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MPs scathing over plans to close Forensic Science Service

The government’s decision to close the Forensic Science Service was too hasty and sidelined the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has said.

In a report published on 1 July, MPs said they were shocked at how little consideration the government had given to the wider impacts of closing the service.

In December 2010 the government announced its intention to disband the national service, which it said was losing some £2 million a month, and hand responsibility to private contractors by March 2012.

According to the committee, the government failed to consider the impact on forensic science R&D, as well as whether private providers would be able to fill the gap left by the service’s closure.

“These considerations appear to have been hastily overlooked in favour of the financial bottom line,” said the committee in a statement.

The committee also questioned why the Home Office chief scientific adviser, Bernard Silverman, was excluded from the decision-making process.

“That says volumes about its attitude to science,” said the committee’s chairman, Labour MP Andrew Miller, in a statement. “But more worryingly, the Chief Scientific Adviser’s acceptance of his exclusion raises questions about his effectiveness within the Home Office.”

In a report published by the Home Office on 30 June, Silverman said that forensic science would not suffer from the FSS’s closure. He noted that there was a wide range of forensic R&D in the UK, carried out by forensic science providers, government laboratories, and universities.

But today’s report warns that although some private forensic science providers engage in R&D “it is probably unreasonable to expect private companies to increase their investment in some areas of forensic science research, particularly in fundamental research, at a time of market uncertainty.

“Although we are hesitant to call for increased research funding in the current economic climate, the case for increased public funding specifically for forensic science research is compelling,” reads the report. The Home Office and Research Councils should develop a new national research budget for forensic science, it adds.

The committee is urging the government to extend the deadline by at least six months in order to consult on and determine a “wider strategy” for forensic advice.

The report suggests that the FSS’s dire financial position arose from the shrinking forensics market, driven by increasing police in-sourcing of forensic science services, and a procurement framework that drove down prices and did not adequately recognise the value of forensic services.

“The elephant in the room was police in-sourcing to largely unaccredited labs which had been eroding the market away from the FSS and private providers,” added Miller.

Last year the FSS delivered around 60 per cent of forensic services to police forces in England and Wales.

While winding down the service, transferring work to non-accredited police or private laboratories would be “highly undesirable, posing significant and unacceptable risks to criminal justice”, added the committee.

The union Prospect has gone further than the committee, calling on 1 July for the government to scrap the plans altogether.

Meanwhile, the Home Office Select Committee has announced plans to carry out a one-off evidence session to examine the role of the Home Office chief scientific adviser.

During the session on 5 July, MPs will ask Bernard Silverman about his role, his influence on policymaking and the level of support for science and innovation within the department.