Debating the future of the Forensic Science Service

This post was written by Michelle Brook, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

In December 2010 the Government announced it would be closing the Forensic Science Service (FSS). On the 19 January 2011,  the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into this issue, followed a month later, on 16 February by a Home Office Review into  “Research and Development in Forensic Science”

Discussion around the issues of closure of the FSS is still ongoing and on 17 May, Jonathan Reynolds MP (Lab/Co-op) secured a debate in Westminster Hall on the closure of the FSS. The debate was attended by three members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – Andrew Miller Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston and Committee Chair, Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central and Stephen Metcalfe, Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock.

At present the FSS is one of a number of providers of forensics services in the country – with private companies having a 35% share of the market, as well as a large amount of work being carried out in police laboratories.

Current Government thinking:

During the debate, Damien Green, Immigration Minister laid out the Government’s current thinking:

  • “The Government wants the UK’s forensic science industry to operate as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost.”
  •  “A competitive market can help drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning that serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, I am sure that that is what we all want.”

Reasons for closure

The main reasons for the decision are problems with the market, which has led to financial challenges for the FSS:

  •  “The situation that led to the Government’s announcement to manage the closure of the FSS last December is clear: the challenging forensics market put the FSS in serious financial difficulty…” Damien Green
  •  “the FSS had monthly operating losses of about £2 million and faced the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensic services.” Damien Green

Damien Green stated that “Without the prospect of further financial help, the FSS board would have been forced to place the company into administration in early 2011”.

Three options were considered and outlined by Damian Green:

  1.  Uncontrolled administration – which “would have seriously damaged the forensics capability available to the criminal justice system, and we were not prepared to take that risk”
  2. “Further restructuring – which “would have had less impact on the criminal justice system than losing the FSS overnight, it would not have solved the key underlying problem of reduced levels of customer demand….”
  3. And a “managed wind-down”

 “I strongly believe that the managed wind-down of the FSS is the right choice, both financially and for the criminal justice system…  We consulted key partners across the system before making this decision, and their collective view is that a managed closure is in the best interests of the system as a whole.” Damien Green

Restructuring

 “Money has been put into restructuring, and it has not worked. As he said, the previous Government set up a GovCo in an attempt to solve the problem, but sadly, that has not worked.” Damien Green

 “In recent months, the FSS has closed down three laboratory sites and shed 750 staff as part of a drive to make itself more competitive. It is believed to be on track to make the required level of savings, yet the Government themselves admit that the £2 million figure they repeatedly use to justify their plans takes no account of the significant savings made by the restructuring programme.” Jonathan Reynolds

Key concerns:

1. Can we be sure that the market will replace the services carried out by the FSS?

The FSS provides a wide range of services:

  •  “No private provider is currently able to offer the same breadth of forensic services and expertise as the FSS, whose holistic approach is a clear benefit to our judicial system. By offering such a comprehensive range of services, it is in an unrivalled position to determine what is required from a crime scene and to provide the data.” Jonathan Reynolds 
  • “The FSS is the only UKorganisation with forensic experience of terrorist attacks. Without it, who would have the capability and capacity to provide the vital evidence that our judicial system requires?” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “The Government have claimed that there is no reason to think that the private sector would be unable to meet the demand for forensic services; but where … is the evidence? As uncertainty continues to surround the provision of forensic science services in the UK, significant numbers of scientists are taking up jobs overseas or choosing to move on to other careers, and the coverage offered by the current private forensic science providers is broad in neither scope nor geography.” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “The managed wind-down of the FSS will allow time for the restructuring of the timetable for tendering new contracts, for the re-tendering of existing FSS contracts and for other forensic suppliers to develop their capacity to meet any additional requirements.” Damien Green
  • “ The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in particular, is clear that the forensic markets can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS An orderly wind-down, which is what we are managing, will allow adequate time for the current forensics framework to be restructured… and for other suppliers to increase their capability.” Damien Green

2. Is a market-model the best model for forensic science?

  • “The unit’s success relies, however, on the flexibility to devote the time necessary to each investigation. Staff at the unit fear that many of their successes might not have been possible within the financial constraints of a more commercial market. They also fear that private providers are unlikely to offer the guaranteed on-call service that is required. I am sure that private companies will bid for the work of the FSS, but the risk is that they will cherry-pick the quickest, least labour-intensive and most profitable parts, which could have a serious impact on the quality of justice” Jonathan Reynolds

3. How will in-house police work impact on the market?

Police taking forensic science work in house has lead to a decrease in the market available. Gavin Barwell asked if the Government had considered restricting the police’s ability to provide in-house forensic services, going on to say:

  •  “many private sector suppliers have expressed concerns about their ability to invest in the future in a declining market if police provision continues to increase.”

The issue of impartiality was raised:

  •  “If the police choose to increase their in-house provision of forensic services, they will also have to address the issue of impartiality. We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.” Jonathan Reynolds

4. Is it possible the FSS is bringing private sector fees down?

Jonathan Reynolds said that the FSS is providing competition to the private sector, and stated that in the absence of this competition “there is a chance that the marketplace could consolidate or prices could rise”

  • “Many of the people in that specialist area have been trained by the FSS. As I understand it, private sector providers’ prices do not take into account the increased cost base of training their own people to be as skilled as they need to be to cover all the specialisms currently being covered.” Jonathan Reynolds

Ongoing issues:

1. What is the future of the existing FSS archives?

The FSS hold substantial archives which are useful for solving cold cases. They hold a vast amount of material, including “more than 1.5 million case files and a vast number of retained materials, including DNA, fibres and recovered debris”.

  • “The application of advanced forensic techniques to archive material by FSS scientists has helped to secure convictions for more than 220 historical crimes. That work would not be possible without the archives, but we do not know what will happen to them when the FSS is closed.” Jonathan Reynolds
  •  “The forensic transition board has set up an archiving project board with members from the Home Office, the FSS, ACPO and key partners across the criminal justice system to recommend options for the handling and retention of FSS records so that historical data remain available to the criminal justice system. As part of that, we will seek to ensure that the necessary expertise remains to work on the data and mine them in the future.” Damien Green

2. How will the current standards of the FSS be monitored and ensured in the private sector?

There are worries that if FSS is closed there will be decreasing standards of forensics work:

  • “At present, members of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, such as the FSS, must be accredited. However, with the exception of those dealing with DNA there are no statutory requirements for forensic science companies or in-house police departments to comply with any published standards” Jonathan Reynolds

3. Will the removal of the FSS have an impact upon justice in the UK?

  • “Any changes to the FSS must have the integrity of our judicial system at their core. There are still too many questions about the scope and quality of the provision that will be available following the closure of the FSS.” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “The evidential value and integrity of forensic exhibits is tested under the intense scrutiny of the courts—from the point of collection, through analysis to interpretation and reporting. Each step in the process must be able to withstand such critical review, not least because the first body that the police must convince in any prosecution is the CPS. That is now an independent function.” Damien Green

4. What is the future of Forensic Science R&D?

  • “Historically, such research has been undertaken by a wide range of organisations, including the private sector, Government-owned laboratories and academia.” Damien Green
  • “Our decision took into account the need to manage the impact on forensic science research and development in the UK. Unfortunately, the FSS’s financial position had already limited the capacity for research and development for which it had become renowned.” Damien Green

Unanswered Questions

–         What gaps are there at present in the range of services offered by the FSS and private companies? How can we be sure the private companies will provide these in the absence of the FSS?

–          If the forensic market has decreased due to increased in-house police forensic work, how can we be sure this process won’t continue, further shrinking the forensics market?

–         How will it be ensured that the work of private companies and police forensics work will be to the  same standards as the FSS?

–         How can we be sure the existing FSS archives will be accessible to all companies involved in the forensics market?  And what will be incentive for working on cold cases?

–         What are the statistics on the amount and focus of R&D carried out by the private sector, the FSS and academic labs?

–         What will the future be of research into forensic science – will there be an incentive for private companies to invest in innovative research?

–         If the FSS has undergone substantial restructuring, should the Government provide greater opportunity to see if this process could make the FSS viable in the present market?

–         If forensics firms are driven by a desire to decrease costs, might that not have some impact upon accuracy of the results?

In conclusion

Damien Green:  “In the end, I think that what all our constituents will most care about is that the system continues in an efficient fashion.”

Should efficiency be the main criterion by which forensic science is appraised and driven  in the UK? And if there are other criteria involved, is abolishing the FSS the best way to meet them?

5 thoughts on “Debating the future of the Forensic Science Service

  1. they have no idea what disasters will follow the closure if the fss. they never gave the restructuring any chance to work. it hadn’t even begun so how can they say it didn’t work. it is the worst decision ever made by this government who are doomed to electoral failure after such a promising start the people who made the decision need to be named as they should be held to account for the downgrading of our cjs which will certainly follow in the years ahead.

  2. I have just read a piece in a recent issue of Research Fortnight about this. Was interested to learn that there are 5000 Forensic Science Grads every year (is this really possible?). However there are only 100 jobs going for them – what do the rest all do?

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