Estimates Day debate: the Forensic Science Service

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

We are where we are, and we must now make sure we go forward in the right direction.” – Julian Huppert MP.

Yesterday’s Parliamentary Estimates Day debates included a lengthy discussion about the Forensic Science Service (FSS) – which is currently in the final stages of its wind-down – based on the Science and Technology Committee report on which I have previously written in The Biochemist.

The full transcript is available online.

Conservative MP Michael Ellis made ground early on, making numerous statements defending the decision. He cited the losses being made (the levels of which are still disputed) and that commercial providers provide an excellent service, as regulated providers will continue to do so.

The debate soon turned though, as afternoon became evening and several critical voices were heard in the chamber. These raised numerous points about what needs to be monitored going forward – as Andrew Miller MP’s Science and Technology Committee promise to do, along with many other observers (including the press, should miscarriages of justice become apparent). Here is a selection of what was said last night:

Alan Campbell MP (Lab) (20:11):

This is a risky decision. I do not envy the Minister the decisions he has to take; I envy him his job, but not his difficult decisions. This is one decision, but what about all the other things happening across Government? What about the cuts in police numbers? What about the Justice Secretary’s acceptance that crime will inevitably rise in a recession? What about the changes to the rules on DNA that the Government are making in the Protection of Freedoms Bill? Add them together, and I am worried. Whatever the Minister’s motives, this is the wrong decision. I do not doubt that the Minister has gone to the nth degree to look at the issues, but I worry.

This is my final question: why is that instead of spending taxpayers’ money to get an FSS that is fit for purpose, we are spending the same amount of taxpayers’ money to end up with no FSS at the end of it all? It just does not make sense.

Julian Huppert MP (LD) (20:25):

One aspect of the Committee’s report causes me great concern. It involves the role of the chief scientific adviser, Professor Bernard Silverman. He was personally criticised in the report, and I very much regret that: I do not think that it was appropriate. I think that there is a problem with the way in which the Home Office looks at scientific advice, and with the seniority and the access that the chief scientific adviser is given in the Home Office. I have raised those points in the Committee with the chief scientific adviser, who has a slightly different perspective on the issue of the amount of access provided. I think that chief scientific advisers should sit on the boards of their Departments, and should have access to information enabling them to deal with any concerns at an early stage rather than waiting to be invited to comment. There is a problem across Government in regard to their role, and that means that there will be similar problems in a number of areas in which advice is sought too late in the process. I fear that the Minister will not be able to tackle that problem alone, and I hope that the Government as a whole will ensure that chief scientific advisers are given an important role.

… I think it essential for all chief scientific advisers to be provided with all the papers. The problem is how they can know what is going on, because some Departments are not as free with their information as others. I will not single out the Home Office in this instance, but I think it right for chief scientific advisers to have the information at an early stage. It is difficult to comment on things that you do not know about until it is too late.

Alan Slaughter MP (Lab) and Bob Stewart MP (Con) (20:37)
Slaughter:

… Given that other Government Members have constantly referred to the figure (the reported annual loss made by the FSS) —the £24 million, or the £12 million —I fear that the cost argument is the best the Government have. It is not a good argument, and it is not even very valid. As I said when I intervened on Michael Ellis, although not every piece of FSS work comes from the police services, the overwhelming majority of its work does. So what we are saying is that the FSS is subsidising police services at the moment.

Perhaps the police services have got a good deal. For example, if a particular police force negotiates a fixed fee with the FSS for complex cases and an hourly rate for simple matters, clearly that police service will have got a good deal, as it will get a fixed fee for important and complex cases with many pieces of evidence, and where it thinks that there is not much involved in a case, it will pay just for what it wants. If that is right, it may actually be the right way to do things, as it may take the pressure off the police in terms of not submitting items of evidence. If a police force was paying by the hour or for every piece of evidence, and a complex crime scene had 100 pieces of evidence to be submitted, it might think, “Do we really need to submit every piece of evidence?” Perhaps the police are not expert enough to make those decisions and the systems works well, even if it produces a notional deficit for the FSS.

If that is also right, and the service is running at a deficit now, will commercial companies be prepared to allow such a situation to continue? Will they not renegotiate contracts with police forces over time to ensure that they not only cover their costs but make a profit? At least one Government Member has said, “Good luck to forensic scientists if they go off and earn more money in the private sector.” If that is right, who is going to pay for it? If, instead of working in the FSS, former senior members of its staff are hiring themselves out as consultants at a substantial daily rate, that sum will be picked up by the police and by the taxpayer. The argument about finance really does not hold water.

Stewart:

I think we might also be losing the ability to have seriously world-beating research and development in FSS-type matters. That is what worries me; we must not lose that R and D ability. If we are going to change, things must be just as good as they were before. If they will not be, we should leave them as they are.

Slaughter:

I wholly agree, and I ask the Minister, even if he is going to rely on the argument about money, to balance that consideration against the opportunity cost—the risk of losing the services that the FSS provides, which are in some cases easily quantifiable but in others are intangible, in terms of both its archives and its research and development.

… We are also losing a service that has been respected around the world, and has built up its reputation over many years. It is irreplaceable.

An embattled James Brokenshire MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime and Security tried to defend the decision, as he has done so on a number of occasions now, saying “commercial forensic service providers have provided high-quality forensic science services for the criminal justice system for a number of years, and there is no reason why the closure of the FSS will reduce impartiality or affect the accuracy of their work.” But it was Huppert’s rational voice which made the most important point: “We are where we are, and we must now make sure we go forward in the right direction.”

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