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.
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.
… 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.
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.
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.”
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
With discontent still surrounding the imminent transfer of all the Forensic Science Service’s (FSS) work to private providers and the police, one potential (emphasis on potential) silver lining is the extra attention research has been given in the inquiry.
The FSS previously spent £3-4 million per year on research and development, a significant hole which now needs to be filled for the sake of our justice system and competetiveness in this area. Furthermore, commercial forensic service providers have less incentive than the publicly funded FSS to conduct original research, particularly at a time when they need to rapidly expand their scientific services to shoulder the extra work they must now take on. To counter this, there are now growing calls for forensic science research to be incentivised within the public funding framework; by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).
In December, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held an evidence session at which they questioned Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Home Office, on this issue. Professor Silverman spoke positively and said that he was undertaking discussions with the three aforementioned funders. With the FSS gone, the Home Office may no longer be seen as the ‘home’ of forensic science research, creating an onus on these three, who receive their funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. And, as Professor Jim Fraser, Director of the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde, said in his submission to the original inquiry: “The research councils talk a great deal about the ‘impact of research’. What could be more impactive than criminal justice?”
Whilst the Research Councils will not make forensic science an immediate ‘strategic priority’, Professor Silverman was enthusiastic that they are taking steps to stress the importance of research in this area. Continued political pressure will help them “rise to the challenge” (Silverman) and encourage innovative research in universities, for which they can be rewarded through the Research Excellence Framework.
Whilst it would be foolish to expect all the FSS’ research and development practises to be continued, this may well provide an opportunity for new, innovative and collaborative research to fill this gap.
Also attending the Science and Technology Committee evidence session were James Brokenshire MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Prevention) and Andrew Rennison (Forensic Science Regulator). Other items under discussion included the FSS archive and the creation of a new strategic group, which is expected to meet for the first time in April. An uncorrected transcript can be found here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/uc1698-i/uc169801.htm
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Science and Technology Committee to keep close eye on FSS wind-down
I’ve been reading through the Government’s response to July’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report into the wind-down of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which was published yesterday. On balance it is quite dismissive of the report, which strongly criticised the decision, with a couple of caveats (see the end of this post).
In short, it is clear that the commercial side of the decision remains at the forefront of the issue for those wielding the power. As Andrew Miller MP, chair of the committee, said yesterday: “It is disappointing that the Home Office has failed to recognise that the decision to close the FSS should not have been taken purely on commercial and legal grounds, but also on scientific grounds.” The Government states in its response that is not the role of the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) or Home Office Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA, Professor Bernard Silverman) to give legal or commercial advice, and they reject criticism of Silverman’s role. But what about their scientific expertise? And even if it had been appropriate to announce a closure on these grounds alone, surely their expert opinions would have been useful?
Subsequent comments about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), with regards to the retention of forensic scientists within the profession and the UK – “We fully expect that the obligations arising from [TUPE Regulations] will be met… Ultimately police authorities hold these contracts” – bring to mind (perhaps unfairly) a quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger when asked about the environment early on in his governance of California. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. In the report, the Government do promise to report back to the Science and Technology Committee on the impacts of the closure on FSS staff next June. The time for judgement will be then.
The final point I find particularly interesting is that in their report, the Science and Technology Committee highlighted that there may be a problem with the Home Office’s use of scientific evidence in policy making. In their response, the Government denies this, citing positive messages in the Government Office for Science- Science Review of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, from 2007. But taking a closer look at this document, it also states several reservations regarding the Home Office, including that the CSA has no seat on the management board. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently pointed out (although the Home Office does fairly well in CaSE’s brief snapshot), this is still the case.
It isn’t all bad news. The response is positive in terms of ensuring the retention and continued operation of the FSS archive system (although the government has not revealed its long-term solution, noting that options are under consideration), and that forensic research and development should be established as a strategic research priority for the Research Councils. For the many other implications, we’ll have to see how private forensic service providers and newly (or soon to be) accredited police forensic departments adapt when the dust fully settles. Miller isn’t convinced that things wont go awry, stating: “I will be asking the committee to keep a close eye on the transition as I still fear that the forensic science research base and criminal justice system could be jeopardised if the Minister’s optimism is ill founded.” These are still worrying and uncertain times.
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:
- 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”
- “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….”
- 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
“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
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
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
- 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?
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?