The Forensic Science Service - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The forensics market

1.  Given that the Government expected private forensic science providers (FSPs) to pick up the FSS's 60% share of the external forensics market, it is disappointing that the Government does not appear to have gathered any market intelligence on the capacity and commercial willingness of private forensic science providers to take on the FSS's work. (Paragraph 42)

2.  The apparent lack of transparency over the size of the forensics market is unacceptable and we see no reason why the FSS and other forensic science providers should have been unaware of police forensic expenditure figures. The levels of police expenditure on internal and external forensics should have been published, and we recommend that they are published in detail in future. If the Government expects the private sector to pick up the FSS's market share, it must be clear with private forensic science providers about the size of the market and anticipated future trends. (Paragraph 43)

3.  The Minister's lack of awareness that private FSPs have concerns about police expenditure on forensic science is worrying. The Government must now ensure that the views of private FSPs are sufficiently taken into account during the transition period; it runs the risk otherwise of having unrealistic expectations about what private FSPs can deliver in a shrinking market. (Paragraph 44)

4.  In our view, collecting data on police expenditure is not at odds with enabling the police to have operational independence. We are concerned that neither ACPO nor the Home Office could provide us with the full cost of internal forensic science activities. We recommend that ACPO and the Home Office gather and publish data on the full police expenditure on internal forensic activities, including capital, training and skills, forensic testing and administration over the last five years, and continue to publish this information in future. If the Government's policy of a market in forensic science services is to operate effectively, it is important that the full costs of internal forensic expenditure are fully and accurately reported. In addition, we consider that the statement given to Parliament on 14 December 2010 was inadequate as the information on police expenditure, on which it was based, was incomplete. (Paragraph 49)

5.  Given the marked decrease in the external forensics market in 2010-11, it is reasonable to expect that the market may shrink to £110 million or less before 2015, particularly given that spending cuts have yet to bite on police budgets. While we agree with the Minister that it would be wrong to speculate, we recommend that the Government re-evaluates the future of the forensics market in light of the cuts to police budgets and planned withdrawal of the FSS from the market. (Paragraph 52)

National Forensic Framework Agreement

6.  It is our understanding that some areas of forensic science provision, particularly complex, interpretive analyses, are not profitable under the current procurement strategy, although this does not make them less important to criminal justice. In considering the proposed closure of the FSS and development of a future procurement strategy, the Government must recognise and address this issue. (Paragraph 62)

7.  The risks of fragmentation cannot be managed if the extent of fragmentation and the reasons for it are unknown. It is the responsibility of the police to monitor whether fragmentation, whereby crime exhibits from the same crime are sent to different FSPs, has been occurring. ACPO and the NPIA (or its successor) should conduct a survey of police forces to determine the extent to which fragmentation has occurred under the National Forensic Framework Agreement, and reasons for any fragmentation. This should be fed into future forensic procurement frameworks and continually monitored. (Paragraph 68)

8.  The expiration of the current procurement strategy provides an ideal opportunity for the NPIA, ACPO and the Home Office to review the successes and failures of the National Forensic Framework Agreement. We recommend that the following questions are answered and resolved: (i) whether all forensic services, particularly complex interpretations, are adequately valued; and (ii) whether the procurement strategy has encouraged fragmentation of casework. (Paragraph 72)

Financial position of the FSS

9.  The Government announcement that the FSS was losing £2 million a month was not the full story. It should have been made clear that (i) the figure did not take into account the savings expected to be delivered by the transformation programme; (ii) it did not account for potential further declines in business; and (iii) while some monthly losses may have been £2 million, the average monthly loss over the past year was lower. As a result, evaluation of the proposal to close the FSS from the taxpayer's perspective was difficult. (Paragraph 80)

10.  We are dismayed that the FSS was not privy to information on the forensics market. There has clearly been a persistent failure to communicate information to the FSS about the market environment in which it was expected to find a way to thrive. The PwC report on the state of the forensics marketplace and figures on police expenditure should have been available. (Paragraph 86)

11.  If the Government wants a competitive market in forensic services it must ensure that the market is not distorted by the police customer increasingly becoming the competitor. Otherwise the ambition for a truly competitive market is fundamentally undermined. We consider that the Government's ambitions for fully privatised forensic science provision are jeopardised by its complacent attitude towards police forensic expenditure. (Paragraph 91)

12.  We are concerned that there are no measures in place to curb further in-sourcing. We recommend that the Government introduce measures to ensure that the police do not further in-source forensic science services that are already available from external providers through the National Forensic Framework Agreement. Regulations should apply to any successor frameworks. We disagree with the Minister that the FSS transition period may not be the right time to put these measures in place - given the fragility and uncertain future of the market it is the ideal time to do this. (Paragraph 92)

Quality standards and impartiality

13.  In the transition period to 2012, the Government must ensure that none of the FSS's work is transferred to a private forensic science provider that has not achieved accreditation to ISO 17025. (Paragraph 100)

14.  We have serious concerns about the potential transfer of the FSS's work to non-accredited police laboratories. We agree with the FSR that the transfer of work from the FSS to a non-accredited police environment would be highly undesirable, as this would pose significant and unacceptable risks to criminal justice. If a sufficient match in quality standards cannot be met elsewhere, the Government should, at the least, reconsider the 2012 closure deadline. The needs of criminal justice must come before considerations of financial convenience. (Paragraph 109)

15.  We have seen no evidence to suggest that private forensic science providers would be less impartial than the FSS, but they must be accredited to at least the same standards. (Paragraph 114)

16.  No quality standard or code of conduct can guarantee impartiality. However, we consider that adherence to ISO 17025 and the Codes of Conduct being developed by the Forensic Science Regulator would be a good place for police forensic laboratories to start. Compliance with ISO 17025 is already planned, albeit on a generous timetable. We recommend that existing police forensic labs also commit to the FSR's Codes of Conduct. (Paragraph 123)

17.  We agree that a nebulous fear or perception of impartiality is insufficient reason to condemn police in-sourcing of forensics, although the perception of impartiality is crucial to the courts and public confidence in the criminal justice system. However, given that so few police forensic laboratories have been accredited to ISO 17025, a standard that demands a level of impartiality, we must express concerns about the risks to impartiality of forensic evidence produced by non-accredited police laboratories. We reiterate our previous recommendation that if the FSS closes, transfer of work from the FSS to a non-accredited police environment would be highly undesirable. (Paragraph 124)

18.  The introduction of bias based on selective forensic examination of exhibits, arising from the need to make savings is a different risk. We are concerned that the risk may be exacerbated by recent cuts to police budgets and we urge the Government to monitor the situation. Police forces must work closely with forensic science providers to ensure that any selectivity is scientifically justified. (Paragraph 125)

The Forensic Science Regulator

19.  The Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) has a crucial role in ensuring high quality standards are maintained, and this role will become more important during the transition period. It is time for the Forensic Science Regulator to have statutory powers to enforce compliance with the quality standards and Codes of Conduct that he has developed through what appears to be a robust process. The Government should bring forward proposals to provide the FSR with statutory powers immediately. (Paragraph 129)

20.  It is unacceptable that the Home Office failed to consult with the Forensic Science Regulator when considering the future of the FSS, as he was a key stakeholder who could have offered a useful, independent perspective. (Paragraph 131)

FSS work, staff and archives

21.  We are deeply concerned about the practicalities of transferring the FSS's work and staff to other FSPs by the transition deadline of March 2012. The FSS Transition Board must ensure that, whatever the outcome, forensic scientists employed by the FSS are retained within the profession and within the UK to the benefit of the criminal justice system. Transfer of staff to other forensic science providers must be conducted under TUPE regulations and in addition, care is needed to ensure that pension provision is adequately protected. (Paragraph 146)

22.  We cannot see any benefits to breaking up the FSS's archives, including case files, retained materials, research and validation papers and the intellectual capability supporting the archive. Whatever the future of the FSS, the existing archives must physically remain as a single, accessible resource, supported by suitably qualified and experienced experts. This would be in the interests of the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 159)

23.  There may be benefits in developing the FSS's archives further into a comprehensive national resource. The custodianship of the archives should be agreed in the context of the NPIA's wind-down as well as the FSS transition. We recommend that private FSPs contribute suitable documents and materials to what we would term the "National Forensic Archives". (Paragraph 160)

24.  Section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act in 1995 may have been sufficient to enable the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to obtain materials when the FSS, as a public body, was the main provider of forensic services to police forces. Although this appears not to have been a problem to date, the increasing penetration of private FSPs into the forensics marketplace means the CCRC's statutory powers are becoming increasingly ineffectual. Whatever the future of the FSS, we recommend the Government consider extending the powers of the CCRC to obtain materials from private forensic science providers. (Paragraph 165)

Forensic science research and development

25.  A Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) has unique independence and is therefore, rightly, expected to provide a crucial challenge function to the Department. It may not be within the CSA's remit to advise on legal and commercial matters, but it is certainly within his remit to advise on scientific matters relating to the closure of the FSS, a Home Office-funded centre of scientific excellence. We consider the CSA's satisfaction with his exclusion from the decision-making process and his failure to challenge the decision to be unacceptable. This is a further demonstration of the ongoing weak scientific culture in the Home Office. (Paragraph 171)

26.  We are concerned that no formal assessment was made of the impact of closing down the FSS on forensic science R&D before the decision was made and announced. We have not seen any evidence of an informal assessment. We are very concerned and disappointed that the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office was not consulted prior to the decision to wind down the FSS. (Paragraph 175)

27.  We were given various reasons for the timing of the Home Office Review of R&D. The Chief Scientific Adviser implied that one reason may have been a preservation of confidentiality and that the Review may have been prompted by the attention drawn by the closure of the FSS. The Minister told us that a lack of time was the driver. The reasons for the timing should be clarified. (Paragraph 176)

28.  The relationship between recommendations made by the Home Office Review of R&D and the work of the FSS Transition Board, set up to oversee the wind-down of the FSS, must be made clear. (Paragraph 177)

29.  Although private FSPs invest in R&D, it is probably unreasonable to expect private companies to increase their investment in some areas of forensic science research, particularly in fundamental research, at a time of market uncertainty. Private companies do, however, have a key role to play in development and application of research and ongoing validation of methods. (Paragraph 194)

30.  Although we are hesitant to call for increased research funding in the current economic climate, the case for increased public funding specifically for forensic science research is compelling. We consider that the Home Office and Research Councils have an interest in the health of the forensic science research base and should develop a new national research budget for forensic science. The views of the forensic science community should be sought when determining the size and scope of the budget and details of its administration. (Paragraph 195)

31.  The FSS appears to have worked in a manner that was not conducive to collaboration and coordination of research efforts. The pressure to act as a commercial organisation appears to have been a key factor. (Paragraph 200)

32.  Coordination and collaborations leading to exchange of knowledge are vital to the health of any scientific discipline. We expect that the Home Office Review of R&D will examine this matter in more detail and that it will bring forward detailed recommendations on this. (Paragraph 201)

33.  Although we acknowledge the difficulties in tracking the movements of scientists in the UK and abroad, it is important that the impact of the FSS's closure on its forensic scientists is monitored. The FSS and Government should ensure that the first destination of all forensic scientists that are made redundant or leave the FSS as a result of the proposed wind down are recorded. We request an update on this matter by June 2012. (Paragraph 207)

The decision to close the FSS

34.  We must state our disappointment at the historical inadequacies in government decision-making that brought the FSS to its current dire financial situation. While we have been critical of the current Government's actions, it must be put on record that we consider much of the responsibility for the current problems facing the FSS to lie with previous administrations. The changes made to the FSS since it became an Executive Agency in 1991, coupled with a subsequent lack of Government understanding of the nature of the growing forensics market, meant that problems inevitably arose. (Paragraph 208)

35.  It appears that the Attorney General was first engaged only through the clearance processes, that is, the process by which Government-wide confirmation was obtained, after the initial decision had been made by the Home Office to wind down the FSS. We are surprised that the Director of Public Prosecutions, the head of the CPS, was not directly consulted. The Criminal Cases Review Commission does not appear to have been involved at all. This is unsatisfactory and unjustifiable given the impact the closure of the FSS could have on the work of the criminal justice system. It should not need to be stated that forensic science is a service for criminal justice, not just policing. (Paragraph 215)

36.  We are pleased that the FSS appears to have had ongoing engagement with the new Government, but concerned that these discussions were limited to senior management and did not involve less senior staff and the trade unions. It is disappointing that the staff of the FSS should have been so disempowered and disengaged from the process. (Paragraph 219)

37.  The Government should clarify whether the NPIA was consulted on the decision to close the FSS before the decision was made, and when. (Paragraph 221)

38.  We are disappointed that the Home Office carried out minimal consultation before making its decision on the future of the FSS. There is a tangible difference between consulting before a decision has been made and consulting on transition arrangements after the decision has been made. It should not have been difficult for the Government to seek the views of key parties other than ACPO. With such limited consultation, and particularly the lack of scientific input, it is difficult for us to have confidence that the Government fully considered all available options for the future of the FSS and the likely impacts of its closure. (Paragraph 222)

39.  We have serious concerns about the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at the Home Office and the limited information on which the decision to close the FSS was based. We do not consider that the Government's decision fully took into account the best evidence available and we are concerned that the CSA was disengaged from the decision-making process. We recommend that the Government Office for Science review whether there is a systemic problem with the Home Office's use of scientific evidence in policy-making. (Paragraph 223)

Costs of closing the FSS

40.  The Government should clarify how costs associated with the FSS's transition were originally calculated, particularly given that the transition process was, and remains, not fully known. If it emerges through the transition process that additional public money is required for the wind-down of the FSS, including from sources other than the Home Office, this information should be published with an explanation. (Paragraph 230)

41.  The Government's explanations of the £70 million increase in provisions for the Crime and Policing Group lacked detail. We request a full financial breakdown of the £70 million provisions as well as an update at the end of the financial year on how much the wind-down has actually cost the Government in total. (Paragraph 231)

Alternatives to closure

42.  We agree with the Government that allowing the FSS to go into administration would have been undesirable, not only for the criminal justice system, but the employees of the FSS too. (Paragraph 233)

Final conclusions

43.  There are many factors to take into consideration when determining what has caused the dire financial position of the FSS. We consider the most significant factor to be the shrinking forensics market, driven by increasing police in-sourcing of forensic science and a forensic procurement framework that drove down prices and did not adequately recognise the value of complex forensic services. (Paragraph 239)

44.  The stabilisation of the external forensics market is now of crucial importance. For this to be achieved, the Government must do two things. First, further police in-sourcing of forensic science must be curbed. Second, the National Forensic Framework Agreement, and any successor framework, must be revised to reflect that some forensic science services cannot be commoditised easily into products and ensure that the true costs of forensic services are reimbursed to providers. Without stability through regulation, a properly competitive market cannot be realised. A shrinking market provides no incentive for further investment or growth from any forensic science provider. The success of forensic science providers and their willingness to invest further in forensic science will be threatened if action is not taken to stabilise the market. (Paragraph 240)

45.  The process whereby the Government reached a decision on the future of the FSS was taken on legal and commercial bases. If legal and commercial grounds were the only relevant considerations, the Government's decision to close the FSS would be reasonable. However, it is clear that such a decision should not be taken on purely legal and commercial grounds. (Paragraph 241)

46.  The Government did not consider enough evidence in its decision-making. The impacts on research and development, on the capacity of private providers to absorb the FSS's market share, on the future of the archives and on the wider impacts to the criminal justice system appear to have been hastily overlooked in favour of the financial bottom line. Examining the possible impacts of a decision after the decision has been made contradicts the concept of evidence informing policy. (Paragraph 242)

47.  Proper consideration should now be given to what resources might be irretrievably lost to the UK with the closure of the FSS, including the FSS's archives and the intellectual wealth residing within its scientists. We have seen no detailed plan outlining the transition and the future of the FSS's staff, archives, work and assets. (Paragraph 243)

48.  While there would be merits in retaining the FSS as a completely public agency of the Home Office that focuses on R&D, training of forensic scientists, establishing quality standards and maintaining archives, we are not convinced that the separation of forensic science research and provision would necessarily be the ideal solution, because research efforts should feed into and improve service provision. In response to this report we ask for the views of the Government and Transition Board on this matter. (Paragraph 244)

49.  The transition deadline of March 2012 is extremely challenging and we are not confident that an orderly transition can be achieved by this date. The Government should extend this deadline by at least six months. Extending the transition deadline would enable the Government to consult on, and determine, what its wider strategy for forensic science should be. The FSS should be supported during this period. The FSS transition should be carefully monitored to ensure that it does not further contribute to market instability or lead to a diminution of service to the criminal justice system. Continuing to support the FSS during this period may add additional costs to the public purse, but we consider that it should be seen as a price worth paying. (Paragraph 245)

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