Joan Smith: Farming out forensic science is criminal

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Sherlock Holmes used a magnifying glass, while Hercule Poirot relied on his little grey cells.

Fortunately, modern detectives are able to solve crimes using forensic techniques that weren't even dreamt of in the golden age of crime fiction; thanks to TV drama series such as CSI, we're all aware of how the latest methods are being used to track down rapists and murderers. If you were unfortunate enough to become the victim of a serious crime in Britain today, you would assume that evidence which could identify the perpetrator would be collected and sent to a state-of-the-art forensic lab.

At present there's a good chance of that. The UK has a world-class Forensic Science Service (FSS), which handles 60 per cent of cases. The FSS pioneered the use of DNA in complex cases, invented the chemical that enables DNA profiling, and set up the world's first DNA database in 1995. It handles between 40,000 and 50,000 mouth swabs each month and can provide DNA matches from blood or mouth swabs in 10 hours.

Politicians know how much the public cares about crime, so you might think that the Government is proud that the country's police forces have access to this superb service. But you would be wrong: it's hell-bent on closing it down, a decision that's been condemned first by scientists and now by an influential committee of MPs. In a report published two days ago, they say bluntly that the proposed closure of the FSS in March next year poses a risk to ongoing criminal cases, cold-case reviews and "to justice in general".

The Metropolitan Police need labs and technicians who can do complex forensic work on 300 suspicious death investigations, 1,500 rapes and sexual assaults, and another 1,500 crimes of serious violence. From next spring, a similar search for experts will be going on at police HQs up and down the country, leading to a risk of having to use "largely unaccredited labs", according to the MPs. "We were shocked when conducting this inquiry at how little consideration the Government had given to the wider impacts of the FSS closure before making its decision," observes the damning report from the Commons Science and Technology Committee. New Scientist branded the closure plan "a shambles".

It certainly appears short-sighted. The FSS is "losing" £2m a month, but even in these cash-strapped times I'd have thought that's a price worth paying. I don't expect every publicly funded body to show a profit, and I suspect most people would be more interested in catching violent criminals than saving £24m a year. One eminent scientist, Sir Alec Jeffreys – the man who pioneered DNA fingerprinting at the University of Leicester – told MPs that closing the FSS was "potentially disastrous" for the future of forensic science in the UK.

It's not at all clear that there are sufficient commercial labs to take over the work of the FSS, and the financial imperatives of the private sector mean they're less likely to carry out research. The MPs' report calls for the closure to be delayed for at least six months, but the Government responded in typically high-handed fashion last week, claiming that ministers are confident of their ability to provide "continued high quality forensic services".

Do I feel a U-turn coming on? Victims of crime deserve better than this jaw-dropping piece of scientific vandalism: it's elementary, my dear Watson.

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