Forensic science and the criminal justice system: a blueprint for change Contents

Chapter 2: Oversight, leadership and responsibility

Culture and environment

14.A consistent theme that arose in our inquiry was the piecemeal nature of oversight of and responsibility for forensic science in England and Wales. We repeatedly heard that the system was not operating as it should and was in a state of crisis, presenting a threat of undermining trust in the criminal justice system.

15.The Knowledge Transfer Network Forensic Science Special Interest Group thought there was:

“a lack of clear leadership, oversight and governance across the wider forensic landscape. A fragmented and weakened marketplace, lack of funding for forensic research supporting the evidence base and a silo approach to forensics in some regions could impact on the national UK forensic communities’ ability to support the current and future needs of the UK judicial system.”14

16.There have also been consistent and deep cuts to budgets and resources in all the key stakeholder domains alongside the introduction and development of a competitive market for forensic science. This has had a significant impact on forensic service provision15, quality16, commissioning17, and research18.

Piecemeal governance and oversight of forensic science

17.As forensic science is fragmented, there are challenges in developing a coordinated strategy, a sustainable market, and science with strong theoretical foundations to underpin practice. This piecemeal approach has led to some of the serious and urgent problems facing the sector. Rebecca Endean, Director of Strategy at UK Research and Innovation, described the state of forensic science as “probably as disparate as it could be.”19

18.While the Home Office has overall responsibility for forensic science, much of its application is in the courts, which fall under the remit of the Ministry of Justice.

19.The Minister of State at the Home Office, Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP, told us that there were “significant problems that [the Government is] trying to manage”.20 He said that one reason for this was “that there has been a very fragmented approach to [forensic science] … The response is to support a strategic approach that supports more collective leadership in addressing some of the key capability gaps and identifying the road map”.21

20.Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP told us that he was trying to tackle these issues and intended to publish the results of the Government’s review into forensic science service practice and provision along with an implementation plan by the end of March 2019.22 The review has been led by the Home Office with input from the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) and the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), as well as involvement from the Ministry of Justice “at official level”.23

21.The Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, Lucy Frazer QC MP, was clear that forensic science lay squarely in the remit of the Home Office; she saw the Ministry of Justice as “support[ing]” and “assist[ing]” the Home Office.24 When asked why the Ministry of Justice did not have a greater role, given that forensic science is essentially about ensuring that justice is done, the minister said that “sometimes it is important for one department to lead on an issue”25 but agreed to think about how the Ministry of Justice could work better with the Home Office.

Police and forensic science service-provider fragmentation

22.Forensic science in England and Wales is now provided by private companies and the police (as outlined in Chapter 3). There is fragmentation in terms of the services provided, with certain types of analysis being undertaken predominantly in the private sector (such as toxicology) and others predominantly by the police ‘in-house’ units (such as fingerprints).26 Dr Gillian Tully, the Forensic Science Regulator, noted that “the fragmentation of work between multiple police forces and multiple forensic science providers has led to fragmentation of data sets for interpretation of evidence. In a coherent system, data would be gathered and shared more effectively.”27

23.Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP talked about the fragmentation within the police: “We have 43 police chiefs. We have 43 police and crime commissioners. We have a Home Office. We have an inspectorate. We have a college. This is a system that historically has not worked together as effectively as anyone would want. There is now a recognition of the need for more collective leadership.”28 One of the Home Office’s responses has been to set up the Transforming Forensics programme, which aims to address the provision of forensic services in the police forces.

Transforming Forensics programme

24.The Transforming Forensics programme29, launched in 2018, seeks to provide a strategic police response to problems with forensic science arrangements. The programme is overseen by the Police Reform and Transformation Board and funded by the Police Transformation Fund with a £30 million investment from April 2018 to March 2020.

25.Issues which the programme seeks to address include:

26.While the Transforming Forensics programme has developed since it started in April 2018, it is limited in how far it can meet the challenges facing forensic science. In particular, the programme concerns the police and not private providers or others with interests in forensic science, again emphasising the siloed nature of the forensic science process (as outlined in Chapter 1). Dr David Schudel, a forensic scientist at Keith Borer Consultants, said that the programme further promotes “a continued shift of funding away from one service [private] to the other [police], when in reality we have an expanding amount of forensic evidence.”33

27.Those involved in the Transforming Forensics programme were concerned that the Home Office’s lack of willingness to mandate participation by all forces has meant that they have had to spend time and money convincing forces to be involved. Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP explained that his “ability to mandate is limited” by “police operational autonomy”.34

28.We have not heard evidence to suggest that the structural issues outlined by the Forensic Science Regulator caused by the fragmentation of forensic science services between the police and private sector are being addressed by the Transforming Forensics programme.35 It does not present a solution to the current fragmentation or the numerous other issues we consider in this report.

29.Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP said that the “Transforming Forensics programme is our response to some of [the] system failure and that lack of collective working”36, but the fact that participation is not mandatory, that it only applies to the police, and that funding after 2020 is not secured means that it will struggle to set a strategic vision.

Research inadequacy

30.The reduced level of forensic science across the research domain is currently an obstacle for ensuring adequate and strategic research. Different stakeholders across forensic science have distinct knowledge gaps that forensic science research and development can address. The type of research needed in forensic investigation practices to develop the identification, collection and preservation of materials is different, albeit linked, to the research needed to assist evaluative interpretations. As Key Forensic Services said, “Users of forensic science will have different needs. The lack of investment in this area has resulted in complete inertia.”37 It is clear that there is need, as Rebecca Endean suggested, “for some sort of strategic oversight body which could look across all the funders and identify gaps and key priorities for funding forensic science research.”38

Value of forensic science

31.The lack of coordination within forensic science has made it difficult for anyone to assess the value of the whole system39 and to justify sustained funding of it. However, the benefits of forensic science can be seen in policing and the justice system and have short and long-term outcomes.

32.James Vaughan, Chief Constable of Dorset Police and the lead on forensic science for the National Police Chiefs Council, explained that “it is very difficult to measure the value of one fingerprint that stops a recidivist from committing a whole spate of domestic burglaries”.40 The Metropolitan Police Service told us that “forensic science should not be seen as just an evidential tool in investigations but equally as an intelligence tool where its impact may not directly lead to an offender being identified but can contribute to an intelligence profile and lead to proactive investigations into large scale operations.”41

33.For these reasons, spending more on forensic science in a strategic and coordinated way can reduce the amount spent by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice on the criminal justice system. Cellmark Forensic Services detailed how investment in forensic science upfront can deliver savings:

“Rapid forensic science (both at the crime scene and in the laboratory) has the potential to reduce costly police investigative time through early identification of offenders or the exoneration of innocent suspects; earlier arrests can lead to a lower financial impact of prolific offenders who are otherwise free to re-offend; and of course compelling, high quality forensic science can lead to earlier guilty pleas, quicker trials and a resultant reduction in expensive court time.”42

34.These benefits are unlikely to be realised “while there continues to be no linkage of budgets for the commissioning of forensic analysis by the police, to the CPS and judicial budgets”.43 There is a clear case for a more coordinated approach to forensic science by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

Oversight, responsibility and accountability

35.The lack of strategic oversight, responsibility and accountability for forensic science is a significant problem. Professor Dame Sue Black, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University, told us that “the forensic science community is weakened due to years of financial disinvestment, unfocussed core strategic leadership and fragmented communication across the ecosystem.”44 The Knowledge Transfer Network Forensic Science Special Interest Group stated that “there is a need to review and challenge the national leadership, oversight and governance across this wider forensic science landscape. To provide more national cohesion, dedicated strategic leadership and alignment with other government departments is needed.”45

36.It is clear that there is a need to deliver strategic and accountable leadership that reflects all the main stakeholders to set the vision, strategy, and agenda for forensic science.

37.The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are not working closely enough to address the absence of high-level leadership in forensic science. Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that the operational independence of the police and the independence of the courts and of forensic scientific evidence are safeguarded. Therefore we recommend the creation of a Forensic Science Board as an arm’s-length body to be responsible for the coordination, strategy and direction of forensic science in England and Wales.

38.The Forensic Science Board should work with the newly expanded role of the Forensic Science Regulator (see recommendation in Chapter 3), the National Institute for Forensic Science proposed by this report (see recommendation in Chapter 6), and wider stakeholders to create and deliver a new forensic science strategy which focuses on greater coordination and collaboration. The strategy should aim to promote proper understanding of forensic science in the criminal justice system. The Board should also consider levels of funding and the value for money in the forensic science market. The Forensic Science Board should set England and Wales on track to regaining its world-class status in forensic science.

39.The Board should be chaired by a retired senior judge with experience of criminal casework. Membership should include the Director of the new National Institute for Forensic Science proposed by this report, a senior academic, and a senior police officer. The Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice should be jointly accountable to Parliament for the Board.

14 Written evidence from the Knowledge Transfer Network Forensic Science Special Interest Group (FoSciSIG) (FRS0040)

15 Written evidence from Northumbria University Centre for Evidence and Criminal Justice Studies (NCECJS) (FRS0038) and Eurofins Forensic Services (EFS) (FRS0063)

16 Written evidence from Keith Borer Consultants (FRS0061) and Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2016–November 2017 (19 January 2018):

17 Written evidence from Dr Martin Hall (FRS0037), Key Forensic Services Ltd (FRS0048), and Cellmark Forensic Services (FRS0071)

18 Written evidence from Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) (FRS0006), Alere Forensics (FRS0016), and Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein (FRS0032)

19 150 (Rebecca Endean)

20 Q 222 (Nick Hurd MP)

21 Q 223 (Nick Hurd MP)

22 The review is now likely to be published in April, see letter from the Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP to the Chairman (28 March 2019):–03-28-ltr-forensic-science-criminal-justice-system-DfID.pdf

23 Q 223 (Nick Hurd MP)

24 Q 235 (Lucy Frazer QC MP)

25 Ibid.

26 Q 82 (Danyela Kellett and Carolyn Lovell)

27 Written Evidence from Dr Gillian Tully (FRS0057)

28 Q 224 (Nick Hurd MP)

30 The Policing Vision 2025 was published jointly by the NPCC and the APCC in 2016 and sets out their plan for policing until 2025 and the challenges that are likely to arise in the 10-year period. NPCC, Policing Vision 2025 (2016): [accessed 27 February 2019]

32 Written evidence from NPCC Transforming Forensics Programme (FRS0070), para 6

33 Q 116 (Dr David Schudel)

34 Q 225 (Nick Hurd MP)

35 Written evidence from Dr Gillian Tully (FRS0057)

36 Q 224 (Nick Hurd MP)

37 Written evidence from Key Forensic Services Ltd (FRS0048)

38 Q 148 (Rebecca Endean)

39 Written evidence from Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) (FRS0006)

40 Q 15 (Chief Constable James Vaughan)

41 Written evidence from Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) (FRS0064)

42 Written evidence from Cellmark Forensic Services (FRS0071)

43 Ibid.

44 Written evidence from Professor Dame Sue Black (FRS0008)

45 Written evidence from FoSciSIG (FRS0040)

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