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Conviction for serious crimes ‘less likely’ following FSS closure

The closure of the Forensic Science Service has reduced the expertise available to convict perpetrators of serious crimes, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard on 30 January.

Speaking at an evidence session, Gill Tully, a consultant at the Principal Forensic Services Ltd and a former FSS scientist, said that while the closure was not the sole cause of this development, it meant it was likely that evidence would not be analysed as completely, or in the right context,

“There will be cases of people not being convicted … that would always have happened but with continuing cuts and instability it is more likely to happen,” she said.

Tully’s comments were in response to a question from the committee’s chairman Andrew Miller (Labour). Miller had asked her if the FSS closure meant that those who had committed serious crimes were less likely to be convicted.

The FSS was closed in March 2012, with work being taken on by in-house police laboratories and private firms. However, Tully said there was still “major swings” of market share within the private firms and uncertainty about in-house provision. “Maybe there is a strategy [from government], but it’s not clear to anyone who’s out there.”

She also said the procurement system is set up only to buy tests, but that forensic evidence needs a level of specialist interpretation and must be analysed within the context of a case. Similar concerns were raised by Helen Kenny of the trade union Prospect, which represents the around 1,000 scientists who worked at the FSS.

In its written evidence to the inquiry, Prospect said that splitting the work between providers without interpretation by one person “ultimately … means that the court is left to make this evaluation itself, which carries high risks. Put simply, courts will not be able to tell that a fuller job could have been done.”

Tully also said that the closure meant a number of specialist analytical roles had been lost, of which the fact the FSS was the only provider with the ability to approve new devices for drug analysis was an example.

She added that “more experienced and expensive” people had left, and that employment numbers “can be misleading”. Of the London toxicology team, she noted that eight remained in the profession, but a further 14—with a combined 240 years of experience—had left.

Similarly, Prospect’s written evidence concluded that only 30 per cent of its members are still working in forensic science. It says “anecdotal evidence” suggests that only around 10 per cent of FSS staff have been employed by private forensic providers and that “overall capacity” in the field appears to have since been lost.

The third witness at the session, Alison Fendley, the executive director of the Forensic Archive Ltd, which was set up to collate forensic evidence, said that the archive hoped to have catalogued all the 45 million items within a year. However, she said, it would “never be self sustaining” and required £2 million a year funding from the Home Office. A number of options would be floated regarding its future in a review in 2015, she said.

Discussing the field of forensic science R&D in general, Tully concluded that it was in a “dire” state. She said this was largely because of insufficient funding, rather than the closure of the FSS. She said that data collation work, which is neither “academically challenging” nor gives a good return on investment for businesses, but which improved reporting of forensic science in courts, was an area of particular concern.