Hundreds of murderers could escape justice for ever because of the Government's decision to disband Britain's "cold case" detection unit, experts warned last night.
British detectives are struggling with a growing backlog of more than 1,000 unsolved murder cases, figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday have revealed. But critics claim that their chances of catching many of the killers will be hindered by the cost-cutting proposals to shut down the Forensic Science Service (FSS) and pass its 120,000-case annual workload on to private laboratories.
Ministers have decided to disband the FSS, which has been losing £2m a month, by next March as part of their deficit-cutting plans. Allowing private companies to analyse crime-scene data – including DNA evidence and gunshot residues – for individual forces will jeopardise the future of the service's 1,600 staff.
But ministers have also been warned that the loss of FSS expertise could spell the end for thousands of cold cases lying on the files of police forces across the UK.
Neil Atkinson, of the National Victims' Association, said: "We are utterly dismayed. We represent those with most to lose – the families bereaved through murder. The British public needs to understand that, contrary to the propaganda of this and previous governments, victims of serious crime are on the periphery – not at the heart – of the criminal justice system."
The Labour MP Andrew Miller, chairman of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee, which published a scathing report on the Government's plans, said: "Cold-case reviews are at risk."
The threat is greatest in the most serious cases awaiting a breakthrough. The IoS has established that British police forces are sitting on a caseload of more than 1,100 unsolved murders, some dating back more than a century. The true total is likely to be much higher as most forces responding to freedom of information requests on the subject provided only details of cases from the past few decades.
The list of victims of killers who have so far evaded justice includes scores of pensioners and 11 babies. It also includes the children Ricky Neave and Genette Tate and the television presenter Jill Dando.
The vast majority are victims of crimes that have attracted little publicity and, as time passes, have less and less chance of being solved. Although the murder rate has fallen in the past decade – from 904 to 642 in England and Wales in the seven years up to 2010/11 – a hard core of unsolved crimes has remained stubbornly high.
Police insist they never give up on resolving all their cold cases, reviewing them regularly in the hope of a breakthrough, but they admit they are heavily dependent on FSS forensic experts. Dr Gill Tully, FSS head of research and development, said: "Many years can be saved and justice can be brought about more quickly and efficiently."
Keith Aris, whose 73-year-old mother, Connie, was battered to death in her Cheltenham home 26 years ago, has given up hope of seeing her killer brought to justice. "We still think about her a lot. Of course, I'm still looking for justice. We have to live with her death all the time. We are not happy about what the Government is doing."
Steve Thomas, of Prospect, the union that represents many FSS staff, warned that "thousands of years of expertise" could be lost if FSS staff are forced to leave the system.
The Crime and Security minister, James Brokenshire, said: "Our focus remains on providing continued high-quality forensic services to the justice system, now and in the future. We remain confident our plans for winding down the FSS will deliver this."
Additional reporting by Lucy Fisher