Forensic service to close in 2012

C&I Issue 1, 2011

The UK’s world renowned Forensic Science Service (FSS) is to close its doors with the loss of 1600 jobs. The service, which made its name pioneering low copy number DNA analyses and controversial DNA databases, will be wound up in 2012. The closure is part of the UK coalition government’s drive to divest itself of publicly-owned companies.

Niamh Nic Daeid, a reader in forensic chemistry at the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde, UK, says that the FSS is ‘very well respected worldwide’ and criticises the Home Office decision as short sighted. The closure could potentially have implications for the delivery of justice in the UK, she warns.

The decision was announced by James Brokenshire, the government minister for crime reduction, who said that the FSS is no longer economically viable, as more police services are taking forensic work in-house. The government has warned that the commercial market is no longer sufficient to support the FSS and that it may run out of money as early as January 2011. The FSS has seven labs across the country, which will now be sold off. In a written ministerial statement, Brokenshire told the House of Commons: ‘We want to see the UK forensic science industry operating as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost. This will preserve police resources and maximise the positive impact forensic sciences can have on tackling crime.’

Sue Black, professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology at Dundee University, UK, says that it was common knowledge in industry circles that the FSS was in financial difficulty. ‘However, the sudden announcement today from the government places the UK in a difficult and delicate predicament,’ she says. ‘With an apparent lack of general consultation to staff and stakeholders, it is safe to say that the process has not been well handled and may even irreparably damage the UK’s reputation.’ Communication with staff was poor and some found out that the FSS was to close as the statement was read out to the Commons. The FSS is making a loss of £2m/month and is £68m in the red.

The Prospect trades union, which represents more than 1000 forensic scientists working at the FSS, said that the closure would ‘make a mockery of the criminal justice system by denuding it of impartial, independent advice’. In a statement, Mike Clancy, Prospect deputy general secretary, warned the government against handing DNA databases over to private companies. ‘We have yet to hear what measures will be put in place to guard against the improper use of DNA data for commercial purposes, ensure police impartiality or guarantee the stability of the UK forensics market, given that many private sector contractors are struggling financially.’

The loss of the FSS will be a blow to forensic scientists across the country. The FSS has supported the forensic science research community for many years. Nic Daeid says that the FSS has been a proving ground for many new techniques and a question mark hangs over how, or if, other private companies will engage with fundamental forensic related research or validate pioneering analyses that the service made its name doing. ‘Closure of the FSS may mean the loss of a proving ground for up-and-coming techniques,’ she warns.

‘The suggestion is that forensic science provision will be largely reclaimed back into the cash strapped police forces and with over 50 forces in the UK, we run the risk of developing a patchwork quilt approach, which cannot be the best servant for justice,’ says Black. She cautions that some police services may not have the cash to spend on all the forensic technologies currently deployed by the FSS.

The closure of the service brings to an end more than 70 years of forensic science by the FSS. The service can trace its roots back to the 1930s when Arthur Dixon, a police reformer, envisaged a service that would collect and catalogue evidence and use the scientific method to investigate crime. The FSS has had a hand in the development of many of the forensic techniques that are now commonplace, including DNA fingerprinting and a shoe footprint database.

Of the 1600 employees being made redundant some will find work in the emerging police forensic laboratories or private companies. Recently, some police forces have chosen to set up their own forensic laboratories, partially out of economic necessity, says Nic Daeid. However, she suggests that there are ‘significant concerns’ about these labs and their capability to deliver accredited, top quality forensic analyses. While the FSS is regulated to ensure all lab work is up to quality standards, there is still uncertainty about whether the police labs will be audited in the same way. ‘We run the risk of a piecemeal service – the bottom line [of forensic science] is in the service of justice and that has to be of greatest concern.’

Black says that it is imperative that forensic research does not become solely driven by economic and financial incentives. ‘I am fearful though for future research and development and I regret that today we may just have taken a very significant stride backwards,’ she adds. ‘These are troubling times for justice.’

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