For more than 30 years it appeared that David Tait, a career criminal, had escaped justice for a violent sex attack on a woman inside her flat.
The victim woke up at home in Wakefield in August 1984 to find Tait, now 56 and a serial convicted burglar, had broken in and was lying on top of her. During a struggle, Tait stabbed her in the chest before she was able to shake herself free and escape with her baby son.
Tait – who went on to serve numerous prison terms for unrelated crimes – could not be linked to that attack until a new technique developed by Britain’s largest private forensics provider was able to unravel the DNA of several people found on two knives linked to the crime.
The investigation was reopened last year by a cold case team at West Yorkshire police and resulted in the jailing of Tait this month for 13 years in a timely private-sector riposte to claims that research and innovation was being stifled by outsourcing.
The technology was part of an annual £3.4m research budget that private provider LGC detailed in a 2013 report to MPs investigating the state of forensics. But the MPs warned that with budget cuts and decreased spending on scientific testing, forensic companies “may not be willing to invest further in a shrinking market”.
The National Audit Office also warned last year of potential dangers of miscarriages of justice following the closure of the loss-making, state-run Forensic Science Service (FSS) in 2012, which shifted the burden of scientific testing on to police forces and the private sector. The Government has forecast that spending on forensics will fall from £170m in 2009 to £110m this year because of budget cuts, reduced use by police of costly forensic tests, and the impact of falling crime in areas such as burglary and car theft.
The development of the technique that snared Tait was started by scientists at the FSS before being bought and taken on by LGC, which has the biggest share of the private market dominated by three companies.
Experts say there is a danger that the forensics industry could be thrown into chaos if one of them pulls out. One small firm, which examined evidence from fibres, has gone out of business.
LGC owners, private equity firm Bridgepoint, denied reports this summer that it was planning to sell the group, which carries out a wide range of scientific research for food and drugs testing.
Professor Martin Evison, director of Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science, said: “It [the market] is working, however it entails a significant degree of risk that one of the major providers might decide that it’s not worth their while to stay in the game.”
LGC cut up to 170 jobs in a first round of government austerity cuts to policing as part of a 30 per cent cost-cutting exercise. Its commercial director, Dr Mark Pearse – who used to work at the FSS – said: “I’m more positive than I have ever been in forensics, bizarrely given the impending axe about to fall on policing. We’re innovating left, right and centre.”
The private sector has announced breakthroughs in the rapid testing of DNA, used by one of LGC’s competitors, Key Forensics, to clear a rape suspect in about three hours. That technology was bought in from the US. LGC is piloting a 75-minute forensic testing kit for police to take to crime scenes. But Professor Peter Gill, the pioneer of mass genetic profiling and critic of the FSS closure, claimed that Britain was falling behind in developing new uses for DNA scientific advances.
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