forensic service. It is very important for them to invest in that final stage of getting absolutely perfect systems up and running. But there is a whole swathe of research activity which I don't think they would wish to invest in and probably don't have the resources to be able to invest in, particularly in a restricted market like this. We have just heard the profit figures. These are not gigantic sums if you start thinking about carrying out rather more basic research.

Q90 Stephen Mosley: Do you think that private sector investment will increase or decline over the next few years?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I suspect it will remain static in this very competitive market. I have made a very strong argument that there is a role for additional funds to come in, to keep the science vibrant and to ensure those new discoveries start moving down the pipeline towards new forensic implementations.

David Richardson: Perhaps I could comment on some of the research that we are doing at LGC at the moment. We spend between 5% and 10% of our forensics revenues on research every year. We currently have about 230 research projects under way, of which over 70 are in forensics alone. We collaborate with 24 different universities and academic institutions. We have published 81 papers over the last year or two, of which 25 have been in forensic science, and a very large number of technical notes as well. From our perspective, we see investment in R&D, particularly at the front end but throughout the research chain, as being very important, both to our credibility as a provider and, frankly, to our commercial success in the longer term.

David Hartshorne: I would agree. The delivery of forensic science for us as an organisation is such that it is absolutely vital that we continue to bring the best quality science through to the delivery of services. Our R&D tends to be more at the development stage. To bring scientific techniques through to the criminal justice process requires huge amounts of validation and development. That tends to be where the focus of our research is. We spent about £1 million last year on R&D, but not just around those validations. Over the years, we have been involved in developing significantly some of the DNA technologies that are used, and we have a number of R&D projects at the moment looking at other areas of forensic science, particularly to do with increasing detection sensitivity and increasing our ability to be able to provide results quickly and rapidly to police forces, which is what is required to assist within investigations.

Q91 Stephen Mosley: Do you feel that you will be able to step into the gap if the FSS closes?

David Hartshorne: When you say "step into the gap", are you talking about R&D?

Q92 Stephen Mosley: In R&D specifically, yes.

David Hartshorne: With R&D, we see a need for a whole range of different R&D requirements. We provide a specific role there, as I have described, more to do with the development of technologies. We need to work very extensively not only with people in academia but also within other commercial environments, also right down to working with organisations that are involved in developing new pieces of equipment and detection processes that we can incorporate and bring to the criminal justice process. It is not a job that we can do alone. It needs to be done alongside a whole range of R&D activities outside our organisation.

David Richardson: An interesting example is that we are currently working on a process that will enable the police to get a DNA profile within an hour. At the moment it takes a lot longer than that. That, clearly, has a huge relevance to a criminal investigation. The basic science for that was done in our DNA sequencing operation in Berlin, so it was done outside the pure forensic science division. That illustrates the point that David has just made.

Professor Fraser: It is important that the Committee has a clear understanding of the research and development environment. There are three important perspectives. The first one is international, the second one is research versus development, and the third is the historic position of the FSS. It seem to me to be rather clear that, by any objective measure of the amount and quality of R&D that is currently going on in the UK, it is inadequate. The funding, the structures and the history of collaborations are not there. It is quite clear that commercial providers will develop products and will research some products. But I think Sir Alec was making the point that the fundamental research requires funding that is simply not provided by the research councils in the UK.

Q93 Chair: Superficially, this looks like worsening the situation.

Professor Fraser: Yes. It will make it worse because the FSS were the biggest publisher of peer review papers in the UK until recently. They are not now. Of course, they were in quite a privileged position because they had access to Home Office money that the other private providers did not have. Unless the current commercial providers are going to provide those funds, there will be a gap. If you take the perspective of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes as the first one, they set up a research and development committee in 2006 that I chaired. The formal position of that committee is that the level and quality of research is inadequate, and the focus of the research is wrong. There is a lack of strategy, leadership and funding.

  If you take one more external perspective, the international perspective, and look at the report of the National Academy of Sciences, which was published in 2009, it is quite clearly set out in that report that the situation in the United States is desperately bad. It is much better in the UK, but, if you compare it to the research in general science, forensic science outputs are behind by orders of magnitude. A good university working in biotechnology might produce a few hundred peer review papers in a year, whereas the outputs that we are looking at in forensic science are a few hundred peer review papers in a decade. There is a huge difference.

Q94 Pamela Nash: What we have just discussed is what I was going to ask you about, and specifically research in the universities in the UK on forensic science. Professor Fraser, you have spoken about the state that that is in at the moment. Could you talk more about what impact the closure of the FSS will have on that research?

Professor Fraser: It is hard to predict, but it certainly won't improve it in any way because, historically, they produced a great deal of research. Their research outputs have been dwindling. From what I can see, the figures are very difficult to get because you have to use search engines and the precise means that you use to search determines the figure. The figures that I produced for this Committee are sufficiently useful to make a comparative judgment.

To give you an idea of the FSS research outputs for last year, they are more or less the same as the centre that I run. That is 1,500 people versus nine academic staff and fewer than 20 researchers. It is a tiny number of publications. Many of the FSS publications are not peer reviewed. The baseline that we have to measure this against is peer reviewed papers, because that is where the new knowledge comes from that needs to link into knowledge translation and development in the commercial providers. The academic sector needs to produce that new knowledge that is then recognised as, potentially, valuable in all sorts of dimensions, one of which would be commercially.

To do that, you need effective collaborations, and there is no history of effective collaborations. Furthermore, the enormous growth in forensic science programmes in the UK in recent years has led to a rhetoric about research that is simply not supported by any data. Most universities have published almost nothing in forensic science. There is no real tradition. The numbers are extraordinarily low. Many have published no papers whatsoever in 10 years. There is a need here to develop a culture of research. There is a need for funding and for some form of agreed strategy, and there is a clear need for leadership in order that this supports the criminal justice system.

  The research councils talk a great deal about the "impact of research". What could be more impactive than criminal justice? What could be more interdisciplinary than forensic science? It is, fundamentally, by definition, an interdisciplinary business. It links policing investigation and criminal justice to science and other areas of activity, yet the word "forensic" is mentioned in the last five annual reports of RCUK on two occasions and there is virtually no funding.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: To pick up on that, I will give you a perspective from Europe where forensic laboratories tend to be embedded firmly within universities and medical institutes. The European Union has recently awarded about €6 million to create a virtual forensic institute spanning Europe. If you look at the type of science proposals there that are aimed towards eventual forensic implementation, they are very exciting and imaginative, and it is an area in which the FSS certainly used to be involved, maybe about a decade ago, but that interest and intellectual excitement seems to have vanished entirely from the UK scene. Very exciting things like trying to identify someone's name from their DNA or the age of a bloodstain contributor, or trying to predict the physical appearance of an individual, are all exciting potential developments for the police. They are almost off the radar now in Britain. I think that is absolutely tragic, given the fact that this country is one of the great powerhouses of medical DNA research.

  Certainly, one of the things I have not been able to detect in looking through the FSS collaborations is any clear indication that they are actually hooked in with some of these truly gigantic and powerful organisations that we have within this country. There are some real missed opportunities going on in the UK.

Q95 Chair: Just out of interest, in the two private sector organisations here, how many of your employees would have single disciplinary qualifications and how many would have forensic science degrees? I am not trying to create a gap between the two sets of witnesses here.

David Hartshorne: I am not sure I have the numbers to be able to provide an answer to that. Our preference, generally speaking, is to recruit people with good science degrees as opposed to those who have gone through a first degree that is forensically motivated.

David Richardson: About 12% of our staff have PhDs and about 60% overall are graduates. I would agree entirely that our preference is very much to recruit good scientists with good science degrees rather than people necessarily from forensic science courses.

David Hartshorne: Let me come back. Clearly, in delivering science, it is important that we have a high scientific content. 70% of our staff are active scientists.

Q96 Chair: Isn't this something that the university sector needs to think about in terms of supplying the needs of the market?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Yes. Everybody watches CSI now and wants to become a forensic scientist. So they go to university and they are given a choice of about 400 degrees, most of which, quite frankly, are worthless, with "forensic" in the title. Colleagues on both sides are absolutely right. They need to recruit chemists, physicists, engineers, IT specialists and so on and then adapt them into the forensic arena, not the other way round.

Professor Fraser: I completely agree with that.

Q97 Pamela Nash: Professor Fraser, you seemed quite clear in your response to my question that the closure of the FSS will almost certainly have a negative impact on research and development. Is there any possibility in your mind that the dominance of FSS might have provided a barrier to growth of R&D in the sector?

Professor Fraser: Yes. That is an issue as well. You asked a question specifically about the FSS. In their recent guises, as they became an agency, they have been quite a difficult organisation to work with when it comes to research. They are very protective. We have had instances where the research has just fallen by the wayside. The move towards a commercial organisation has restricted the research focus and their willingness to exchange information.

These collaborations are really quite difficult to manage but not impossible. If you look at a company like Philips, they have a huge R&D programme. They work extensively with universities. They are very effective at exchanging information for research and development, so it is not impossible. The research culture in the UK at the moment cannot support those collaborations. The trust and the understanding is not there.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Could I just pick up on that? Another problem is that, if you visit the website or the annual report of any respectable research organisation, the first thing you come across is very detailed information on the research projects and so on. That is crucial; that is the shop window; that is what gets the message out and starts building up collaborations. I have spent a considerable amount of time on the FSS website and looking through annual reports and there is virtually nothing at all. That is a real concern.

One of my real concerns is the effectiveness with which FSS has interfaced with academia in a two-way process. I have doubts about that. This applies to transparency and peer review. Are they running their science programme in a way that I, as a scientist, have to do? Everything I do has to be peer reviewed, judged by my peers, and, if it is deemed appropriate, I will get the funding. I am not sure, again, that that culture is fully pervading the forensic sciences in this country.

Q98 Pamela Nash: Can I ask each of you how much responsibility do you think that the research councils have in fostering this new era of collaboration in forensic science?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Perhaps I could start on that. The major charities do not support forensic science. The research councils, by and large, do not. The Medical Research Council specifically does not, as far as I know. There has been some ad hoc funding over the years, for example, from EPSRC, but it is very ad hoc. I know of a number of academic forensic scientists whose research has to be paid for on the back of casework income that they generate. It is a very ad hoc way of doing the science. There is no central forensic budget in this country of which I am aware.

Q99 Pamela Nash: Should there be?

Professor Fraser: Yes. The issue about the research councils—I am taking some risks here—is that they will formulate their objectives on the basis of the political environment around them, and if there is no political will for this then they are unlikely to do so. I have spoken to a number of people in the research councils. They fund some areas that overlap with parts of the forensic science with which the people here are familiar. So there is funding for things like security research. A great deal of that is around very narrow areas, say, digital evidence, detection of explosives and so on and so forth.

With regard to the broader issues, the real need for research, in my view, in forensic science has to balance the science and the procedure on investigative issues linked to criminal justice outcomes. That is not a proposition that any research council will respond to, until the political will is developed that shows that that is something that is desirable.

David Richardson: I would like to pick up on that. The linking of that research to the actual use of this in the field by the investigating team is absolutely critical. That is why the partnership between academia and people like ourselves, who are providing those services to the police, is absolutely critical. To link this matter back to the question of the market that we touched on earlier, we need to have a stable market of a sensible size that will encourage the private sector to invest in those research and—in particular—development activities if we are going to have a sustainable and really meaningful R&D operation in forensic science in the UK in the future.

David Hartshorne: I would add that we will continue to fund the very targeted R&D and validation work that we do, but that really cannot be done in isolation with other organisations. We would absolutely welcome some more centralised funding.

Q100 Pamela Nash: Finally, I want to ask you about the future of our forensic scientists in the UK. Do you think that the closure of the FSS will have a major impact on the next generation of forensic scientists in the UK, being a major employer?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Yes. It will scare off the new people coming into the field. There are many people going to universities who want to study forensic science. They are suddenly realising that they are in a market where the opportunities for employment are dwindling. We have certainly seen in the context of the pending closure of the FSS some real howls of anguish from the young people out there. So, yes, I think it will choke off opportunities and developments in forensic science in the future.

Professor Fraser: The situation is inflated, anyway. There is a fashion for forensic science at the moment that is, frankly, unhealthy. Most of the educational programmes are driven by the business needs of universities and not by the needs of employers. It was inevitable that this boom would bust. Maybe this is the point. When it is quite plain that the employment opportunities are much more limited, the market will then settle down to something more realistic and people coming into forensic science will go into it with some realism about what it is and what kind of education they need.

David Hartshorne: As far as the future for forensic scientists is concerned, the private marketplace will expand to provide additional opportunities for forensic scientists. That will come from taking on some people with existing experience. Also, the private sector is very much involved in developing our own forensic scientists, taking people with good science degrees and providing training so that they are able to provide and apply those scientific disciplines through to forensic science. We will play a part in doing that. From our perspective, I hope that the opportunities for forensic scientists that we are able to provide will provide a good future and opportunity for them.

David Richardson: I would agree with that. In addition, a lot of very good science is being done within forensic science and more widely. The opportunities for the forensic scientists who do come into our sphere are going to get better. Professor Jeffreys has already suggested that there are some very interesting developments out there. So it is going to be a good place to have a career. I have no doubt about that at all.

Q101 Gavin Barwell: In the answers that you have given already, particularly Professor Fraser, you have touched on the issue I was going to raise, which is collaboration between the FSS, academia and private companies. Could I invite you all to say a little more about how you think the change in the FSS to a more commercial entity affected its collaboration? I believe you have already touched on it, Professor Fraser. Do you want to elaborate on that?

Professor Fraser: I will expand on that and make the answer slightly more general. I need to say that I do not have any particular provider in mind when I make these comments. The centre I am involved with is in a chemistry department, and the chemistry department has very strong links with industry. It works with big pharmaceutical companies. It has no difficulties working with them. Yes, they have commercial issues. Yes, there are issues of intellectual property and so on and so forth, but universities know how to deal with that. It is not problematic, but it is problematic in forensic science. The collaborations seem to be very immature. There seems to be an expectation that there is imbalance in the intellectual property.

I have a concern that the commercial providers in forensic science, in general terms, have yet to realise how this works. Those who are engaged in commercial science more generally are better informed about this, but some that are coming in as new forensic science providers are not very well informed and they have to get smart about how to share and trust, and how then to make the research translate into development, which is where the benefits are going to come to the commercial world and the criminal justice system.

Q102 Chair: But Gavin's question specifically is: has it got worse since the restructuring of the FSS?

Professor Fraser: Yes, it has got worse.

Q103 Gavin Barwell: In relation to the FSS.

Professor Fraser: In relation to the FSS, it has, and there are general difficulties, anyway.

Q104 Gavin Barwell: So there is a problem, generally.

Professor Fraser: There is a general problem and it has got worse. The FSS are very protective about their information. I probably should say no more than that. They can be quite difficult to deal with.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I can add one fact to that, which I know about. The FSS does have, ongoing, about 50 academic collaborations formally signed off. How that compares with five or 10 years ago, I have absolutely no idea.

Q105 Gavin Barwell: Are they collaborations with other companies?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: No. These are academic collaborations. Looking down the list, I would again make the point that I see missed opportunities there. A lot of these collaborations seem to be aimed towards the very final stages of forensic implementation, of tweaking the technology and reflecting rather less the more upstream, potentially more exciting areas that could generate major revenues in the future.

David Richardson: It is fair to say from a commercial perspective, obviously, that the FSS is a competitor of ours in competing for contracts. We have probably found academic collaboration to be more fruitful. I would agree with that.

David Hartshorne: I am not in a position to comment on the FSS's position. As far as we are concerned, as I mentioned earlier on, the future of our innovation is about being able to work with external organisations and academic organisations.

Q106 Gavin Barwell: I want to pick up quickly on a couple of things that came out of the questions that Pamela asked. Professor Fraser, you were making the point about the lack of research council investment in forensic science. You said that you didn't think that would change until there was a political will to change.

Professor Fraser: Yes.

Q107 Gavin Barwell: Would you expand a little more about what you mean by the phrase "political will", because, in terms of how the research councils allocate funding, that is not a decision the politicians get involved in because of Haldane. When you said "political will", what did you mean?

Professor Fraser: Essentially, I mean the aims of the Government and the aims of the various political parties. For example, many of the areas of research, quite understandably, are on things like ageing and climate change, because these are matters of considerable importance. If forensic science or science and justice was considered to be of political importance, then the research councils would respond to that.

Q108 Gavin Barwell: Professor Jeffreys, you mentioned the EU funding to set up a virtual collaboration. Has any of that funding come to the UK?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Yes, to two groups, neither of which, I believe, are directly involved in the hard science aspects of it. One is bioethics.

Q109 Chair: Is the problem, Professor Fraser, the lack of clarity about who the customer is in forensic science?

Professor Fraser: It may be that that is one of the issues. The research that needs doing needs to blend the science, the policing issues and the issues to do with the impact that that science might have on criminal justice. For example, nobody knows the contribution that forensic science makes to criminal justice. I am not aware of a single research study that has examined that issue, yet we all believe and have a positive view of it, because in individual cases it can be incredibly impactive.

Let us take a slightly different approach and ask, "What difference does it make in say, volume crime, in burglary and car crime?" What difference would investment in forensic science make? We don't know the answer to that question. At a time when we are looking at constrained budgets and reduced funding, it may well be that there is more sense in investing in that than there is in investing in other things.

David Richardson: I would like to make a comment. We have commissioned some independent research. A random statistic from that research is that a single Police and Criminal Evidence Act DNA sample that provides a profile costs about £270. We have estimated that that can save up to about £700 in police time and about £800 in court time if it leads to a guilty plea. So it is about 90% of the court's time if there is a guilty plea. It is an individual statistic plucked from the air, but it is just indicative of exactly the point that Professor Fraser is making.

Q110 Gavin Barwell: I want to ask a little about mentoring of people coming into forensic science. One of the points that was made to us by FSS staff was that, because of the breadth of the work that is done there, there is a huge opportunity in terms of mentoring new people to the profession, essentially. Do you believe that the private competitors have the capability to train and mentor forensic scientists in the same way? Do you have the scale of operation that allows you to do that?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I will start as I am not with a private company, the answer is absolutely yes. They do it all the time.

David Richardson: We have over 550 people in our forensics division. We are accredited in six laboratories on a huge range of methods. We are absolutely able to do that.

David Hartshorne: About 50% of our staff have over 10 years' forensic experience. They bring that experience to the new people that we are training. All work involves peer review.

Q111 Pamela Nash: I ask this question of all of you. In your opinion, what country, or devolved administration, has the best model at the moment for forensic science provision? Is there something that we should or could emulate?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I have raised the European model already. First of all, I don't think there is a perfect country. They are all flawed. Forensic science right across the world is significantly underfunded. The United States recently took the view that, despite the major commercial presence there, it was important for the federal Government to play a proper role in the provision of forensic science research. That led to the creation of the National Institute of Forensic Science. That is a very good model, rather analogous to this virtual forensic institute that is in Europe, that deserves very serious consideration for the UK. It does not have, necessarily, to be an enormously expensive activity, but it should be an activity where you are properly interfacing with academia, with interesting new ideas coming through, and then also fully interfacing with the commercial sector. That would give, potentially, a very effective conduit for new forensic developments.

Q112 Pamela Nash: In that case, keeping it as a Government institution that works with the private sector but which would not necessarily be a Government body.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Yes. I don't know exactly what is happening in the States, but that is certainly the model I would envisage for the UK.

David Richardson: I agree that improvements could be made, undoubtedly, but the UK has a very good model. Let me give two examples. We do work in Germany. The required turnaround time for a PACE equivalent sample in Germany is something of the order of six weeks. The fastest you can get it done in the US—I got this directly from a very senior sheriff quite recently—is about six to seven days. We regularly do it in three days. We can do it in a day and we are working on technology that will do it in an hour. That is the difference between our model in the UK and what it has produced and what other people do.

Q113 Pamela Nash: I take it you mean England and Wales when you refer to the UK.

David Richardson: I beg your pardon. In England and Wales, of course, yes.

Q114 Pamela Nash: And also prior to the FSS closure or afterwards.

David Richardson: I can only speak about what we have been doing. Certainly, the FSS is part of delivering that very quick service, yes. They operate to the same requirements that we and our competitors do.

David Hartshorne: I cannot speak for a number of other countries, but we do provide forensic services in the United States, where there is very little use of the private sector. As a result, there are enormous backlogs. It is not uncommon for rape investigations, for example, to have to wait over six months before work might start. What is unique here in the UK, and certainly in England and Wales, is not just that we have a private sector providing services but that we provide some of the highest levels of customer support, some of the quickest turnaround times and some of the highest levels of sensitivity for analysis. The model that operates here has delivered some very good quality services for police forces.

Professor Fraser: Historically and probably currently, England and Wales has the highest quality of forensic science in the world. That is widely shared around the world as well. There are interesting emerging models in Australia and the United States. It would be very interesting to see what will happen because the National Institute of Justice (in the USA) is now funding research, development, standards and accreditation. So it is a very expansive programme. I would foresee that more sophisticated forensic science is going to come from the United States. It may well be that, in the future, we will be taking a lead from the United States.

Q115 Pamela Nash: Finally, the information that we have been given during the period of the inquiry has led us to believe that the FSS was quite a heavy hitter on the international stage as well as in the UK. What is your impression of the impact that this closure has had internationally?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: The response that you have, doubtless, seen in the press and so on from the international community has been one of extreme alarm and astonishment at the closure. There is a legacy issue here. In my view, the golden days of the Forensic Science Service were back in the 1990s, up to about the year 2000, where their contribution particularly in the development of DNA techniques, the National DNA Database and so on was exemplary. That legacy has drifted away a bit, pretty well in parallel with the shift towards full privatisation. It is, sadly, fading.

Pamela Nash: Is there anything else that anyone would like to add? In that case, thank you, gentlemen.

Q116 Gavin Barwell: I want to come on to the issue of police in-house forensic labs. Are there any benefits to having them?

Professor Fraser: I would say there have to be some benefits. Speed is an obvious one. We have already heard that one of the major differences between England and Wales and the rest of the world are the very fast turnaround times, which are a consequence of the positive aspects of the relationship between the police and the forensic science providers. They might also bring economic savings. The potential risk is that they (the in house services) must be done to the same quality and standards as the laboratories that are providing analytical services. It seems to me that not to do so would present an unacceptable risk to criminal justice. I can see some benefits, but there are things to be managed.

David Hartshorne: Our experience of providing cost-effective, high quality forensic services is to concentrate your efforts in a limited number of facilities. That is one aspect of being able to deliver profitable forensic services. That is not just because you concentrate your expertise in one place, but it is much easier to be able to control the quality issues of delivering high quality forensic services. Our belief is that, if you want things to be done very quickly and to have things done at high quality standards, concentrating on one area and maybe focusing your efforts in the movement of samples and exhibits through to a centralised location is, perhaps, the most efficient way of doing high quality forensic science.

Q117 Gavin Barwell: Is that a no?

David Hartshorne: I think that Jim raises some relevant issues to do with speed. It is true to say, as you will be aware, that police forces do all their fingerprint analysis in-house currently.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: I am trying to think of any benefits. Other than speed, no. The costs are very clear. There is a duplication of facilities and a real risk of potentially running a technology that is not fully accredited.

David Richardson: I would certainly agree with the comments that have been made about the importance of accreditation. The regulator has suggested that police laboratories would need to be accredited by 2015. Frankly, I do not think that we can go through the next four years with moving work back from accredited facilities, where it is being done at the moment, to non-accredited facilities.

The only other point I would make is that we do work very closely with the police laboratories as well. To my mind, they provide a very important input to the process, particularly at the front end. So a successful provision of forensic services is about working closely with the police, including the police labs.

Q118 Chair: In your earlier response on mentoring, you seemed to be arguing that it was the scale of your operation that enabled you to have that all-encompassing mentoring and bringing people in with individual specialisms and developing them into forensic scientists. Surely, a relatively small police laboratory could not do that?

David Richardson: It is a challenge for them, undoubtedly.

Q119 Chair: Have you any evidence of it happening in the way that is comparable to what you pride yourself on as happening in your own company?

David Richardson: We spend a lot of time talking to police scientists and helping to keep them up to speed with the latest techniques that we are developing and the things that we are doing. That is very important to us because a key issue is about the screening of evidence before it comes to us for testing. Quite often, you will find that the police, in terms of recovering that evidence, will be making very important decisions about where they are likely to be able to gain, particularly, DNA evidence, and they must be aware of the latest things that we are capable of doing so that we don't miss opportunities to add to the evidence that is available in any given case.

For example, just snipping out the blood stain from a jacket and sending it to the lab for testing might well miss the fact that there are fibres all over that jacket that we could also do an awful lot with, with some of our latest technology.

Q120 Gavin Barwell: There seems to be unanimity on the issue of quality, but there are slightly different views on whether duplication means it will cost more or whether there could be some economies from having it in-house.

I want to come to the issue of impartiality. Professor Fraser, you stated that, if quality standards were achieved in-house, "there should be no significant implications for criminal justice".

Professor Fraser: I don't believe so. I think the legal framework is there. It is quite clear what checks and balances there are on the police in terms of investigating crime. The issue here is about operating scientific standards and I do not have much information about this. It is quite difficult to come by information about what the police are doing or not doing. I know that the Metropolitan Police are either now accredited or very soon to be accredited, but finding out what is going on elsewhere is more difficult. I am talking systematically rather than of any individual police organisation. If those two things are in place, (the legal safeguards and accreditation) then the dominant way in which forensic science works in the UK, which is about a productive collaboration between investigators and scientists, will be maintained. The transfer of information, as has already been alluded to, is critical to that, both for the choices of the scientific analyses and the contextual interpretation of the evidence. The breaking of that chain, or the fragmentation of it by poor processes or poor standards, will mean poorer evidence going into the criminal justice system.

Q121 Gavin Barwell: Professor Jeffreys, you take a different view on this issue.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: Yes. This is a very tricky one. In the written submission I raised the issues of impartiality or otherwise of the police doing it in-house, but I really can't comment beyond that, without knowing how these interactions are going on within these potentially rather new laboratories that are developing. I shall pass on that, thank you.

Q122 Gavin Barwell: Does anyone else want to comment on the issue of impartiality?

David Richardson: All I would add is that both the McFarland review and research and comment in the US has raised the question, but I couldn't comment on the specifics at all.

Q123 Gavin Barwell: I want to end with the issue of market distortion. We have some figures in front of us about the trends in the external market and internal forensic spend by the police, which show a gradual increase over the last five years on internal spend and a small decline on the external market. We heard the figures that Mr Richardson referred to at the start of this session in our previous evidence session. In year, we have seen a decline from £170 million external spend down to £110 million. Do you have any evidence of what the trend, in-year, has been in terms of the internal spend? In other words, how much of that £60 million decline is a decline in total spending on forensics this year and how much of it is an increase in internal police spending?

David Richardson: I don't have any access to that information. Our belief, and it is our belief, is that there has been something of a reduction in total spend, but we are, undoubtedly, seeing more work being brought in-house.

David Hartshorne: We have no figures on that at all.

Q124 Gavin Barwell: Let me ask the question another way. Stephen, earlier on, asked you whether you felt there was a viable external market and you were confident that there was. To what level would that external market have to decline for your answer to change? Do you take the view that there is a minimum size for the market or this trend can carry on and it would not cause a problem?

David Richardson: Let me pick up on that first. You have to relate two things into this. The first is where you are putting the boundary of the market. For example, if one was including fingerprints within that, it is a much bigger market. The second point is about the number of providers in the market. You need to have a number that makes sure it is a very competitive market, and I believe it is at the moment. The evidence exists, both in terms of improvements in service levels but particularly in the reduction in prices over the last few years. If there are too many providers chasing that market, inevitably, that is going to result in further providers failing. One might argue that the situation of the FSS in losing £2 million a month, according to the Minister, is a product of that situation.

We say two important things. One is that, if the market decline is unarrested, that is going to be a problem, undoubtedly. The second is that bringing lots of new suppliers into this market, particularly if the accreditation is not absolutely rock solid, is going to be a problem.

David Hartshorne: I don't think I can answer your question as to where the level becomes not viable, but we have seen a decline in the market. As we see it at the moment, the most important thing is having some level of certainty as to what the market size is likely to be. Clearly, there is an issue at the moment about the capacity that the FSS currently has and how that is going to be accommodated. We, and, I am sure, other private service providers, are poised in a position to be able to make investment, to be able to provide the sorts of additional capacity that is required. To make those investment decisions, we really need to have some understanding of where the market is likely to end up.

Q125 Stephen Mosley: Sir Alec, in your written submission, you put a detailed alternative forward that suggested maximising the transfer of the profitable activity to the private sector while moving the rest of the FSS back to the Home Office. I guess from what you said earlier that that is the model that they have done in the US recently with this institute. Would the other members of the panel agree with that model as an alternative to closure?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: In the United States, so far as I know, they have not done precisely that, but, nevertheless, they are creating this entity firmly rooted within the public sector which underpins new developments in forensic science.

Professor Fraser: There is a similar model emerging in Australia where there is a national institute that is linked into not just research and development but standards and operational developments, so it covers a very wide remit.

David Hartshorne: I am not sure I entirely understand the proposed model here, but, clearly, there is an opportunity for a separate area for R&D functions. When it comes to service provision, the market, as it is developing at the moment, is for the provision of the full range of services. That is very important, as we have all here discussed today, about the continuity throughout an investigation and the lack of fragmentation. To pull separate bits out of that is quite difficult to envisage without having a detrimental effect on the total service provision.

David Richardson: Again, I am not aware of the model that is emerging in the States and how it is exactly going to end up. If there is going to be any centralised provision, the importance of having that connected to front-line policing and front-line forensic science is absolutely critical. For it to become an academic ivory tower would, clearly, not be in the best interests of forensic science.

Q126 Stephen Mosley: Can I ask the two professors here—you will understand why—if you have trust in the private sector being able to deliver the speedy and quality results that we would want from a forensic service?

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys: They are perfectly capable of delivering, and they do deliver, exactly those results using current technology. The question is whether, 10 years down the line, when the technology could be radically different, where we have not invested in this country, will they be able to run with technologies that are almost certainly going to be developed abroad? I suspect that the United States is rapidly going to become a major driver in this game.

If you look at the technology, certainly on the DNA side, that people are using now, it is terribly old-fashioned. It is round about 17 years old. It is technology with which, in the academic area, very few people do work in this way. It is already creaking a little. We are locked into that technology because of the National DNA Database, but, to emphasise the point, the science underpinning this is exceedingly rapidly evolving. I would hate to make any sort of guesses as to what might be coming over the horizon five or 10 years from now. The key factor is for Britain to be properly positioned to be able to use that and, ideally, that these developments come from this country.

Professor Fraser: I would endorse the comments that Sir Alec made and add this dimension. First, I have no concerns about the private suppliers. They are working to a very high standard and there are considerable benefits that derive to the criminal justice sector on that basis.

To pick up on Sir Alec's example of new technology, the criminal justice system and the courts continually have difficulties in responding to new technology. They continually have difficulty responding to novel science. It is not unique to the UK or to England and Wales. It is the same around the world. I fully endorse that any research and development, should be strongly focused on operational benefits, benefits to policing and criminal justice. I can foresee a situation when new technology comes along and, eventually, there is a serious problem with that technology, because the general response of the criminal justice process is that it waits, waits and waits until there is a problem, and usually by that time it is a big problem. These things should be considered and carefully managed into the system rather than retrospectively considered after an issue arises.

Q127 Chair: Let me ask this question to Mr Richardson and Mr Hartshorne. If parts of the FSS business were marketed as a single entity, would you contemplate TUPE-ing staff across as part of the package?

David Hartshorne: You are talking about acquiring sections of the Forensic Science Service.

Chair: Yes.

David Hartshorne: At the moment, various different options are on the table as to how the work of the FSS might transition. Clearly, in the scenario that you are talking about, if parts of the work were to transfer over, then TUPE legislation would apply.

David Richardson: Yes, the TUPE legislation would apply.

Chair: I do not want to push you to say which one you are bidding for.

David Richardson: We have a very recent example. We took over the Metropolitan Police drugs work quite recently. In fact, you received some evidence at your last meeting that may not have been fully informed because the people involved there did, in fact, come to our facility. They had a number of briefings, we offered jobs to all of them, and, for a number of different personal reasons, they decided that they did not wish to work in our Teddington facility. Those jobs were made available to them. So, yes, we would absolutely stand behind that.

Q128 Chair: One of the resources of the FSS is this huge archive in Birmingham. What would happen to it if the Service disappears?

David Richardson: It is important to understand that the archive belongs to the police. The FSS look after it. We look after some elements of the police archive as well. They can ask for it to be returned at any point in time. We believe that it would be perfectly possible for that archive to be run and administered by the private sector. Indeed, our experience from a number of cold cases—Rachel Nickell and Damilola Taylor—is that we are used to working with not necessarily FSS archive.

Q129 Chair: Would you concur with the view that it is important that that archive is kept together as a single entity?

David Richardson: We think that various models could be made to work. I don't think it necessarily needs to be a single entity but, clearly, it would make administration easier.

David Hartshorne: There are two parts to this archive. One is to do with evidence and the other is to do with the case files associated with it. A more common approach nowadays is for evidence to be returned to police forces, but case files would remain with the supplier. There are arguments for both approaches to be considered when looking at this current archive, but there is no reason why it could not be maintained either in the private sector or by the NPIA, for example.

Q130 Chair: Finally, how can you make a profit out of cold case work?

David Hartshorne: In the same way we would make a profit out of all the forensic work that we undertake. There seems to be a misconception that the private sector won't do complex casework or do cold case reviews.

Q131 Chair: So tell us. How do you make a profit out of it?

David Hartshorne: Just as with all forensic work, the work is charged according to the work that is undertaken. That is no different in a cold case as it would be for any other forensic case that comes to us immediately after the offence. There are product codes associated with delivering services. Some of them are hourly codes. It is more likely, in a cold case review, that you might be doing hourly codes. Let us not forget that much of the cold case review involves, as far as the scientific developments are concerned, going back and re-doing some of the work with modern advancements in DNA technology. All those techniques are currently applied in everyday cases nowadays.

David Richardson: I would agree with all of that. It really is just a case of applying new thinking, new strategies and certainly modern techniques to some of this material. Indeed, there has been an ongoing review of cold cases over the last few years and a number of those have become public in terms of the successes that have been had with re-investigating old material.

Chair: Thank you, gentlemen.




 
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