A cost to quality

Angela SmithAngela Smith on the government’s scrapping of the Forensic Science Service

Nobody gets everything right.  No government can ever say it never makes mistakes. But when the evidence is so clear that a policy has failed it’s time to think again.

So, for a government that claims to be committed to law and order, the cutting of 15,000 police officers by 2015 is shocking. But Ministers boast that crime is falling – the only measure that appears to be of interest to them. Of course it’s important, and if it’s genuine crime reduction then it’s welcome. But the more important test is how many criminals are being brought to justice and how many crimes are detected.

The facts are that 60,000 fewer crimes were solved this year than in the previous year.

When I pressed the Coalition’s Home Office Minister in the Lords about the government’s assessment of crime detection he appeared to say they didn’t hold that information – just information on crimes committed. So why are fewer crimes being solved and why isn’t the Government more concerned?

A key part of bringing criminals to justice is still forensic evidence. Yet, evidence and information is emerging of delays in getting the results of forensic tests, of further delays in ensuring that legal advisors have the information, and questions over the variable quality of the scientific evidence provided. The government must therefore revisit its scrapping of the national Forensic Science Service (FSS), which when abolished in 2010 led to widespread shock and condemnation.  

As a wholly owned government company, the FSS had an enviable worldwide reputation. Its evidence was crucial in securing convictions for serious and violent crimes. But budget cuts led to police forces having less money available to use it, and they increasingly looked to cheaper options. 

Despite police in England and Wales spending £170 million a year on forensic services, the moves to save money led the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to express shock that this was leading to the use of unaccredited laboratories. MPs urged Ministers to take urgent action to stabilise the position and devise a sensible strategy for forensic science and research; and in doing so, protect the quality of the service.  

The last Labour government had invested £50 million in the FSS in 2009, but the Coalition considered the only way to deal with the financial losses now being made was to wind it up. Issues raised by the FSS were not addressed by the government, with no alternatives proposed. The Science and Technology Committee said transferring forensic work to non-accredited laboratories posed significant and unacceptable risks to criminal justice. Meanwhile the Prospect trade union, representing professional FSS staff, stated: “cost will now determine justice in the UK.  The Government is putting its faith in an untested market ... when it has never been more important to the detection of crime”.

With police forces spending millions each year on forensic testing, doesn’t the public and victims of crime deserve good quality evidence and value for money?

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the Lords

Published 14th March 2013

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