Thu, 16 Dec 2010

Government owned DNA forensic lab to be closed down

Forensic Science Service (FSS), a GovCo wholly owned by the government and a key player in DNA profiling, is running out of cash and is to be wound down. Home Office minister James Brokenshire delivered this news in a written statement on Tuesday:

Despite this intervention and the commitment of the current management team, the current challenging forensics market has put the FSS back into serious financial difficulty. FSS is currently making operating losses of around £2 million per month. Its cash is due to run out as early as January next year. It is vital that we take clear and decisive action to sort this out.

The police have advised us that their spend on external forensic suppliers will continue to fall over the next few years, as forces seek to maximise efficiencies in this area. HMIC concurs with this assessment.

We have therefore decided to support the wind down of FSS, transferring or selling off as much of its operations as possible. We will work with FSS management and staff, ACPO, and other suppliers to ensure an orderly transition, but our firm ambition is that there will be no continuing state interest in a forensics provider by March 2012.

The National Police Improvement Agency, which took over the role of custodian of the National DNA Database from FSS, lists Eurofins Genetic Services, FSS, LGC Forensics, and Orchid Cellmark as forensic service providers for analysing and handling DNA samples taken from individuals on arrest. To deal with DNA recovered from crime scenes, agreements were negotiated with the same four companies plus Key Forensic Services. The contract for the supply of DNA sampling kits had been awarded to the FSS.

James Brokenshire closed his written statement by indicating, 'We want to see the UK forensic science industry operating as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost.' That would appear to indicate that the remaining providers will get the work that was done by the FSS, however the extract included above clearly states that the police expect to reduce their spend on external forensic suppliers. If the plan is to make these savings on DNA forensic services, this could mean either analysing fewer DNA samples and/or not using external companies in some instances.

Two hypotheses: fewer samples and avoiding external forensic suppliers

Let's look at the first hypothesis. The government has stated its intention to adopt the Scottish model. This will reduce storage cost by limiting retention, but getting rid of a few freezers should only make a modest cost reduction. What would make a much bigger difference would be not to take as many DNA samples in the first place, however current official plans are still to take DNA samples at arrest. Unless the police intend not make as many arrests, the cost of sampling and analysing DNA of arrestees should remain of the same order of magnitude. Another way to reduce cost would be to collect or analyse fewer DNA samples from crime scenes (as at 30 September, 366,755 crime scene sample profiles on the National DNA Database had been submitted by police forces in England and Wales.) That would be a really bad idea as the effectiveness of forensic DNA is directly related to how many DNA samples from crime scenes are loaded.

As for the second hypothesis, it is possible that some police forces are looking into having their own DNA forensic lab. Other forensic work done in-house has brought savings and may be considered a model to emulate:

Two police officers from, Gloucestershire, UK whose forensic examination of mobile phones saved the force around a third of a million pounds have received a prestigious award. DC Adrian Stratton and PC John Loveridge were presented with the Richard Somers Award in recognition of their work interrogating the devices. [...]

Supt Bridget Woodhall, who nominated them, said earlier: "Analysis of mobile phone data is now a key part of evidence gathering - particularly in cases involving the exchange or sale of drugs.

"Thanks to the work of these officers the monetary savings are plain to see, but there are hidden benefits such as quicker results, shorter bail dates for the more serious offences, and the potential to extract a wealth of new of intelligence."

If some DNA analysis was done in police labs, independence of the police technicians from the investigating detectives would be both essential and difficult to monitor.

The ministerial announcement leaves several questions open, none of which seems to have even been asked in the many press articles covering this news.

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