The Forensic Science Service - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Background

The inquiry

1.  Forensic science is integral to the criminal justice system and often plays a key role in providing evidence throughout criminal proceedings. On 14 December 2010, the Home Office announced that the Government-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS), then delivering around 60% of forensic services to police forces in England and Wales, would be wound down. The statement, which we set out in full, outlined the Government's decision and rationale:

The Forensic Science Service (FSS) was an executive agency which was granted trading fund status in 1999, a step designed to increase its financial flexibility. Then, following the McFarland Review in 2002, FSS Ltd was established as a GovCo, wholly owned by the government, in December 2005. The intention was that this be a transitional step towards a 'public private partnership'.

In the event, however, no further progress was made. This lack of progress has led in our view to opportunities for reform being missed, and continuing reductions in the value of publicly owned assets.

The previous government did not reform the Forensic Science Service when it had the chance, and instead allowed it to maintain a cost base far higher than its commercial rivals. This meant that FSS continued operating uncompetitive terms and conditions and expanded its employment levels between 1999 and 2003. This was undertaken without bringing down the cost base towards a level where FSS would be able to compete.

Commercial rivals, many established by former FSS members of staff, have taken market share from the former state run monopoly.

FSS was set up as a GovCo, with an £18million loan in December 2005. The company has met interest payments on this loan but cannot afford to repay the principal amount borrowed.

The previous government supported the company with a further £50 million grant from early 2009 to restructure the business.

Despite this intervention and the commitment of the current management team, the current challenging forensics market has put the FSS back into serious financial difficulty. FSS is currently making operating losses of around £2 million per month. Its cash is due to run out as early as January next year. It is vital that we take clear and decisive action to sort this out. The police have advised us that their spend on external forensic suppliers will continue to fall over the next few years, as forces seek to maximise efficiencies in this area. HMIC [Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary] concur with this assessment.

We have therefore decided to support the wind-down of FSS, transferring or selling off as much of its operations as possible. We will work with FSS management and staff, ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers), and other suppliers to ensure an orderly transition, but our firm ambition is that there will be no continuing state interest in a forensics provider by March 2012.

There is no justification for the uncertainty and costs of trying to restructure and retain the business.

We will ensure the orderly wind-down of FSS does not impact on police service customers or the wider criminal justice system. With ACPO, we will put in place a central team to ensure work is transferred in a controlled way and that arrangement are put in place to ensure security of supply in future. The continued provision of effective forensics is our priority.

We know that there are real challenges ahead for FSS staff whose skills and contribution will be important as we move through the transition. We will be working hard with the company to ensure that staff are kept fully informed of developments.

We will also be working with ACPO to seek to maximise the level of competition in the market including through opportunities created by FSS leaving the field. This will help to ensure that police forces benefit from cost effective use of forensics.

We want to see the UK forensic science industry operating as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost. This will preserve police resources and maximise the positive impact forensic sciences can have on tackling crime. A competitive market can help to drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, that is what everyone in the criminal justice system wants to see.[1]

2.  The decision was greeted with dismay by employees of the FSS, eminent forensic scientists from around the world[2] and some Members of Parliament.[3] Therefore we decided to hold an inquiry into the proposed wind-down of the FSS and issued a call for evidence on 19 January 2010. The terms of reference asked:

a)  What will be the impact of the closure of the Forensic Science Service on forensic science and on the future development of forensic science in the UK?

b)  What will be the implications of the closure on the quality and impartiality of forensic evidence used in the criminal justice system?

c)  What is the financial position of the Forensic Science Service?

d)  What is the state of, and prospects for, the forensics market in the UK, specifically whether the private sector can carry out the work currently done by the Forensic Science Service and the volume and nature of the forensic work carried out by police forces?

e)  What are the alternatives to winding-down the Forensic Science Service?

f)  So far as they are known, are the arrangements for closing down the Forensic Science Service, making staff redundant and selling its assets adequate?

3.  The Committee received around 100 written submissions.

4.  We took oral evidence from five panels of witnesses over three evidence sessions. On 23 March we took evidence from FSS senior management and a trade union representing some of its staff: Bill Griffiths, Chairman, FSS; Dr Gill Tully, Research and Development Manager, FSS; and Steve Thomas, Officer for the FSS, Prospect Union.

5.  On 30 March we took evidence from two panels of witnesses. The first included academics and private forensic science providers: Sir Alec Jeffreys, Professor of Genetics, University of Leicester; Professor Jim Fraser, Director, Centre for Forensic Science, Strathclyde University; David Hartshorne, Commercial Director, Orchid Cellmark Ltd; and David Richardson, Chief Executive, LGC Forensics. This was followed by a second panel from the policing and criminal justice sector, including: Roger Coe-Salazar, Chief Crown Prosecutor, Crown Prosecution Service; Gary Pugh, Director of Forensic Services, Metropolitan Police Service; Chief Constable Chris Sims, Association of Chief Police Officers; and Dr Simon Bramble, Head of Police Science and Forensics, National Policing Improvement Agency.

6.  Last, we took evidence on 27 April, first from Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser, Home Office; and Andrew Rennison, Forensic Science Regulator, followed by a final panel with James Brokenshire MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Prevention, Home Office, and Dr Stephen Webb, Director of Finance and Strategy, Crime and Policing Group, Home Office.

7.  We would like to thank those who provided written and oral evidence to this inquiry. In addition we extend our gratitude to the FSS and LGC Forensics for accommodating us on visits conducted as part of our inquiry. Our particular thanks are extended to the FSS employees who wrote to us and met with us during our visit to discuss issues that have clearly been a source of personal and professional distress.

8.  The main body of our report is split into three main chapters: the forensics market, alternative forensic science providers (FSPs) and forensic science research and development (R&D). In the final chapter we bring together the various strands to make our final conclusions on the future of the FSS.

What is forensic science?

9.  Broadly speaking, forensic science is science that is used for the purposes of the law[4] or "that appertains to the courts".[5] Forensic science encompasses a range of disciplines, and although forensic scientists typically analyse DNA, hair, fibres, footwear, firearms, drugs and human bodies,[6] there are novel disciplines, such as the analysis of computer hard drives for material. In this inquiry we have not sought to define the scientific disciplines that constitute forensic science, instead focusing on the work of the FSS and its competitors.

10.  When it has been ascertained that a crime or incident has occurred, evidence is recovered from the crime scene, suspects, witnesses and victims. Some or all of the evidence may be submitted, usually by the police, for forensic testing and analysis. The forensic scientist conducts tests and interprets the results. The forensic scientist prepares a witness statement and passes it to the police, who decide what further action to take, if any. If the case is taken to court, the witness statement is either read out or the forensic scientist appears as an expert witness in court.[7] Forensic evidence can be used by the defence as well as the prosecution.

11.  The Crown Prosecution Service, the Government Department responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales,[8] summarised the importance of forensic science:

Forensic science plays an important part in the investigation and prosecution of an increasing number of criminal offences. It is used from the very outset of an investigation at a crime scene through to the evidence relied upon in a criminal trial. Forensic evidence can be crucial in a wide range of cases ranging from the analysis of the blood of a motorist suspected of driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs, through to serial murders and rapes. [...]

Forensic evidence can bring huge benefits to the criminal justice system by narrowing the issues to be tried in a case or encouraging an early guilty plea.[9]

12.  Forensic evidence may also be used in other ways. In cold cases (crimes that are unsolved where the trail has gone "cold"), forensic evidence may be re-analysed, often years later using new forensic techniques, to provide a new lead. High profile case studies include the 2006 conviction of James Lloyd, the "shoe rapist", for a series of rapes in the 1980s, using the FSS's familial searching technique.[10] Forensic evidence can also be used post-conviction to investigate potential miscarriages of justice. Such reviews are often enabled by the development of new analytical techniques.

1   HC Deb, 14 December 2010, cols 94-96WS Back

2   "Closure of forensic service puts justice at risk", The Times, Letters to the Editor, 28 December 2010 Back

3   For example, Early Day Motion (2010-12) no. 1353, Future of the Forensic Science Service, tabled 26 January 2011, had 56 signatures as of 9 June 2011. Back

4   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2004-05, Forensic Science on Trial, HC 96-I, para 4 Back

5   Home Office, Review of the Forensic Science Service: a report, 17 July 2003, para 2.1 Back

6   HC (2004-05) 96-I, para 4 Back

7   HC (2004-05) 96-I, Table 2, p 11 Back

8   "Introduction", The Crown Prosecution Service website, Back

9   Ev 99, paras 3-6 Back

10   "Cold case review: James Lloyd (the shoe rapist) - South Yorkshire Police", The Forensic Science Service website, Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 1 July 2011