Closure of forensics 'will dent UK reputation'

The UK's standing among the best in the world in forensics will be dented by the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), a watchdog said today.

Andrew Rennison, the forensic science regulator, said the FSS represented the UK on the international stage and the country's reputation would "undoubtedly" be dented when it is closed next spring.

But Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire denied that outsourcing forensics work to police forces and the private sector would lead to more murderers and rapists escaping justice.

Mr Rennison said: "I think it will be dented. If you close the FSS, which has represented the UK on the international stage, of course it will be dented.

"But there are plenty of other companies who do plenty of good research."

Giving evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Mr Rennison also called for statutory powers to help him regulate standards in police laboratories and elsewhere.

Many laboratories currently fall short of accepted standards and a series of risk assessments will take place in the "very near future" to decide whether any of the work should be stopped immediately.

"As I engage more and more with some police forces I'm beginning to realise the need to have more muscle behind me to enforce some of this," he said.

Mr Rennison went on: "There's a real risk of taking work out of (the FSS-accredited environment) into a non-accredited environment.

"You can't inoculate against failures, but you can manage the risk.

"If you then take that work into a non-accredited environment the risk shoots to high, but the impact is very high because you haven't got a leg to stand on."

As a result, the forensics work will be moved to "similarly accredited environments" - to laboratories with a similar broad spectrum of accreditations, even if "some tricky decisions" may be needed as some of the laboratories might not be accredited for a specific method, he said.

Mr Rennison added: "I think the trick for us nowadays is to take a long hard look at how modern forensic science works and how we should be providing it.

"I think we are at risk internationally of wasting time and money if we don't collaborate. They're researching exactly the same issues we're researching."

Professor Bernard Silverman, the chief scientific adviser at the Home Office, added that his review of research and development in forensic sciences would show that more collaboration and communication was needed.

The review, due to be presented to ministers by the end of the month, would show "there needs to be more of a concerted, joined-up feel to the forensic science community", he said.

"It could actually punch harder and find commercial opportunities that it does not at the moment."

Asked by Labour MP Graham Stringer if police forces had turned from customers of the FSS to its competitors, taking the work "in-house without proper quality control", Mr Brokenshire said the forensic regulator was working with forces and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) "to ensure the quality is there".

"Of course I am concerned to ensure that appropriate quality is maintained," Mr Brokenshire said.

He added he was "certainly prepared to consider" giving the regulator statutory powers.

And asked about fears that the changes would mean cold cases would not be investigated and the wrong conclusions would be reached in current cases, Mr Brokenshire said: "Absolutely not.

"There is no reason to suggest that private sector providers will not be able to deliver."