Shine A Light

A Crime against the British Justice System

Britain's top crime-solving body is soon to close. The state-owned Forensic Science Service is being sold off by the Coalition as part of its privatisation programme, despite warnings that the sale could compromise justice being done in Britain

Oliver Huitson
4 July 2011

A crime against our justice system is about to be committed. In dismantling one of the best crime solving bodies in the world, the government is critically undermining one of the few areas where Britain genuinely excels: patient, clinical detective work. As part of the government’s extensive privatisation drive, our Forensic Science Service, the FSS, is to be closed down.


David Cameron recently claimed that U-turns are a sign of strong government. On the sale of the Forensic Science Service, a damning new report from the Science and Technology Committee paints a familiar picture of Coalition policy-making: rushed, poorly thought through and failing to properly consider evidence. In light of the report’s findings, another show of “strength and confidence” from the Prime Minister may be in order.

The FSS, currently state-owned, provides essential analysis and expertise on crime scenes and has helped secure a number of high-profile convictions. The service employs over 1,600 people and deals with more than 120,000 cases each year. The Coalition insists the service must be sold off as it is currently run at a loss of “£2m a month”, though it has reportedly allocated £70m to cover the cost of closure. Private providers, it claims, will expand to fill the gap; they are already responsible for 40% of forensic work. But in what is now becoming routine, the proposals have been met with consternation from those working in field, the regulator and now a cross-bench committee of MPs.

Last year, 33 international forensic scientists co-signed a letter to the Times pleading with the government to reconsider. The sell-off, they argue, would represent a “backward step” for a world-leading institution. Joseph Bono, America’s leading forensic scientist, later wrote to Theresa May warning that such a move would have “serious repercussions” and could “compromise justice” for people in Britain. Pressure continued to build in April when the current forensic science regulator, Andrew Rennison, expressed serious concerns with the proposals, claiming they would “undoubtedly” dent Britain’s reputation in the area. 

Yet a new report from the Science and Technology committee is, if anything, even more damning. Not only does it raise serious questions about the proposed wind-down of the FSS, it highlights a recklessness that has become the defining feature of this government.

The report’s findings on the benefits of marketising forensic science should give Andrew Lansley some pause for thought. The closure of the FSS will complete the privatisation process that Labour started. Prospect, the body that represents over a thousand staff at FSS, has cited the initial move from a public service to a government owned company (GovCo) as a key factor in their current predicament: a “failed experiment”. It describes the FSS’s current financial problems as entirely a consequence of previous decisions to contract out an essential public service”. 

Echoing criticisms of the continuing marketisation of the NHS, it seems that ‘cherry-picking’ is already a reality within the forensic science market. According to Andrea Grout, a forensic scientist at the FSS,

“Private sector providers have however carefully selected only profitable areas of forensic science, and left specialist, costly disciplines to [the] FSS [which has]therefore suffered financially where other private companies may seem to have succeeded. Clearly, overall forensic science is not a profitable or sustainable business arena. It is an essential service… its sole function: to contribute toward a successful criminal justice system

With the FSS gone it is not clear who will carry out this crucial but expensive work. Assuming the private sector even has the capability to undertake it, the expansion will put pressure on already thin profit margins. Indeed, margins are already so thin that “two of the major forensic companies in the market have either been close to pulling the plug on their forensic division or going into insolvency” (FSS employee). Competing against “inefficient” public bodies is not easy. But with the public provider removed prices may well begin to rise; markets must be made “attractive” to the private sector, not to the taxpayer.

Casting doubt on proposed timescales for the wind-down, the report expresses grave concerns over who will pick up the extra workload. Private companies currently cover 40% of the market; they would need to upscale by 150% in under a year. As to their ability to meet these deadlines - they were not even asked. The MPs found to their dismay that the government had failed to consult either the private providers, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office or the Forensic Science Regulator.

And the problems don’t end there. The “elephant in the room” is the insourcing of forensic work by the police service, often to unaccredited labs. In transferring work in-house, the police have steadily corroded the external forensics market. Potential issues of bias will surely arise if the police are investigating their own wrongdoings - the shooting of unarmed suspects, for example. Not only is there concern over bias and public perceptions, but also accreditation:

“Currently virtually no forensic work, and none of the limited forensic research done by police forces is accredited to recognised quality standards…” (Dr Steven Baker, FSS Employee) 

Nor will these standards be met in time for the March 2012 handover. It appears that much of our current forensic work will be moved from a world renowned public institution to unaccredited police laboratories.

It also remains unclear what will happen to the extensive archives maintained and utilised by the FSS.  There simply isn’t a commercial solution.

On research and development, again MPs find the sell-off likely to be damaging; compared to its private competitors, the FSS spends far more on research. And again, the report finds the government had not even considered the issue: “no formal assessment was made of the impact [on] forensic science R&D”. Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Committee, says this was a consistent theme throughout:

“We were shocked when conducting this inquiry at how little consideration the government had given to the wider impacts of the FSS closure before making its decision.”

Serious questions must be asked about the Coalition’s blitzkrieg approach to policy making. Time and again they attempt to rush through sweeping sell-offs without due respect for evidence and consultation. Based on misleading financial figures and poor understanding of the field, they are selling off a crucial public asset and jeopardising the integrity of the British justice system.

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