The decision to close the Forensic Science Service has sparked a debate about the future of scientific sleuthing in England and Wales. Crime Correspondent Mark Cowan examines some of the possible threats of losing the pioneering organisation.
The Government-owned Forensic Science Service that has pioneered DNA crime fighting technology is on the verge of another breakthrough as it faces the axe over its finances.
It is understood the new technology will help improve the way genetic profiles are obtained from old or degraded samples.
Forensic scientists have remained tight-lipped about the advance, possibly because of its commercial value, but it is thought it could help in examining so-called cold cases, according to union Prospect.
The breakthrough comes as the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which has its headquarters in Solihull, faces being wound up in the next year, a decision that has sparked outrage among scientists and criminologists.
When Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire announced last December that it was to wind up the FSS, its case was pure economics, the service was losing £2 million a month and its cash was due to run out within weeks.
Union leaders disputed the losses and said, even if it were accurate, they did not view it as a “loss” but a cost to the criminal justice system of ensuring fairness and impartiality.
To understand the position the FSS finds itself, one must look back into its recent history.
The organisation was, for years, the primary provider of forensic analysis of evidence to police.
In 2005 the FSS was turned into a Government company as part of a move to encourage competition in the market which had a small number of private providers. Critics now argue that the ‘market’ did not develop as first thought. In the past year, it is estimated that the value of the forensics market dropped from £170million to £110million as police forces developed their own in-house expertise and reduced the number of submissions.
But what are the dangers to crime fighting in the UK if the FSS disappears?
There are the obvious job losses, but Prospect union, which represents 1,000 members in the FSS, argues the consequences are more fundamental.
The FSS has been responsible for every leap forward made in DNA crime fighting technology since Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered genetic fingerprinting in 1984.
The FSS pioneered the development and implementation of DNA profiling technologies and developed ways to extract evidence from smaller, older or degraded material, paving the way for the world’s first DNA Database in April 1995.
There are fears that while the private sector will carry out routine analysis that can be charged for, it cannot be relied upon to continue ground-breaking research that would eat into profits.
In its submission to the Science and Technology Select committee, Prospect argued: “If we allow regulation and research to be carried out by business only, there can be no faith in the results due to bias and no research without a guaranteed commercial output.”
Prof Jeffreys, in a letter to New Scientist magazine, added: “Providing access to the best forensic expertise will always be a drain on the public purse.
“Government comments that the FSS is losing money reveal an unimaginative bean-counting mentality and an inability to understand how forensic science progresses.”
Then there are questions of impartiality, with critics expressing it could be eroded because of competing pressures of profit and value for money.
In the US capital Washington DC, there is a plan to take control of the city’s forensics labs away from police and create an independent department – the reverse of what is happening in the UK – with the aim of creating higher standards, fewer errors and more reliable findings.
Politicians argue it is more credible to have police collect evidence and have independent qualified scientists analyse it and testify.
Criminologist Prof David Wilson, from Birmingham City University, said: “It is always a concern when something that isn’t broken is supposedly being fixed.
“The FSS does a fundamental job. I know of very few cases in which a prisoner or offender is claiming a miscarriage of justice on forensic evidence.
“That is opposed to some criminal justice jurisdictions in the US where there are problems of junk forensic science. We don’t have these kinds of problems in this country.”
Experts have also expressed fears of fragmentation if different forensic providers analyse individual pieces of evidence without ever seeing the full picture.
Giving evidence to the Science and Technology Select committee, the FSS’s research and development manager Dr Gillian Tully said scientists would approach the case like a puzzle and look at what they would expect to find based on a series of possible outcomes.
She cited an unnamed gang stabbing where scientists were asked to analyse swabs taken by an in-house police lab to determine the DNA profiles.
That work resulted in some of the accused being convicted. Others went to retrial and the case came back to an FSS scientist who found a very fine spray of blood on a suspect’s clothing.
She said: “Not only was the DNA a match with the victim, but the important thing was the pattern of the spray of that blood. Because our scientist was able to put it into the context that he must have been very close to the victim at the time of the attack, he got a longer sentence than the other gang members.”
But perhaps the biggest fear is what will happen to the FSS archives of evidence from more than 1.5 million archives case files, containing notes, examination records, test results and, most importantly, evidence that does not exist anywhere else.
Following scientific advancements, experts have been able to go back to these records and develop profiles of suspects.
In recent years, police have cleared up previously unsolved cases, including historic sex crimes.
An operation with West Midlands Police seven years ago led to a number of convictions for some of the most horrific sex attacks in the region over a 20-year period.
Alan Organ, branch president for the FSS in Birmingham, said the ethos among scientists was that the forensic science within the criminal justice system should be done without a profit motive.
“One key thing that emerged from the science and technology committee was the talk of police being the customer of forensic science providers.
“Shouldn’t the jury be the real customer?” he said.
“The scientists have dedicated their life to finding people guilty or innocent.
“Their morale is not good, but there are a lot of dedicated people working here. They remain dedicated to working for the cause of criminal justice.”
Police chiefs working on the winding down of the FSS said the situation was far from gloomy.
West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims, lead on forensics for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “We are working hard to make sure we don’t lose that edge in terms of forensic science and research and development.
“There are other ways to deliver that, whether through private providers or police facilities.
“There will still be providers who deliver the full range of forensic services.
“It may be that other providers enter the market or some forces will enter, possibly delivering more of a service than they currently do.
“We will end up with a mix of arrangements to fill the gap that the FSS leaves.”
He said some FSS facilities could end up being taken over by private providers – West Midlands Police itself is to recruit four scientists from the FSS as part of plans to take more work in-house – and predicted that more research would be carried out by academics.
“We are not about to lose our ability to do serious forensic science,” he added.