Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 4 of Session 2003-04, dated 27 January 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that any delay in forensic analysis can mean suspects being bailed, lead to charges being dropped or jeopardise court cases, and urged the Forensic Science Service to increase the speed with which it delivers services.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 4th Report of this Session, which examined the time taken by the Forensic Science Service (the Agency) to examine forensic evidence, communication with customers, and the implications of the Agency's transition to public-private partnership status. The Forensic Science Service is an executive agency of the Home Office, and provides forensic science services to the 43 police forces in England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service and HM Customs and Excise.

The Committee found that in the four years since the Committee last reported on the Agency, its timeliness performance has been disappointing, with the target for turnaround times missed in each successive year. The Agency should optimise the use and efficiency of its seven laboratories, exploiting its new operational management system and the removal of the Metropolitan Police Service's requirement that all its evidence should be dealt with at the London laboratory. A customer satisfaction survey by the Agency in 2002 indicated that one of the three top areas for concern was its failure to notify the police of delays in completing forensic analysis.

Currently DNA samples found at crime scenes wait 14 days for analysis, yet the analysis itself takes just 36 hours or less. The Agency intends to fully automate this process in the next three years. The analysis of DNA from suspects has been automated and the current turnaround time for such samples is just 3.5 days. The Agency should be in a position to demonstrate similar results through the automation of crime scene sample analysis.

The Agency does not receive regular feedback on the outcome of the cases in which it has been involved. The Agency should work with its partners in the criminal justice system-in particular the police and the courts-to learn the outcome of specific investigations and prosecutions. It should use this information to focus its resources on identifying any areas of weakness on meeting the needs of its customers case by case.

The Agency should develop a better understanding of the training needs of its customers and tailor its training more accurately to meet their requirements. As well as surveying course delegates, the Agency should for example analyse over time the evidence handling performance of those police forces which have and have not received training. With more relevant training in place, the Agency should encourage greater take up by police forces. It should, in particular, encourage all police Scene of Crime Officers to attend.

The Agency should publicise the impact of partnership projects with individual police forces across all forces and explore the feasibility of further initiatives. Projects such as the Burglary Reduction Initiative in Leeds and Safer Homes in the West Midlands have resulted in significant increases in criminal prosecutions and guilty verdicts, and reduced crime across the regions.

In considering plans for the future status of the Agency, the Home Office should obtain clear and robust analysis of the merits of different options, including the financial costs and benefits. In the event of public-private partnership status, the Home Office should specify how it will manage risks emanating from the separation of the forensic science service from the rest of the criminal justice system.

There will need to be adequate safeguards to protect the security and integrity of the National DNA Database, whatever form the Agency's future status takes. Access to and use of this sensitive information on over two million individuals needs to be carefully controlled. As the Home Office develops its plans for the Agency, it should identify and manage risks to the database including improper use of the data, for example for commercial purposes.

Mr Leigh said today:

"The work of the Forensic Science Service is increasingly important in criminal investigations and, indeed, in deterring crime. This makes the speed with which the Agency delivers services all the more worrying. Any delay in forensic analysis can mean suspects being bailed, lead to charges being dropped or jeopardise court cases. The Agency has missed targets every year since my Committee last looked into this. DNA samples, for example, wait on the shelf for two weeks before they are analysed, although the analysis itself takes less than a day and a half. The agency must turn around its performance in this regard, maximising the use and efficiency of its laboratories."

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