To be published as HC 930-v

House of COMMONS



Science and Technology Committee

Forensic Science

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Mr Jeremy Browne MP and Stephen Webb

Evidence heard in Public Questions 299 - 369



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 13 March 2013

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Stephen Metcalfe

David Morris

Stephen Mosley

Pamela Nash

Sarah Newton

Graham Stringer

David Tredinnick

Hywel Williams


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Mr Jeremy Browne MP, Minister of State for Crime Prevention, and Stephen Webb, former Director, Finance and Strategy Directorate, Crime and Policing Group, Home Office, gave evidence.

Q299 Chair: Minister, may I welcome you to our session this morning? Thank you for coming. Perhaps your colleague would be kind enough to introduce himself.

Stephen Webb: I am Stephen Webb. I am a director at the Home Office.

Q300 Chair: Thank you very much. As you know, Minister, we have been following up our earlier report on the closure of the FSS. It is true to say that we have a number of serious concerns on which we want to touch base with you today. If I may, I will start with the letter that you sent me on 11 March about a particular case. It is not appropriate for me to refer to that case today, but at the end of your letter you say that the CPS has been in contact with the Met police regarding this ruling and has offered applicable guidance. That may be absolutely correct, but when writing a letter on behalf of the Committee I was interested in what you were doing as a Minister to plug this very obvious gap. That case really fell apart. To all intents and purposes, it appears to me, as an amateur in these things, that this gap could enable criminals to get off. That surely is a gap that is worth plugging, isn’t it?

Mr Browne: Good morning. Thank you for having me in front of the Committee. I commend you on starting so promptly as well; this is the first time I have ever been to a Committee that started early.

On the specific case that you raise, the difficulty that I have is expanding on it, as you say. In general terms, all the briefing that I had before appearing before you has reassured me that the CPS is satisfied with the provision of forensic science services and feels that the quality of service is of a sufficiently high standard to enable it to prosecute alleged criminals to its satisfaction. I have not seen evidence to suggest that your unease should be widely shared. As I say, the overall quality of the work being done appears on every measure to be meeting the requisite standards.

Q301 Chair: Are you satisfied that the circumstances of that specific case cannot be repeated?

Mr Browne: Yes. Everything that I have seen in terms of the work of the regulator, the standard of work being performed and what we are being told by the CPS and the police shows that we have a forensic capacity in this country about which the public should feel confident.

Q302 Chair: In your personal view, having inherited the brief since our previous inquiry, how is the transition being managed?

Mr Browne: That is interesting because I have to make a confession, Mr Miller, which is that I was aware of this issue when I was not a Home Office Minister, but I have become much more aware of it in preparation for this session. It is nice to have the opportunity for a greater degree of specialism.

What struck me overall, coming to it relatively fresh, was the slow-motion disintegration of the Government’s position, running up to where we find ourselves now. I was looking through the time line, and it starts in 2005 with FSS moving to GovCo status. It then goes on, and the problems seem to grow and magnify. By 2008, we have strategic business plan 2 being developed, and, in 2009, we have the strategic business plan 2 refresh-never a good sign. In April 2010, we have strategic business plan 3. It feels to me like an organisation that has quite a lot of difficulties reconciling itself to its new circumstances, in a more competitive marketplace.

Coming to it, as I say, relatively fresh, the process of deciding in late 2010 that there was going to be a managed closure, avoiding the panic, if you like, of a sort of rush to the doors, but at the same time recognising the reality of the situation, and achieving that managed closure in an orderly way and allowing ourselves to have a functioning market without a loss-making FSS struggling within that marketplace, seems to me a very rational, measured process, given the difficulties of the circumstances that the Government faced over a large number of years.

Q303 Chair: We commented on the history in our report, and we did not pull any punches. This closure has nevertheless cost the taxpayer in the order of £100 million, according to the evidence that we have received. What savings is it generating for the public purse?

Mr Browne: I have been told that by the time we got to December 2010, and the decision was made that managed closure was the right way forward, the FSS was losing £2 million a month. So £100 million represents four years’ worth. We have had two and a half of those four years already. It was a difficult position, but at some point a hard-headed decision had to be made. The question is where do we find ourselves now, and I think that we find ourselves in a satisfactory and sustainable position, not only financially but in terms of the quality of the service provided.

Q304 Chair: That is a very narrow view, looking at it from your Department’s perspective. I am more interested in the broader public purse. We have seen evidence of expenditure going on up and down the country, within police forces and within the forensic service generally, that is just an addition to those closure costs, and yet as of today we have not been able to pull together an overall set of figures. I am astonished that nobody can produce a joined-up set of accounts genuinely showing what it is costing us. Do you not think it is a rather good idea that there should be some joining-up across police forces and across Government Departments to identify what this is costing the taxpayer?

Mr Browne: When you say "this", do you mean the cost of forensic charges?

Chair: Yes.

Mr Browne: The complaint that I have heard is the opposite, which is that it is a difficult marketplace because the total amount of money being spent on forensics is lower than it was. I have heard the concern expressed to me that not enough money is being spent on forensics, and now you are making the case that it is worrying because, arguably, too much is being spent.

Q305 Chair: No. What we are saying is that nobody knows overall what is being spent or where. Police laboratories are having money spent on them, but when we previously asked the National Audit Office to look at some of the figures for us, a very confusing set of data was provided by police forces about what they were spending. We are probing that further. I am astonished that nobody in Government is doing that probing as well, because taxpayers’ money is being spent that could be spent on front-line policing that we do not know about and cannot even quantify.

Mr Browne: Is that not symptomatic of a change in practice model? If you initially have a monopoly state provider of a service, then obviously it is easy to measure the cost of that service because there is a monopoly state provider. If you then say that individual police forces can provide the service in-house where they feel that that is appropriate and they have the capacity to do so, which of course to an extent forces always did with less onerous scientific research, or, if they do not have the capacity or wherewithal, they can contract those services from a private company, then obviously the total value of the research being done or the forensic activity being undertaken is harder to quantify than if you have only a single state supplier of the service.

Q306 Chair: It never was a single state supplier. The question I am asking you is this. Don’t you think it would be a good idea for somebody in Government to pull those figures together?

Mr Browne: It would be quite interesting, but I don’t think it is essential. My personal view is that you have 43 police forces in England and Wales trying to achieve efficiencies on behalf of the public that they serve. Of course, we now have the police and crime commissioners, who, I would hope, are keen to achieve value for money as well, whether it is on uniform procurement, staff sick leave or forensic science. What is of interest to me is that we have the right uniforms, minimum sick leave and the highest level of forensic science, rather than lots of statistical aggregation, which, in itself, may be of curious interest but is not the main measure that we should necessarily be concerned with.

Q307 Hywel Williams: Would you accept that the savings that might have been made are actually the devolution of costs to individual police forces-that there is an element of that? If so, do you know how much they are? Do you know how much more my own police force-that is North Wales-spends on forensics than they did previously?

Mr Browne: My speculation-this is a bit speculative, because it is probably hard to quantify completely-is that savings can be made. You can have an appearance of saving, through defraying costs to subsidiary or subordinate organisations, if you want to put it in those terms, but it is perfectly plausible to believe that some of the savings have been achieved through greater efficiency-through better contracting of services.

Some of the savings, of course, might be achieved through lower crime. We had the lowest murder rate last year in England and Wales since 1978, and the lowest in London since 1970. Obviously, there has been a big evolution in the science of crime since 1970, the year I was born, but the fewer people are murdered, the less call there is for investigation into murders.

Q308 Hywel Williams: Pardon me for cutting across what is a tangential point, but is it wise to base public policy on what is plausible or on an assumption of what has happened? Should you not know in detail what has actually happened?

Mr Browne: Looking at this whole issue, there is an ideological division that in a way is unbridgeable. It is whether a given Government or Minister thinks that the best way to achieve a service is through a high degree of centralisation and standardisation, with the service essentially being delivered in the public sector or at one step removed from the public sector, or whether you think that it is perfectly possible to deliver a high-quality service with a marketplace and competition, and that a marketplace and competition can drive up standards and drive down costs.

I have read about whether there is a strategy for forensics. Do the Government have a strategy for food procurement and distribution? No, not really. It is done by food retailers, supermarkets and others, but it is done extremely efficiently and cost-effectively-and, I would argue, more efficiently and cost-effectively than large amounts of the public sector.

Chair: We are coming on to precisely that point just now. I would remind you, Minister, that this Committee did not split on any ideological grounds; our report was unanimous.

Q309 Pamela Nash: I shall go on to strategy in a moment, but I want to be clear about something. You came in to the Committee this morning and the first thing you mentioned was the £2 million deficit of the Forensic Science Service. You then went on to tell us that there are no figures to show how much the new system of forensic science in this country is costing-we just don’t know how much it is costing.

I repeat the question that Mr Williams asked. Do you think that this is a responsible way to produce Government policy, when you don’t know whether the new system is saving money at all compared to the last system?

Stephen Webb: May I add something here? We know that the total spend with external forensic providers that forces have been doing has gone down quite a lot; all forces have made savings. That seems to be a result of lower prices in the forensic frameworks, less crime and the more efficient targeting of forensics in the places that really need it, and I know that you have heard from the CPS. We are pretty clear that the forces are generally better off as a result of market developments-not of the closure as such but of market developments.

Q310 Pamela Nash: I want to be clear. Is that the total spend on forensic science?

Stephen Webb: No. What we have better figures on is the amount that forces are spending with external forensic providers. What they spend inside, as the Minister said, is spent on quite a ragbag of things; you have the fingerprints bureaux and the scene of crime officers. On the total figures for that, we don’t have as clear a sense, because different forces might classify them in different ways, but what absolutely has not happened is that there has been a cost shunt to forces. There have been a relatively limited number of areas where forces have brought work in-house, and they have done that only because they had persuaded their police authorities-now PCCs-that there was a business case and that it would be cheaper for them to do it in-house than to do it externally. Overall, this has been an area where forces have made substantial savings.

Mr Browne: May I make a brief point? I was saying that by December 2010 the FSS was losing £2 million a month. You can lose £2 million a month if you are being underwritten by cash injections from the taxpayer, but obviously if you are a private provider you cannot carry on losing £2 million a month for very long. Given that private providers are continuing to function in the marketplace, they are obviously able to do it in a way that is consistent with their being successful private companies.

Q311 Pamela Nash: I would argue that the public want to know that the quality of forensic science is there. They expect a cost from the Government rather than expecting it to be a good business strategy.

Mr Browne: I would not accept that, the more money you spend on a service, the higher the quality. There is good reason to believe that that is not the case in large parts of the public sector. I have seen nothing to suggest that the forensic science quality has diminished. The fact that the work was being undertaken by an organisation that was losing £2 million a month does not mean that that organisation was providing a higher quality than an organisation that was not loss-making.

Q312 Pamela Nash: Not just that fact-but I am sure we will explore that later on in the session.

I would like to move on now to Government strategy. We have had multiple submissions of evidence from private providers and the Metropolitan police, saying that they don’t think that the Government have an effective strategy for forensic science. Would you outline for the Committee what the current strategy is, and what forensic science might look like in five years’ time?

Mr Browne: This is what I was driving at. The difficulty is that it depends what you mean by "strategy". I think that it is perfectly reasonable to have police forces using high-quality forensic science in order to solve crimes, and for that high-quality forensic science to be provided in-house by them where they feel that that is effective, both in terms of the quality of work and being cost-effective, or, if they do not feel that they have that capacity-particularly some of the smaller police forces-to buy those services from expert providers who can undertake that work for them, again to a high standard and, one would hope, cost-effectively. That is a perfectly reasonable basis on which forensics can be undertaken.

You can either call that a strategy or you can say that the Government do not need a strategy per se. They need to be satisfied that crimes are being solved through forensic research where forensics helps crimes to be solved, and that is what is happening.

Q313 Pamela Nash: This is the Science and Technology Committee. We are concerned about investment in new forensic science and new ways to look at evidence. If we don’t have a strategy, how can you guarantee that there is investment in new science and research, and how can we exploit the new technologies that are available to us?

Mr Browne: I was making an ideological point when I drew an inexact parallel with supermarket food distribution, but as far as I am aware there is not a DEFRA daily food distribution strategy. It is in the interests of the market to provide high-quality food distribution at an efficient cost, and it seems to work extremely well. In fact it works far better, dare I say it, than it does in countries that try to do it through Government from the centre, where food distribution always seems to be extremely badly administered.

Do the Government need a food distribution strategy, or is food being distributed very well free of Government? I would argue that it is the latter. It is in the interests of providers to administer a high-quality service at an efficient cost, and that is true for forensics as well. Why would a police force that wants to solve crimes not want high-quality forensics? You would not need a Government strategy to tell somebody that they would be more likely to solve crime with high-quality forensics than with low-quality forensics. We also have a regulator, and quality control mechanisms are in place. I have come to this reasonably new, but I never really understood why it needed to be an imposed national strategy on a system that can work perfectly well without one.

Q314 Pamela Nash: Minister, I don’t understand the analogy between food distribution and forensic science. For a start, there is only one customer for forensic science, but there are millions of customers for food in this country. It is also about investment for the future. I don’t know about the rest of the Committee, but I feel that there has to be a Government strategy. Certainly, evidence from the police shows that they feel the same.

Mr Browne: I said that it was not an exact strategy, but you can have high-quality, cost-efficient service provision without it being determined by central Government and run by the Ministry. There is no reason to believe that that was successful. At the risk of sounding a bit party political, it was under a Labour Government that we had statements by endless successions of Ministers that it was going to go to GovCo, that there was no presumption of this and no presumption of that, and we had a business plan 2, a refresh business plan 2 and a business plan 3.

The idea that if only we could have it run through the FSS this would make it a brilliantly streamlined, efficient and effective business seems to have been tested to destruction and found wanting.

Q315 Chair: We are not trying to rewrite history. What we are trying to look at is now, and the questions are about now. Is there a strategy now? Our expert witnesses, including police force representatives, have expressed disappointment at the absence of a strategy. Don’t you think there should be a strategy-now?

Mr Browne: As I said, it depends on what you call a strategy. There is a strategy, if you regard a strategy as police forces being able to procure, either in-house or through private providers, high-quality forensics that solve crimes. Police forces are doing that, and crime is falling in virtually every police force in England and Wales. You can call that a strategy, if you like, and it is an extremely effective strategy.

Q316 Pamela Nash: Minister, I suggest you go and speak to representatives from the police about this afterwards, because the evidence that we have heard suggests that they don’t agree with the Government on that.

I would like to ask about the forensic policy group. Mr Webb, you might be able to help the Committee by telling us a bit about its work and what it has achieved so far in terms of forming a strategy.

Stephen Webb: I am happy to do so. I used to chair it, but I no longer do so. The forensic policy group brings together interested people within the Home Office within the wider criminal justice system, and it includes police representatives and people from the MOJ and the CPS. It looks at where the Government need to make a contribution to forensic policy, and what we should be doing.

Early in the period after the FSS wind-down, one of the main things that we were interested in was what would be the early warning signs for dispersal among other providers. If another provider exited the market, how would we ensure continuity? We accept that there would be a sort of backstop responsibility for the Government to step in. We looked at that, and overall we are satisfied that the market is working smoothly. There are adjustments going on among the market shares of the providers, but they all appear to be committed to the long term.

Quite a number of forensic resources that used to work for the National Policing Improvement Agency have come into the Home Office. We have been talking effectively with our customers-from the police and the criminal justice system-about how best to deploy these. For example, we have teams that run the overall frameworks for forensic procurement, we have scientific support, and we have teams helping to implement the protection of freedoms. Again, we have some resources in the Home Office, and we are trying to make sure that they are used in a way that is most effective for the user group.

Q317 David Tredinnick: Minister, it has been instructive to hear you talk about the situation prior to 2010. You have taken a very dim view of the way that the last Government were running things. I think I am right in saying that, with these reviews, you feel that the whole situation had atrophied before there was a change of Government. Is that right?

Mr Browne: I did not approach this from a particularly party political perspective, but it did feel like a slow-motion unravelling of the Government’s position over many years. A whole set of announcements sought to draw a line under a deteriorating position, only for the situation constantly to be revisited when the previous line had been breached. We did inherit in May 2010 a rather unhappy situation.

Q318 David Tredinnick: There was this huge loss of £2 million a month. I rather share the view of my colleague Ms Nash. I find the analogy or comparison with food quite difficult to digest-if you will forgive the pun-because the food market is massive, ranging from huge supermarkets to tiny stallholders. Forensics is not a massive market.

When we went to Teddington-I think that we visited LGC-we looked at its business and talked to them. The good thing about what has happened is that they are now able to expand overseas. They have created a massive range of new markets, which is very much in line with what we want for GB Ltd, exporting ideas around the world and improving the condition of the people. The weakness is that the forensic side was actually cost-heavy; there were a lot of fixed costs for them there. I got the impression that it was a business that could be at risk potentially in the future because it might not be their main profit centre. There are dangers with this fragmentation, and you could lose providers.

That brings me on to my first main question. Is there capacity in the market to cope with a future rise in crime? Do you think you have the flexibility there? There may have been slack in the old organisation, the FSS, and it may have been run as a monopoly, but are we not running risks now that we are not able to deal with with a change in the graph?

Mr Browne: Perhaps one of the lessons that I have learned this morning is not to use inexact analogies, even if you concede that they are inexact. The point that I was trying to make was not that forensics provision is exactly the same as running a supermarket. All that I was saying is that it is possible to have scientific innovation, lower costs and an efficient supply structure without it being directed by central Government, and I was using that as a very good example.

It is true that within the police service there is procurement of vehicles and of uniforms, but I don’t know whether you need a vehicle procurement strategy per se, or whether a less hands-on approach may have just as an effective or an even more effective outcome. That is the only point that I was making.

Q319 David Tredinnick: Forgive me for doing a sort of "Today" programme on you, but, cutting in here, you have a number of police forces who have pressures on their supply in that they have been told to reduce costs. The FSS has been chopped up and you have four, five, six-I don’t know how many-providers out there, but it is hardly a massive market. It does not have anything like the flexibility that you are suggesting with your food analogy.

Mr Browne: No, no.

Q320 David Tredinnick: I would put it to you that the forensic market is fundamentally unstable and destabilising now for forensic science providers. There is a lot of guessing going on out there. There is quite a lot of unhappiness with the redistribution of employees from FSS. Many have left, and there is a shortage; only two transferred to the Home Office from FSS, from memory, when we went to Lambeth to talk to them. I don’t see anything like the stable market that you are painting with the Tesco or Waitrose scenario.

Mr Browne: I am sorry to do a "Today" programme back to you, Mr Tredinnick, but I have just made precisely that point. I won’t use inexact analogies, because people latch on to the inexact bits rather than the analogous bits. The point that I was making is that large parts of our society function extremely effectively and efficiently without there being a central Government procurement or delivery strategy for them. I was not making an otherwise exact analogy, but I don’t accept that a private market is inherently a flawed basis for service delivery, even if the services are being procured by the public sector. That was the point I was making.

A more exact analogy would be services procured by police services, where they have an interest, obviously, in wanting to buy the highest-quality product at the lowest available price. I do not see why they would not wish to do that with forensics, or, if they felt that they could provide the high-quality product in-house at a lower price, they would not need to go to the market to supply the service.

In terms of capacity, Mr Webb may wish to add to it, but I suppose that if there was a huge surge in demand in quite a limited market, that would potentially cause problems, but, as to whether it can flex, I don’t see any reason why it should not.

Q321 David Tredinnick: Mr Webb, do you want to comment?

Stephen Webb: It might be helpful. We have to show respect to the providers for the extraordinary achievement that the last few years have seen. With the closure of the FSS, which was a provider that at the time had around 60% of the entire market, that amount of business was redistributed. That involved some quite substantial ramping up for some of the private sector providers, which they handled very effectively. I do not think that anyone would expect changes in either direction, with crime of that sort of magnitude in that short period.

One of the sad things about recent years for all of us, as you say, is the number of scientists who have left the market. There are skilled people out there, and the longer that time goes by the more training will be needed to get them up to speed; but the providers have demonstrated that, if necessary, they can build capacity quite quickly, and there are people out there who are trained to do it.

Q322 Chair: There is a risk of at least one provider folding.

Stephen Webb: There has been another set of contracts awarded by the police, and there has been a further redistribution of the market. I do not want to go into commercial details, but in the long run organisations will clearly have a balance between more risky private sector business and public sector business. It should be relatively stable, with predictable margins. It is an attractive business. There is no doubt that it has been through real turmoil and the reduction in the size of the market has been significant, but our impression is that it is beginning to stabilise.

Q323 David Tredinnick: Since the Committee’s last report, how much police in-sourcing has there been in forensic services that are available from private providers? Secondly, with the break-up of the FSS and the cost pressures on police forces generally, do you think that there ought to be some rationalisation of forensic services, perhaps grouping them, so that we have three, four or five police forces providing a joint forensic service, and that this is something that has not been addressed and should be?

Stephen Webb: On the point about in-sourcing since your last report, there is a lot of talk about it. Our impression is that relatively little has crossed the frontier from work that used to be done externally to work that has been brought in to forces. Bearing in mind that forces always did quite a lot of stuff themselves, some have brought in internal triaging processes. That has reduced the amount of work that has gone out, which is part of their efficiency.

As part of the restructuring, there was one block of work in the Met police where it took the view that around £7 million of business would be done in-house. Otherwise, our impression is that the changes have not been as dramatic as is sometimes portrayed. As things go forward, you would expect a lot of forces also to be looking at work currently done in-house, and it is possible that work will move in the opposite direction.

Mr Browne: The answer to your second question is that if I were a police and crime commissioner I would certainly be talking to neighbouring forces about how we could collaborate more effectively on the procurement of IT and uniforms, and the sharing of helicopters and forensics, so that we could achieve the best value for money for the taxpayer. Some may feel that that is not necessary, particularly some of the large forces, whereas some of the smaller forces or ones of equal size may wish to be more collaborative.

Q324 David Tredinnick: Don’t you think the Government should give a steer on this-that there should at least be a Home Office circular going out to that effect? I know that police and crime commissioners have some powers, but they are also subject to guidance. This is a massive area, and it is at the core of the issue for you. We are bearing down on costs locally, and it seems sensible to have some sort of regional provision. It would also protect small forces like Warwickshire and North Wales from having to put up their hands and say that they don’t have the money to do it.

Mr Browne: Before the election of police and crime commissioners, you saw quite a lot of collaboration between police forces. For example, the East Midlands lends itself very well to it, because its five forces are of broadly comparable size. There is a regional organised crime unit, and quite a lot of collaboration on some of the higher-level crime fighting, which may be harder for an individual force the size of Northamptonshire to achieve on its own.

The Government’s view is that, by and large, it works quite well as an organic process, but where best practice can be learned and shared it is obviously something to be encouraged. However, quite a lot of police forces and individual MPs guard to a fierce degree the operational integrity of their own individual police force. When the Home Office comes along and starts issuing central directives, I often find that MPs of all parties object to that.

Stephen Webb: As part of the FSS wind-down, I helped to negotiate with LGC and the Yorkshire and north-eastern forces effectively a regional solution in moving from Wetherby to Wakefield. It is quite a considerable region. This is the sort of regional collaboration that we encourage, and it is happening.

Q325 Stephen Metcalfe: I don’t think that any of us object to there being a market for forensic science. That is not the issue at all. I want to make sure that you understand that this is a market that is entirely based on public money and that its purpose is to serve the criminal justice system.

We have heard from witnesses that there is an instability and a fragmentation of the market because there is no certainty about how large it will be. That is leading to people telling us that they might withdraw from it because they are not going to make any money from it. While we will have police forces bringing services in-house, and we don’t know at what rate that will happen because we don’t know what they are spending, if the market was suddenly to find that there was not a large enough critical mass, I and the Committee want an assurance that the Government would know what to do about it.

We have been world leaders in forensic science, but at the moment we are throwing it to the market. I have no objection to that when the market is large, but this is entirely a public money-based market, and it is very small and shrinking. We all want the reassurance that that is understood and that there is a strategy that backs up the criminal justice system.

Mr Browne: The answer is that, in extremis, it would be hard to envisage any Government allowing forensics to collapse and for no forensic science to be available to law enforcement agencies. However, we have no reason to believe that the existing arrangements will bring about that outcome. Of course, it is quite difficult to predict the future size of a market, because a whole number of factors come into play, including levels of crime. The market, rather unhappily, would benefit from an increase in crime, and we have the lowest levels of crime since the survey for England and Wales began in 1981. That is shrinking the market a bit.

Efficiencies mean that the financial size of the market may shrink, but if the services are provided more efficiently it would be hard to object to that as well. Of course, there may be scientific developments that would make the market grow, in terms of the value of what can be provided to the police in five or 10 years, or perhaps scientific research leads to greater efficiencies, which means that a lot of work that is more laboriously done now may be able to be done more quickly in 10 years, and that may mean that the service could be provided at a lower cost. All of that is quite hard to predict. Having forces in some cases with in-house provision-it depends at what level of sophistication-plus two substantial players, plus some smaller players that people think may grow in terms of market share, feels to me like a reasonably robust market, but no market, I suppose, can be absolutely certain that it will remain in its existing form into the distant future.

Q326 David Morris: Good morning, Minister. This is quite a simple question. What influence do you have over the police procurement of forensic services?

Mr Browne: I shall answer the question in a simple way. In my six months as a Minister, I have not sought to exercise any influence over it. I don’t know whether I have a theoretical influence that I have neglected to exercise. I am not the Police Minister, who I assume would be more relevant in terms of talking to police services in that way. The fact that that is the answer suggests that, in practical terms, the police services are able to make the decisions about procurement. As Mr Webb said, we have insights, we have expertise and we have the ability to suggest, for example, collaborative models to them, but that is different from instructing.

Stephen Webb: The Home Office has a commercial team that runs the National Forensic Framework procurement, but that is on behalf of police forces. As you know, the duty there is to come up with the best result for forces. Forensics is not an area where we have mandated in particular, because people have very different operating and business models. Police forces have different ways of doing it, and there has not necessarily been an appetite for a single, uniform way of delivering forensic services. If you look at the way the Met does it, or other forces do it, or the way the north-east does it, they are all slightly different.

Q327 David Morris: Do you agree that the current procurement framework is more restrictive for private forensic science providers than its predecessor?

Stephen Webb: There are differences of opinion about that. As I say, some parts of the country adopt it and some do not, because they have different approaches to it. The private providers really need to talk to forces about what kind of provision they can make that best meets their business needs.

Q328 Chair: Perhaps you can reflect on that, because we heard some very good evidence about practice, for example, from Wakefield, but many of the scientists that we have spoken to have expressed extreme concern that the lack of a holistic approach to casework is undermining the quality of justice delivered in those cases.

Stephen Webb: Conversely, there is a view that the combination of the market and these quite specified frameworks have led to both reduced prices and considerably reduced turnaround times over years that puts us in a quite enviable position compared with other jurisdictions.

Chair: We will be looking at that over time. We hope that you will be.

Q329 Sarah Newton: I want to talk about in-sourcing and what the police are doing themselves. A lot of the evidence that we have taken shows that there is not an equal playing field in this market, accepting all the points that my colleagues have made about the nature of the market. We have heard this particularly from private providers. Let me just give you one quote, although they all said similar things.

Manlove Forensics was talking about the impact of in-sourcing. It said that "in-sourcing is seen as a threat to impartiality and to a stable forensic market…It can also contradict best practice, increase lost opportunities and potentially could lead to miscarriages of justice". Those are real concerns from the private providers, because there are real question marks about the quality of some of the forensic work that the police are doing internally.

Quite a few forces are still unaccredited. What is your view on that? Is it acceptable to you that internal police force forensic work is being undertaken that is unaccredited?

Mr Browne: Let me answer the question in two ways, both of which I hope will be helpful.

The first is that the point about the uneven playing field between the accreditation required in the private sector and the lack of accreditation required in the police forces is a reasonable one for the private companies to make, because they are incurring costs in order to reach the level of accreditation which, in a competitive market, their rivals, for want of a better term, are not incurring. That seems to me an entirely reasonable complaint, which is why accreditation will be required by November of this year for in-house as well as outsourced forensic work. The playing field will be levelled, and those who are not able to have that level of accreditation will not be able to compete in a way that is disadvantageous to the private sector competitors. As the market settles, it is reasonable that all the players are competing to the same standard, whether the competition is in-house or outsourced.

My second answer is that I find myself having argued rather robustly, Mr Miller, for the virtues of private sector competition, but I don’t have any objection to police forces deciding to do work in-house if they feel that the work done in-house can be done to a higher standard and more cost-efficiently than private suppliers can do it for them. I am not so ideologically wedded to it being done in the private sector that I think they should be compelled to outsource the work when they feel that they can do it better in-house. Lots of businesses find themselves in this position-the in-house option is one of the options in competition with the various outsourced options. My understanding of police forces-the Met in Lambeth being a separate category-is that you end up with a mix.

When I ask people what their definition is of forensics, different people seem to provide slightly different answers. If it is the science of crime fighting, then up to a point police forces do some of that in-house anyway-and always have done. It seems quite likely that a lot of police forces would wish to do some of the work that they find easier-to achieve that in-house-and outsource some of the work that they feel can be better done by private companies.

Your point about having everybody playing to the same rules strikes me as being entirely reasonable, which is what the situation will be by the end of the year.

Stephen Webb: That will lead to a limited amount of additional work, because those forces that have not accredited by November will be outsourcing to external providers.

Q330 Sarah Newton: This is an area I would like to pick up on. Accreditation to ISO 17025 is just for the lab work. We have heard evidence that there is a real risk that a number of forces would not be able to have their labs compliant in time. I want to know what the consequences will be, come November. We have known since 2009 that this has to be done, so what is going to happen in November to those police forces that are not going to be able to accredit in-house?

Mr Browne: They will be required to outsource their work to a commercial forensic service provider, which may reassure Mr Tredinnick, I think, who was concerned that the marketplace may suffer from lack of business. In that way, the private providers will see a pick-up in business from the levelling of the playing field at the end of November.

Q331 Sarah Newton: That seems like a simple thing, but, to carry on with your analogy about the supermarket, you cannot just pitch up in a supermarket and say, "We’ll have x, y and z." You would be talking about the whole contractual process and you would have to go through a competitive tendering process; and, if that were the case, the organisations would have to approve people. It is a time-taking process, and November is only a few months away. How many police forces are you working with right now that are at risk? What contingency plans have you got in place should they not be ready? Are you already discussing with private providers that they would be able to pick up the slack if it was necessary?

Stephen Webb: It is important to do so, and we understand that around a dozen are currently estimated not to be, but, as you say, this has been around for a long time. They have had a long time to prepare and plan for just this, and ACPO assures us that these things are in hand. Ultimately, it is a commercial decision for the forces and their PCCs to put the measures in place, but they have had plenty of warning.

Mr Browne: I don’t see why private providers could not have a degree of flexibility and the ability to take on new business within their model. The concern expressed earlier in this session was about diminishing business, but I should have thought that most private companies, sensing an opportunity to take on new business, would be excited at the opportunity. Obviously, if there was a massive surge in business, it might overwhelm companies, but I don’t think we are thinking of anything of that scale.

In December 2010-so we are only talking of just over two years ago-the FSS was 60% of this total marketplace, and the private providers were 40%. In just over two years, they have gone from 40% to 100%, which is quite a big expansion in capacity in that time. We are talking of nothing like that level of expansion, but, if there is going to be a little bit of expansion in the work that they can undertake, I should have thought they would be preparing for it and welcoming the opportunity.

Q332 Sarah Newton: I am really surprised by this very cavalier attitude, as I see it, of saying, "Come November, well, if they haven’t complied, that’s it. Other people are going to have to make these decisions." But we are absolutely talking about our criminal justice system here. Are you really saying that, by 30 November, that’s it, down come the shutters, the police service will no longer be able to provide these services, and, maybe or maybe not, there will be a private sector solution that organisations will commission-when you have live cases that the police forces will be working with in trying to prosecute crime? Surely, there must be some sort of contingency plan so that the shutters will not be coming down on 30 November and there will be some planned approach to this, because we are dealing with the criminal justice system here. People’s evidence and people’s future, in prison or otherwise, is on the line.

Mr Browne: Maybe I am the only person in the room who believes that free markets have the ability to be flexible, depending on levels of demand. I don’t see it as cavalier.

If you, Ms Newton, are a provider of a forensic service, you are presumably looking for contracts, and looking to put in a superior bid to your rival companies, with higher-quality service and lower price. That would be a seductive combination for a police force. Some police forces are not able to be accredited. After all, the private companies themselves are saying that it is an unfair playing field that the police forces don’t have to have that level of accreditation but they do.

They are agitating for this change, which you appeared to welcome a few minutes ago as being a good levelling of the playing field. The playing field has been levelled, and, obviously if the contours of the playing field are changing, that may change the calculus about the size of the market for the private companies, but it is changing it in their favour. They are agitating for it, presumably because it is changing it in their favour.

I turn the question on its head. Why would a private company not wish to seek to try and win new business if the opportunity presents itself? If I were running a private company, I would not see this as something to be fearful of; I would see it as an opportunity.

Q333 Chair: Minister, I would invite you at this point to read some of the press coverage that stemmed from our last report. I need to emphasise that it is wrong for you to spin it that the Committee has opposed any privatisation. That has not been the case. We are interested in the impact of change on the criminal justice system. We have elucidated evidence from a wide range of sources that causes us concern, and we are trying to find out what the Government are doing about it.

Mr Browne: Mr Miller, my understanding is that the Government inherited a situation that was completely unsustainable, and I think that has been recognised by the Committee. It seems extraordinary to me that the previous Government did not act more decisively at an earlier point, rather than coming up with more and more ways of trying to stem the flow that clearly was not working. If you have got to strategic business plan 2 refresh, followed by strategic business plan 3, you have got to start worrying whether you are being as strategic as the name of your plan suggests.

Q334 Chair: You are going back over history. You are not talking about the future.

Mr Browne: There has been radical change. Most of the market is established and functioning well, and some of the last pieces are slotting into place. Reasonable concerns that have been expressed about the lack of a level playing field are being addressed this year. Obviously, if you address concerns about the lack of a level playing field, it creates a slight instability in the market compared with not changing an unlevel playing field, but the concerns are being addressed, as I understand the Committee would like them to be, in a way that is advantageous to the private companies. Others have expressed concern that they are in a disadvantageous position.

The pieces are falling into place, but, given that the situation just over two years ago appeared to be completely unsustainable in every single way, and we are now putting the last details in place of what strikes me as an entirely sustainable service, I think that a lot of progress has been made.

Q335 David Tredinnick: I want to ask you about the regulator. Andrew Rennison, who, as you know, was the first forensic science regulator, appointed in 2008, is due to retire next year. He said to the Committee that we may get to a stage where we need some statutory underpinning of his office, particularly in times of austerity. Is this something that you are considering? Will the forensic science regulator be given statutory powers in future?

Mr Browne: That is a reasonable point to make. We do not believe that the regulator is failing to discharge his duties in the absence of those powers, but it is something that we are entirely open to and consulting on. If there are advantages to that approach, we would wish to have those advantages.

Q336 David Tredinnick: If you did expand the scope of regulation, what would you be thinking about including?

Mr Browne: The status and statutory powers of the regulator and the scope of his role are precisely what we have agreed to consult on now that this marketplace-this delivery platform for forensic services to police forces-has essentially been established. We are open to suggestions through the consultation process.

We do not start with a fixed view. Obviously, people want to be satisfied, within a competitive marketplace, where people are trying to achieve value for money and drive up standards, that it is being done with consistency of service provision, or at least with minimum standards of service provision. That is what the regulator is there to do.

Q337 David Tredinnick: Thank you. The last question from me is this. Would you accept that defence scientists are in a different situation and that there really is a strong case for the regulation of their standards to be mandatory?

Mr Browne: That is not an area that I have considered.

Stephen Webb: It is about the rules of court and it is probably something to take up with Ministry of Justice colleagues. It is to do with expert witnesses and court evidence. We have these representatives together in the forensic policy group, but that is very much something where we would expect the Ministry of Justice and CPS colleagues to lead on.

Q338 Stephen Mosley: When it comes to the Ministry of Justice, have you had any discussions with it over forensic science?

Stephen Webb: Yes, absolutely. All the CJS agencies were consulted and closely involved in the wind-up process and the transition. They continue to be represented, for example, on the forensic policy group.

Q339 Stephen Mosley: Are you aware of the Law Commission’s 2011 report, which looked into the admissibility test? We have heard evidence from the forensic science regulator, who said of that report, "Sadly, that now gathers dust and we are back to the same discussions again as in 2005." Would you agree with that statement?

Stephen Webb: I understand that the Ministry of Justice is looking to publish a response soon. It is not something that we can comment on-it is very much their responsibility.

Q340 Chair: Is that a real soon or a ministerial soon?

Mr Browne: In the fullness of time.

Stephen Webb: I could not comment on that either.

Q341 Stephen Mosley: Have those negotiations been done on the civil service side, or at ministerial level?

Stephen Webb: To be honest, I don’t know. They lead on the policy, and I am not familiar with that myself.

Mr Browne: Not by me personally, so I can vouch for myself, but within the MOJ, I don’t know.

Stephen Webb: Our responsibility has very much been about service provision and so on, and this is very much about the procedures of the courts. That is not something that the Minister or I have been responsible for.

Q342 Graham Stringer: Have you read the oral evidence that this Committee has taken on forensic science?

Mr Browne: I prepared for the Committee, but I have not read every session.

Q343 Graham Stringer: That answer is a bit disappointing, but if you had read the evidence, you would have seen that Dr Tully, one of the most senior forensic scientists in the country, believes that some murderers and rapists will get off because of the changes that have taken place in the forensic science service. Do you not think it is a Minister’s responsibility to look at that, and at the structure and strategy of forensic science, and decide what to do about it?

Mr Browne: The Minister has a responsibility. I am Minister for Crime Prevention. I do not claim sole credit for this, but crime is at its lowest level since the survey for England and Wales began in 1981.

Q344 Graham Stringer: You are the Minister with responsibility for forensic science.

Mr Browne: Given that you are trying to accuse me of being indifferent to the fate of people who have been murdered and others-

Q345 Graham Stringer: I said no such thing. I want to know whether we have the most effective and efficient criminal justice system that we could have in this country.

Mr Browne: Yes, consistent with affordability.

Q346 Graham Stringer: I want to know what the response of the Minister with responsibility for forensic science is to a senior forensic scientist who comes to this Committee and tells us that, in her opinion, we are not doing that. I want to know what your response is to that. I am not interested in an ideological argument between markets and the public sector. I want the best criminal justice system.

Mr Browne: You say you are not interested. Given that the tone has changed so markedly, may I respectfully say that the situation that this Government inherited in May 2010 was a complete disgrace, really? The endless prevarication and indecision over an organisation that was losing a lot of money-

Q347 Chair: Could you answer Mr Stringer’s question about Dr Tully’s evidence, please?

Mr Browne: I think that changes needed to be made and that the Forensic Science Service needed to be put on a financially sustainable footing. It is entirely consistent with good criminal justice in this country for there to be a marketplace of different forensic science providers to police forces. Obviously, it is not for me to comment on each individual murder or other very serious crimes about which you have made allegations, but the overall rates of crime, including the most serious and heinous crimes in this country, have fallen over the last two and a half years. I hope that they continue to fall, and I hope that forensics continues to play a major part in them falling.

At the same time, we have to realise that we have an incredibly difficult and serious budget situation in this country, and having parts of the public sector haemorrhaging money left, right and centre is just not sustainable. We have it on a stable footing now. It is not losing money for the public sector any more. It is providing high-quality work, to the satisfaction of the CPS and the police, and rates of very serious crime are down, which may or may not be attributable to changes in forensics.

Q348 Chair: So you don’t accept Dr Tully’s evidence.

Mr Browne: I do not know of individual cases, but I do not accept-

Q349 Chair: You have not read her evidence.

Mr Browne: I don’t accept the central premise, which is that a loss-making FSS is incapable of being improved upon as a model.

Q350 Chair: That was not the question, and you know it.

Mr Browne: It is perfectly possible to deliver the highest standards possible of forensic science and research, and crime fighting, with a market-based model rather than a state supplier of forensic sciences.

Q351 Graham Stringer: Anything is possible. It is rather disappointing that you have not looked at the evidence and that you are not answering the questions. Will you tell us whether you think we should have a central archive for forensics?

Mr Browne: There is an historical archive, funded by the Home Office.

Q352 Graham Stringer: At the moment, the trend is to individual police forces keeping their own archives. Do you think that there should be a central archive, where all historical material is kept?

Mr Browne: I am open to the suggestion. My interest is in crime fighting and prevention. If that would be more likely to lead to that outcome, then I have no principled objection to how work is archived and where it is held.

Q353 Graham Stringer: In terms of getting the best forensic evidence available, and in dealing with cold cases, in your opinion as the Minister responsible, is it better to have a central archive or to have the archives in individual police forces?

Mr Browne: I do not have an opinion.

Stephen Webb: We have not seen any business case as to why it would be particularly better. It would be a hugely complex and expensive operation.

Q354 Chair: To do what?

Stephen Webb: To pull all the archives from all the forces together to create a single national one. I am chairman of Forensic Archive Ltd, which is the legacy company that runs the FSS archive. The archive has been cleaned up, and it is better catalogued. It is going to be a much better service than looking at the FSS legacy evidence.

We would consider cases that the police or anybody else wanted to put forward, but nobody in the police force, as far as I am aware, has been promoting this, and we certainly have not seen-

Q355 Chair: You have not read ACPO’s evidence to us then.

Stephen Webb: I am sorry. I have not, I must admit.

Q356 Hywel Williams: May I ask about research and development? There is a certain amount of fundamental research that academics are interested in, which research councils are interested in and they will fund it, and then there is the commercial research that leads to new devices, new systems, which the commercial organisations are interested in; but there is some stuff in the middle, which is a collation of large sets of data, which are not really attractive to the research councils, and certainly are not attractive to private organisations. There is some concern that that stuff in the middle is not going to be accessible because people won’t be driven to doing any research in this. Who should fund forensic science research that falls between that pure academic stuff and the pure commercial stuff? There is quite a large amount of useful research that can be done there. Who should be funding it?

Mr Browne: You may disagree, but I don’t see any inherent reason why a company would not wish to fund research. In fact, lots of cutting-edge research in lots of different fields has taken place within private companies that are looking to provide a higher-quality service. I take your point that there might be some forms of pure science that are of interest within universities and have no commercial application at all, but-I shall not use another analogy, because it will be picked up on in ways that I would not wish-there are lots of competitive areas where huge changes have taken place due to scientific innovation that have been driven by private suppliers.

Q357 Hywel Williams: I shall give an example from Dr Tully, who is with Principal Forensic Services. She says that this is the sort of research "that takes it from fundamental research and provides, for example, the data to support interpretation of forensic evidence." That is not of commercial interest as such, and it is certainly not of interest to the research councils, because it is not fundamental enough. There is a gap, and it is not being filled and potentially will not be filled by the market. That is why I am asking you, as the Minister responsible, who should be funding it. It is important, but it does not have a particular interest to the players currently identified.

Mr Browne: I am struggling a little to find an area of research that is not interesting in terms of academic merit or commercially.

Q358 Hywel Williams: I quoted it for you.

Mr Browne: The state, administered through the Business Department, spends a very large amount-in fact, it is one of the ring-fenced budgets where the amount of money is not being reduced-on scientific research through the research councils.

Q359 Chair: Is that a Budget leak?

Mr Browne: No; that has been the case hitherto. It is precisely because there is a recognition by this Government and previous Governments that there may be valuable scientific research that the marketplace may not necessarily conduct. A large amount of public money is spent on scientific research, and that is administered through the research councils. I imagine that even more money is spent by private companies on research and development. I am struggling slightly to find the place that is beyond what the Government recognise as being necessary to fund and beyond what the private sector recognises.

Q360 Hywel Williams: As I said, Dr Tully talks of data supporting the interpretation of forensic science. I am not a forensic scientist, but she is identifying a bit that is not supported. I am asking the question, but I don’t seem to be getting an answer.

Can I ask you something else? Before I was elected, I was a private sector academic-only in a very small way, I should say-and one of the difficulties that I always faced was trying to plan my business for the future because of the instability of the markets. We have seen the forensics market go down from £190 million to £80 million, and, if in-house services have to be accredited and fail to do so, it will shoot up again overnight. There will be quite a bit of instability in the short to medium term.

In that sort of situation, is it not likely that the private sector providers will find it difficult to plan their own research and development? My question really is: what should the Government do to ensure that private providers feel confident enough in this situation to invest in R and D?

Mr Browne: There certainly has been a very big period of great turbulence, but my contention is that that has been brought about by years and years of decisions being put off, when the nettle should have been grasped at the time. It has built up to a head where the degree of turbulence was greater than if the issues had been addressed by Ministers six, seven or eight years ago. I wish that they had, but they dumped it, so we are now having to address it. The situation has become more acute. That inevitably leads to a greater period of turbulence than if it had been addressed when the problems became apparent.

I hope and believe now, after two years of remedial correction, with some pieces still to put in place, that we are now largely in a more stabilised environment where the expectations of private sector suppliers can be more predictable-inasmuch as anything in life is ever entirely predictable-than was the case a few years ago.

A few years ago, a lot of people were saying that crime was going to rise because of the state of the economy. All of the research independent of Government has shown that crime has fallen markedly in the last two years. A predecessor of mine at the Home Office said that there would definitely be a rise in unemployment, and correspondingly crime, and that we should brace ourselves for it. If the private companies had listened to Ministers then, they would have made inaccurate calculations. Nothing is completely certain, but we are in a much greater position of certainty than we have been for a long time.

Q361 Hywel Williams: It is continuing until November, but who knows what may come to pass subsequently? Research and development is sometimes a sprint, but more often it is a marathon. You are not going to start in a race unless you know what the course is going to be like.

Stephen Webb: It is worth pointing out that research and development is a very international market; you are not going to do it only for the UK.

Q362 Hywel Williams: Should we buy it abroad?

Stephen Webb: You will have seen LGC; they have a lot of international business.

Mr Browne: Possibly; I would not rule it out. If somebody finds a cure for cancer who is a foreigner, I am not going to say no to the cure just because it was invented by a foreigner. We live in an international marketplace, and we should not be insular about it, but there is lots of research and development going on, and there is a much greater degree of certainty within this space, the United Kingdom, than was the case two and a half years ago. But I cannot give you absolute guarantees about how scientific research will evolve in the next two years.

Stephen Webb: What I really meant was that providers in England and Wales could invest in this county in the knowledge that there is a market for export internationally, because there will probably be more advances developing in the market here than elsewhere.

Chair: There are three more very quick questions.

Q363 Pamela Nash: Minister, there are members of this Committee from four different parties, and we have had experts at the Committee from crime prevention, forensics and forensic science. All of us have serious concerns about the implications for criminal justice that are resulting from the changes in forensic science provision that you are overseeing. I still have not heard an answer to my colleague Mr Stringer’s question. Can you guarantee that no one is going to get away with murder because of the changes that you are overseeing in forensic science provision?

Mr Browne: I counted only three parties, but I shall let that pass.

Q364 Pamela Nash: One of your colleagues is not here this morning, but he is a member of the Committee.

Mr Browne: Okay; very good. I don’t think that any politician from any party can stand up and say that they can never guarantee that anything they do could in any circumstances have any impact on one of the 62 million people who live in the United Kingdom. No police officer could ever say that any changes that they make to anything in their police force might not have an adverse impact on somebody in their force.

All I can say is what I said before to the charge, essentially, that I and the Government take a cavalier or indifferent approach to murders being solved-which is the essence of the charge-and that is that I reject that charge. If we had inherited in 2010 a very successful, smoothly operating, non-loss-making arrangement for forensics, there would be quite an interesting conversation to be had about whether it was wise to change it.

Q365 Chair: Had you read our report, we might have had a more interesting conversation.

Mr Browne: Given that we inherited an operation that, as far as I can work out, was one in which Ministers had completely ducked their responsibilities for years-I don’t know, because I haven’t read it, if they have apologised to you-and it was losing £2 million a month, we are having to make changes. All I can say is that the CPS and police forces are satisfied, as far as we are aware, with the quality of the work. Although I am not saying it is an exact measure, given that you chose to frame it in these terms, the murder rate is lower now than it was when these changes were introduced two and a half years ago.

Q366 Stephen Metcalfe: I want to return to the issue of the market. I don’t think that anyone is arguing specifically about the history of what FSS was like. We have to look forward now to how we create a stable market going forward. I am a free marketeer, and I am not going to take any lectures on that, but this is a market unlike any other. There is not a level playing field, however we might frame it, because one of the biggest players-i.e. the police forces-do not suffer the same commercial threats and limitations that the other players in the market are exposed to. It is how we balance that to make sure that the market stabilises in the future.

I don’t necessarily want you to answer that now, but it needs to be thought about so that there is a future for forensic science in this country. I know you are saying that you think it will be all right because there is a market and players should come and go in a market, but they live or die by their commercial success. That is not true of one of the major players in this particular market, who can distort the commercial realities. That needs to be thought about.

Mr Browne: You make an entirely fair point. I don’t think that police forces should be stopped from finding in-house solutions, so we don’t necessarily disagree on the outcome. I believe in free markets, but I accept that you can have market failure and that you can have too much concentration of provision in a single company as well. However, we have sought to create-well, we are creating-the so-called level playing field later this year.

The current marketplace feels as if it is settling into what a lot of marketplaces look like, including pretty much the political marketplace in England, which is that you have two large players and maybe one smaller but still significant third player. Most stable markets do not have 10 companies, each with 10% of the market share. They typically have two big players and one or two significant but smaller players. It seems to me that that marketplace is reaching a reasonable state of maturity.

Stephen Webb: We have always been a little sceptical about how much direct competition there is between police in-house and externally. You have a large block of money that is spent, but it is often on things that have always been discrete and different. As I say, scene of crime and fingerprints are by far the biggest buckets, and they are not competing with the external forensic providers on that. It is something that we look at.

Accreditation has made big strides towards evening things out. It is something that we look at. The fiscal pressures on forces will make them look very closely at value for money, and there is an opportunity for providers to make a case to forces about bringing stuff the other way. The market is finding its level, but it is legitimate.

Stephen Metcalfe: The police force cannot go bust.

Q367 Stephen Mosley: I preface my question by saying that I agree entirely with the historical analysis that you have given, although some of my colleagues might not. I entirely agree with the way things are going forward; there is the opportunity to improve efficiency and improve effectiveness, and also to encourage innovation. But I have been concerned from today’s session that I want the guy in charge, the guy at the top, the Minister, to have an in-depth knowledge of the marketplace, of forensics, to be aware of some of the issues that are cropping up, and to be able to give us a detailed response to that.

We are the Science and Technology Select Committee, and we are interested in evidence-based reasoning and solutions, and I do not get the feeling from this meeting that you, as a Minister, have been able to give us those answers. Could I ask you one last time to try to change my mind and give me confidence that you have that in-depth knowledge of the forensics marketplace?

Mr Browne: That is a bit like saying, "Why should we give you the job?" My hope and belief is that-let me answer that. I will be slightly political. Compared with my predecessors, when I was reading up for this Committee I became more and more amazed at how any Ministers could have presided over the situation in the last Parliament. I just don’t know how it happened-when you are confronted with strategic business plan 3, you surely start thinking that maybe strategic business plans 1, 2 and 2A don’t give me a huge amount of confidence that strategic business plan 3 is going to be the solution.

I reject the inference from some people in the Committee that we now have this rather loose, lax arrangement compared with the nostalgic era when it was all held with such a steady hand on the tiller by Ministers, because I just don’t accept that that is the case.

Q368 Chair: Had you read our report, you would know that that is not the view of this Committee.

Mr Browne: We now have a situation where I am much more confident that it is sustainable than I would have been had I been a Minister three years ago sitting in front of this Committee. Most of the pieces are in place, but the dust is settling, and we talked a little about accreditation being the final piece to be put in place.

It then comes down to a slightly philosophical point about whether the Minister, to use the old analogy, should be responsible for every bedpan in the NHS or whether Ministers should be satisfied that the people taking decisions on the procurement and delivery of public services-in this case elected PCCs in 43 forces, chief constables, people in police forces who work out the best way to tender services and to commission services, and private suppliers-are all doing their job in a reasonable context that the Minister could be expected to be satisfied with.

I think that the answer to that is yes, but can I sit in front of you and say that in all 43 forces I am directing them on precisely whether their procurement conforms with what I, the Minister, would wish it to? I do not regard that as my job. It comes to the point of what you regard the Minister’s job to be. Is it to micromanage huge areas of the public sector, or is it to be satisfied that there are systems in place where they can run their affairs to the public good? I think that it is the latter and that we are in a far happier position now-not, I have to confess, due to me, because nearly all of this work was done before I became Minister-than we were three years ago, when the position was completely, completely unsustainable.

Q369 Chair: We have covered a very wide amount of ground. I finish by quoting the words of the regulator, Andrew Rennison, who said to us in his evidence, which you have not read, "At the moment, I struggle to know what the Government strategy is."

Judging by the questions that have been posed, I think that that is the problem that we face. We understand the history, and our report dealt with the history. What we do not understand is what the future looks like. We are asking you, Minister, to go away and look very carefully at some of the issues that we have raised, and, when we report, to look at it very carefully. We are very concerned not about how the market has developed, because none of us around the table are opposed to development of markets, but how criminal justice is delivered in this very important field.

Mr Browne: May I make a final point? There is a wider issue about the provision of public services, and I am not saying just in my Department. In my Department, the election of PCCs means that they have strategic direction of their individual police forces. As soon as central Government give other people the freedom to set strategic direction, Ministers and central Government cannot sit in front of a Committee and say, "This is the strategic direction," because people have been liberated to make strategic choices-in this case in Devon and Cornwall or in Avon and Somerset, or wherever it might be. But that is not just in my Department.

For example, if you ask the Secretary of State for Education what is his strategy for free schools, he may say, "Obviously there are core bits of the curriculum"-I do not want to put words in his mouth; but he may say, "We don’t micromanage each individual head teacher to make wise decisions about their individual schools", because that is not what we regard as the role of Government. That is why I say there is a potential ideological division on what the responsibilities of Ministers are and what constitutes a strategy.

I would regard being satisfied that the provision is in place to deliver for the public as a strategy, but it is not a strategy that is being administered by me: it is being administered by the people to whom responsibility has been devolved. In that way, it is a different model of government. I would argue that it is a superior model, but it leaves Ministers open to the charge that they are not directing every aspect of policy making in the way they would be if it was a far more centralised, statist form of government than the one that this Government are trying to put into effect.

Chair: We understand where you are coming from. Thank you very much for your attendance.

Prepared 20th March 2013