Forensic Science Services

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 24 October 2011.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:15, 24 October 2011

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the pressure and backlog in Forensic Science Northern Ireland; further notes the cuts to the Forensic Science Service on the UK mainland and the impact that this is having on Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Justice to provide the necessary resources to ensure that cases requiring forensics are processed efficiently.

I will give a brief outline of the history of the motion. On 14 December 2010, the Home Office announced that it will close the Forensic Science Service (FSS) and wind it up by March 2012. The Forensic Science Service has been fully owned by government since December 2005, and it has analysed and interpreted crime scene evidence for the criminal justice system since 1999. The reason for its closure was that the government-owned company was operating at a loss of around £2 million a month. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, James Brokenshire, told the House of Commons on 14 December 2010 that FSS continued to operate under uncompetitive terms and conditions, as well as expanding its workforce between 1999 and 2003 when funds were short. That was undertaken without bringing down the cost base towards a level where FSS would be able to compete with commercial rivals.

Over that time, we have seen the number of FSS rivals increase, and many have been established by former FSS members of staff. Those private firms have taken a market share from the former state-run monopoly.

To date, the survival of FSS has been dependent on government loans, which FSS has been unable to repay, resulting in a substantial loss to the public purse. The closure of FSS will ultimately place additional pressure on private sector companies to fill the void left.

Forensic science is used for the purpose of the law. It encompasses a range of disciplines, and although forensic science typically analyses DNA, hair fibres, footwear, firearms, drugs and human bodies, there are novel disciplines. It also does unique things, such as analysing hard drives for material evidence. When a crime or incident occurs, evidence is recovered from the crime scene, suspects, witnesses and victims. Some or all of the evidence may be submitted for forensic testing and analysis. It is a forensic scientist’s job to test and interpret the results, prepare a witness statement and then pass it to the police, who decide what further action, if any, to take. If the case ends up in court, the statement can be used by the defence as well as by the prosecution.

The real difficulty with the House of Commons report into closing down the Forensic Science Service in England is that it accounts for almost 60% of all forensic work undertaken in the United Kingdom. That leaves a 40% market share for the private sector, and we may ask ourselves how that affects us in Northern Ireland. The answer is reasonably simple. Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) is unique to Northern Ireland. We have a service that performs all forensic duties for our police force. Unfortunately, no service can do 100% of the work, because there are peaks and troughs in the workload. All our excess work is subcontracted to the UK private sector so that it can keep the Northern Ireland workload level.

The decision taken by central government has caused a huge imbalance in how the private sector is working in the UK, and that is unfortunate for us. With many UK police forces scrambling to sign up private contractors to carry out forensic work for them, forensic services and the private sector are under huge pressure. A number of UK police forces are joining together in groups and signing up private contractors to do specific work for them, which excludes other police forces from also getting private work done by those same contractors.

What we are witnessing in the UK is the private sector’s ability to deliver for the Police Service of Northern Ireland shrinking. That is a massive issue for the PSNI, because the workload is still there, but service delivery in the UK has shrunk and continues to shrink. That has led to what has already been referred to in court many times, where some forensic evidence is taking seven to eight months to be delivered to the courts. That is having an adverse impact on the operation of our criminal justice system. That is regrettable, because the Assembly has been criticised many times about the whole criminal justice system. It has been said that cases are taking too long and that the system is inefficient and not delivering justice in a reasonable time. In this case, however, something that central government in Westminster has done has had an adverse effect on service delivery here. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to look into the situation to see whether there is any other means by which the Assembly can help out with the delivery of forensic services in Northern Ireland. Would that mean expanding our existing government-based system to cater for the imbalance that has been created in the entire UK? As I said, many people are complaining. In fact, the judiciary is complaining about the amount of time being taken to deliver forensic services in Northern Ireland.

Our Government cannot sit back and be inactive. We need to look at the situation and react urgently to it. The factors that led to that situation may be well outside our control, but the situation did happen and is happening. Unfortunately, the situation is not getting better for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. However, thankfully, our Police Service is not in the rest of the United Kingdom, because police services there are in an even worse situation.

I ask the Minister to look at how forensic services in Northern Ireland are delivered and at whether there is any way that the capacity of those services can be increased, even in the short term, while the private sector in the British Isles adjusts to 60% of the market share to fund the forensic services sector being withdrawn.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

“; and further calls on the Minister to explore the possible development of an all-island framework for forensic science, to ensure that all resources are used to the maximum benefit of the victims of crime and the criminal justice systems both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

We are bringing the amendment to the motion tabled in the names of Mr Craig and others names to reflect, first, a reality that has existed for a couple of years and that, as far as I can see, was first noted by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in its report of March 2010, when it commended the collaboration between Forensic Science Northern Ireland and its counterpart in the South. The report went on to commend FSNI, too, for its work in assisting forensic science practitioners across the world but noted that workplace pressures on the service are such that the day-to-day provision of forensic science in Northern Ireland is nearly all-consuming.

Mr Craig has well outlined the challenges facing the service here and in Great Britain. Indeed, across the water, a much bigger and exceptionally controversial debate is going on about the future provision of forensic science services to the police services and criminal justice agencies in England and Wales. However, we have the opportunity here to defend what we have, make it considerably better and take full advantage of the economies of scale and the sharing and pooling of expertise on this island to ensure that our criminal justice system in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the criminal justice systems across these islands have a world-class forensic science service at their disposition.

We believe that our amendment does just that. It adds to the motion and does not try to undermine or take away from it. It provides a proper context within which a future development of forensic science should take place. Indeed, when the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee conducted its inquiry into Forensic Science Northern Ireland, it noted:

“FSNI provides, impartially and to standards of scientific rigour uninfluenced by any consideration of the success or otherwise of any prosecution, the evidence which might establish a suspect’s innocence or guilt. Public trust in its fairness and impartiality can only be maintained by its remaining separate from the other justice agencies while working with them in the interests of justice.”

I sense from Mr Craig’s comments, and I hope that I will hear from other colleagues in the House, a strong determination across all our Benches to continue to have an impartial and independent forensic science service. The question then is not about whether we have such a service but about how that service can be made to work best for the interests of all our people.

It was welcome to note the statement by the Minister of Justice, who is with us this afternoon, and Minister Shatter, the Minister for Justice in the Republic of Ireland on 8 June 2011. It followed a joint meeting between the two Ministers at which they signed a memorandum of understanding to support co-operation between the forensic science agencies on the island of Ireland.

I note our own Minister’s words on that day:

“This memorandum ensures that the forensic science laboratories in both jurisdictions can rely on each other’s facilities in the event of sudden loss or damage to either laboratory and further strengthens the working relationships that are already in place between the two services.”

It is also encouraging to note that, in the ‘North/South Cooperation on Criminal Justice Matters: Work Programme 2011-2012’ — we sure are good at writing up the titles of work programmes in the House — objective 2 is:

“To explore further opportunities for cooperation in the area of forensic science between Northern Ireland and Ireland particularly in light of the proposed closure of the Forensic Science Service (England) and the resultant impact.”

In their forward work programme, the two Ministers have given themselves a target of April 2012 to bring forward the framework for co-operation. I appeal to the Minister for that timetable to be accelerated, not because of any particular political interest, but because it is very much in the selfish interests of the forensic science service here in Northern Ireland to have a clear line of sight on its future relationship with other resources on this island and elsewhere, so that it can maximise and best plan its service delivery for us at a regional level.

That service delivery has, of course, been dogged with delays and some problems. They were most obviously noted in the Criminal Justice Inspection report on Forensic Science Northern Ireland in July 2009. Of course, that report predated the devolution of justice powers to the House and so made a series of recommendations to the then Northern Ireland Office. It was somewhat depressing at the time to note that 22 of the 35 recommendations made some years earlier remained outstanding. That highlights a point that Mr Craig articulated very well, which is that the problems in forensic science here have been building up for some time and that we are dealing with considerable legacy issues as well as the need now to confront the prospect of radical change in Great Britain.

It is also worth noting, in defence and support of the amendment that we tabled, that recommendation 2 of Criminal Justice Inspection’s July 2009 report reads:

“FSNI should seek to develop, in conjunction with other laboratories (e.g. Republic of Ireland and Scotland) a plan to facilitate increased collaboration including the exchange of staff on secondment”.

It might be helpful if the Minister, in his response to the debate, could outline what progress he is aware of specifically on the point of increased co-operation, exchange of staff and secondments. It is long past the time when we should be talking about opportunities to maximise the services across our regions. It is long beyond the time when we should be identifying obvious areas for co-operation. We are apparently moving at the pace of a slow snail in translating those opportunities into reality. It is for that reason that we tabled the amendment, and I call on colleagues on all sides of the House to support the amendment and the motion.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin 1:30, 24 October 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the amendment. A proper functioning forensic science service is essential in any criminal justice system. It builds community confidence, speeds up the process of justice and is an important part of the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences.

In England and Wales, as the Member opposite has already outlined, there is an ongoing process of winding down the FSS because it was in a dire financial position and could not compete with other providers. In the North of Ireland, FSNI has been criticised on a number of occasions by the Criminal Justice Inspection on several management issues and its strategic vision. It found that the agency faced critical challenges that raised concerns about its continued viability. The delivery of forensic sciences in the North of Ireland is basically a monopoly, with the PSNI as FSNI’s biggest customer. The fact that the agency is based in a PSNI-owned building questions its independence.

It is difficult for any forensic science agency to survive in such a small area. FSNI already works closely with its counterpart in Dublin on crime issues that affect the island of Ireland. The criminal justice system on the island of Ireland would be enhanced by further integration and the use of existing resources, skills and innovation. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

At least we are getting through the speeches rightly. It has been a while since I have heard Mr McDevitt, who has now left me, not take his full 10 minutes.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

You put it right.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Yes. Perhaps I can take a few of the extra minutes left over.

The public’s impression of what forensic sciences can do comes from the TV. People think that it is all quick and easy and that a few test tubes will tell who did it. I know that the Chairperson of the Justice Committee will smile with me when I say that it shocked me to discover that, when we were planning to visit the forensic science laboratory, we all had to give DNA samples so that we could be eliminated from inquiries, from what I could see. That made some of us think about whether we ought to go. Nevertheless, that shows the sensitivity of the results.

In fact, the biggest problem for forensics is that it has become exceedingly expensive to deal with any meaningful results. A number of things came back. Mr Craig mentioned the crisis that faces us because of the changes. I agree with him that it will take many years for the private sector to pick up the slack. There is an issue, and it is right and timely that he should bring it to our attention.

My information about the problems facing forensic sciences comes from two particularly high-profile incidents, the first of which is the Omagh bombing. The investigation of that incident relied heavily on forensics. I shall not go into the details of the case, but it was amazing how modest the samples were and how important it was to ensure that there was no cross-contamination along with the amount of work and effort that it took to ensure that that did not happen. Even then, there were difficulties.

When I looked at the costs that were associated with the investigation of the murder of the two soldiers at Massereene barracks, I discovered that the police were making applications for additional financial resources because that investigation, on its own, would have taken up almost 80% of the PSNI budget for that year if it had not received additional support. A lot of the services that were used had to be provided from different areas of the British Isles. It was right and proper that that was done, but people should be aware of it. It came to my attention recently that two people were required to travel for three days to deliver one set of samples to a laboratory in England. The cost of that must have been significant. There is an issue here about how we ensure that the very real benefits of forensic science are gained at an appropriate cost. In that regard, the Minister will want to look at forensic science as part of the overall investigation into the criminal justice system.

The amendment seems rather spurious. I do not mean to cause huge offence, but it smacks of something that is designed to give someone an extra five minutes in which to talk. We already have a memorandum of understanding, and we work these things on a cross-border and, equally, an all-Ireland basis. The proposer of the amendment said that it added to the original motion. I do not think that it does, so I am somewhat reluctant to support it.

In the final analysis —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

The original motion is absolutely fine, and we are happy to support it. However, we need to hear more from the SDLP as to why we should support the amendment.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I welcome the motion as an opportunity for the Minister to clarify the situation and address the obvious concerns of Members and the general public. The delays in the work of Forensic Science Northern Ireland are a matter of concern. The report of the prisons review team that was published today highlights the impact that those delays can have on the Prison Service, how they impact on victims, witnesses and defendants and how they affect wider public confidence in the justice system, as well as the cost to the public purse.

I know from the Minister’s response to the report earlier today and other statements that he has made that tackling those delays is high on his agenda. I look forward to hearing from him further about that in the course of this afternoon’s debate. I would like him to put the issue in context as to what the actual backlog is in respect of the service-level agreement between the PSNI and FSNI. I heard recently that up to about 4,000 exhibits were collected for just one investigation into a bomb blast. Such figures perhaps help us to understand the extent of the problem.

As the amendment suggests, the provision of forensic science services is not simply a local matter any more. I am aware of very good co-operation, which other Members have mentioned, between our Minister and his fellow Ministers in Dublin and Edinburgh. There are clear benefits to service provision from the high level of co-operation that they pursue. Ministers should give proper consideration to not only the immediate and short-term needs of their jurisdiction but the long-term benefits to their own and neighbouring jurisdictions of a partnership approach. It is unfortunate, therefore, that ministerial counterparts in London appear to have taken an entirely unilateral approach to the provision of services. The Westminster Government have declared that there will be no continuing state interest in a forensic provider by March 2012. I imagine that the interest to which they refer is financial. I wonder whether they are taking a sufficient interest in the operational impact of that decision.

In the short term, I am aware that concerns have been expressed in England and Wales about the capacity of the private sector to cope with the level of demand that is currently being met by the Forensic Science Service there. If it does not have the capacity to deal with its workload, there will certainly not be any offers of help to deal with the additional work that we or our colleagues in Scotland may need to outsource. It is kind of ironic that, when members of our judiciary are calling for the pressures on our service to be addressed by sharing work with the service in England, the Government there are reducing the capacity of that system to take on additional work.

Another concern is a longer-term one. It is in everyone’s interests that forensic service providers continue to invest in research and development. Our criminal justice systems need to keep up to speed with if not lead on the development of new and improved techniques. Is that likely to be the case across the water if there is an entirely privatised service? I would have thought that their interest in research and development would certainly be limited. I have heard some talk about universities perhaps becoming involved and the Government funding research and development in a different way, but that does not look too good.

Our Minister’s commitment to the provision and development of forensic services here is clear from the budget decisions that he has made already, including the £12 million of capital investment in the current budgetary period. The motion calls for the necessary resources to be provided, and I will listen to what the Minister has to say about that.

The amendment calls for an all-Ireland framework to ensure that resources are used for maximum benefit. It is hard to disagree with such a call, depending on what is meant by “framework”. As I have made clear today and when talking about other services, effective North/South partnerships are critical, but we should not limit ourselves to those. Where appropriate, partnerships should also be explored and developed on an east-west basis — Scotland is east of here — with neighbouring jurisdictions.

I await the Minister’s response on the amendment. It may be that he feels that the amendment does not go far enough to reflect even the current arrangements. Mr McDevitt asked for clarification —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:45, 24 October 2011

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Other Members have referred to the co-operation that already has been signed up to with the Republic, and there are the beginnings of a tripartite arrangement between Scotland, the Republic and Northern Ireland. We support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue. For two simple reasons, we do not support the amendment. First, as Mr McCrea mentioned, there is already a memorandum of understanding. Secondly, it is very insular to look at the issue of forensics, security and policing in one jurisdiction. It is well known now that, in security and policing —

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member says that it would be insular to look at the issue in one jurisdiction. The point of the amendment is to look at it not in one jurisdiction but, in fact, in two jurisdictions. Surely the amendment addresses the very point that he has raised. It is not an insular amendment but an expansive one.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that he knows exactly what I meant by that statement. There is already a memorandum of understanding for security and policing, and there are already relationships throughout Europe and the world through Interpol and so on. I understand why the Member has tabled the amendment, but looking at the issue from a North/South perspective is insular, and it is difficult for us to support that.

That said, the move by the Government to push forensics into a competitive market could be deemed to be negligent and perhaps even dangerous. It is not too big a leap to presume that allowing non-accredited labs from the private sector and the police, rather than an independent, government-funded organisation, to have a key role in forensic delivery is verging on the unjust. For unfortunate reasons, forensics in Northern Ireland have been propelled into the limelight. They have been world-leading and have a list of accreditations to back that up. Our forensic scientists need to continue to get the support that they deserve, because they provide a world-class service.

I recognise that there are budgetary constraints, and there are issues in Forensic Science Northern Ireland that need to be addressed. For example, it takes, on average, three years to recruit a toxicologist to the organisation. Surely that needs to be addressed. There is also a backlog in the work of FSNI, which, previously, would have been absorbed partly by the forensic services in Great Britain. Given that cuts are to be made on the mainland that will have a knock-on effect here, the pressures are a double whammy to Northern Ireland, and we have to take that on board. FSNI has been in its temporary accommodation for 17 years. If that is anyone’s definition of temporary, let me say that mine is very different.

We have to raise our concerns about the move, and I put three direct questions to you, Minister, because there are real dangers for Northern Ireland if we do not try to address the balance in some way. First, by flooding the market with private forensic providers, we risk establishing the principle that whoever provides the cheapest service wins the right to deal with incredibly sensitive and important materials. I have no problem with a competitive market; it is fine in almost any other walk of life. However, I do not believe that we want that for our justice system. That is not the right way forward. Is the Minister opposed to any privatisation of forensic services in Northern Ireland? Secondly, I believe that the PSNI undertakes some forensic services in-house. However, that practice was criticised in the recent Criminal Justice Inspection report, and a lack of resources for the FSNI risks placing additional pressure on the PSNI to undertake more work on that basis, which, in turn, risks putting the police on the wrong side of Criminal Justice Inspection. Thirdly, an influx of private competitors, coupled with a diverse budgetary environment, increases the pressure on the Department of Justice to opt for cheaper means of forensic science investigation. Are the Government committed to ensuring that cost is not a factor in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, support the motion and amendment. Most Members said that there was a clear need for an impartial, independent forensic science service in any criminal justice system. We should be looking at that and at which system would be the best.

My colleague Mr Lynch referred to the legacy issues with Forensic Science NI. The Criminal Justice Inspection report looked at the time taken to recruit staff, the security clearance process required, the lack of flexibility in moving staff from one place to another and the expertise needed. There was also criticism of the time that it takes to get the results of tests on illegal substances. Such issues show that we can make the forensic science service better.

I turn now to the amendment. It came as no surprise to hear what the Members on the Benches opposite said about the all-island, joined-up view of any Department here. As I have said on the Floor previously, they should not be afraid or concerned about having an all-island approach to any Ministry or Department. We see the duplication of services in education, health and in the Department of Justice, so no one should be afraid of such an approach. The sharing of resources and expertise right across the island will bring us a better forensic science service. It is important that we open our minds to that and stop feeling threatened.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

Does the Member accept that, even at present, there is a memorandum of understanding between and joint working on forensic services by the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? My difficulty with the motion is that it is restrictive in some senses. There should be an all-islands approach to forensics. We cannot leave out Scotland, Wales or, for that matter, England, with which, I believe, links might already exist.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, there is a memorandum of understanding, and he is right about collaborative thinking with Scotland or wherever, but we have to remember that we live on a small island. When you live on an island, it is sometimes much better to look closer to home than to look elsewhere. That said, I do not think that the amendment disagrees with the motion. It just looks at an all-island approach.

We have access to justice, which is important. Whether forensic science is working for the prosecution or for the defence, it is quickening up the justice system. It is a better system, and it means that people who are on trial spend less time on remand. It also means that victims of crime have less time to wait. Sometimes that wait can be worse for the victim, particularly in certain crimes. An independent forensic science service should be the best that we can make it, and I think that the amendment enhances the motion.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

Anyone who knows anything about a modern-day police service will understand that many crimes are solved only because of the forensic evidence that the perpetrators leave behind. We have a come a long way since the days of fingerprint evidence, and we now have resources that can pinpoint an individual almost to his or her front door. As an elected Assembly, we know that anyone who is the victim of a crime wants the person responsible to be put behind bars, and we also know that those who are prepared to carry out actions such as the unwarranted attack on the elderly lady in Newry at the weekend will do all in their power to escape and avoid being brought to justice.

Forensic Science Northern Ireland is an agency of the Department of Justice that employs around 220 staff, and its responsibilities include the provision of scientific advice and support to enhance the delivery of justice. It plays an essential role in ensuring that serious crimes are cleared up as quickly and efficiently as possible. Forensic science also plays a key role in providing evidence throughout criminal proceedings. Clearly, there is a direct link with the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with 90% of the work of the agency being directly linked to police investigations. The work that it deals with covers all aspects of crime in Northern Ireland, including violent crime, offences against the person and drugs-related crime. The threat that still exists from dissident republicans should not be underestimated, and the expertise that is being established by Forensic Science Northern Ireland is essential in bringing those terrorists to justice.

Two separate databases exist in Northern Ireland for the storage of DNA and fingerprints. The database maintained by the PSNI contains details of up to 240,000 people, and Forensic Science Northern Ireland maintains a separate database from suspects, crime scenes and victims. The database currently holds around 91,000 subject profiles and around 18,000 crime scene profiles. DNA obtained by the police in Northern Ireland is also stored on the UK’s national DNA database in Birmingham.

There is undoubtedly pressure on Forensic Science Northern Ireland, and, under the Department of Justice efficiency plans, it is the only agency that is not expected to make any efficiency savings until 2014-15. Even in that year, the efficiency savings are only £0·1 million. That clearly illustrates how far its budget is stretched. The backlog that is mentioned in the motion is also an issue. Forensic Science Northern Ireland has a backlog reduction strategy and targets in place to attempt to deal with that.

There is evidence in the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report from February 2010 on Forensic Science Northern Ireland, and the important issues highlighted include the unsuitable staff recruitment process, which has already been mentioned on several occasions; inadequate and unsuitable premises — “temporary” means 17 years; the lack of knowledge in the judiciary of what forensic science can and cannot do; and separation from other criminal justice agencies to ensure impartiality and public trust.

The motion is somewhat misleading because of the fact that the Forensic Science Service in Great Britain is being wound down and will cease to operate by March 2012. Given that the Forensic Science Service is making operating losses of some £2 million a month, it is obviously unsustainable in its current form. It is envisaged that the UK forensic science industry will operate as a genuine market with private sector companies competing to provide services at the lowest cost. Therefore, the situation is not as basic as noting the cuts in the UK mainland as most suggest.

We agree that the Justice Minister should provide the necessary resources to ensure that cases requiring forensics are processed efficiently.

I believe that we can support the motion while clarifying that what is happening on the mainland is not simply cuts but, in effect, a process of privatisation of forensic services. Throwing money at the forensic service will not solve all its problems, as shown by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report. Again, I refer back to the recruitment processes.

Several Members have commented on the memorandum of understanding, which is to support co-operation between the forensic science agencies on the island of Ireland. It was signed by our Justice Minister, David Ford, and Alan Shatter. The SDLP amendment could, therefore, be opposed. Cross-border crime is a real issue that must be tackled in partnership with the Republic of Ireland, and, therefore, this memorandum of understanding is welcome and a good example of cross-border partnership in a matter of mutual interest. The North/South co-operation on criminal justice matters work programme 2011-12 —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:00, 24 October 2011

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

It seems that the SDLP tries to amend everything to include an all-Ireland approach. We are happy to accept the motion as proposed.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue of forensic science resourcing. From the contributions being made today, it is clearly a matter of significant importance to the criminal justice system in general. I hope that today’s debate can go some way to providing a degree of assurance, both to this Assembly and to the broader public, who rightly want to know that they have a forensic science service that is providing a top quality service to the justice system in general.

However, we should not underestimate the problems that exist, the challenges that face FSNI and, indeed, the challenges facing other forensic science services in the UK and elsewhere. The forensic science agency achieves a huge amount each year. It stores and tracks 100,000 new items annually, derived from 6,000 cases. Its main customer, as Members have said, is the PSNI, which provides 93% of exhibits submitted, and 80% of that caseload comes from violent and serious offences. These serious cases, including those related to dissident terrorism, are dealt with as a priority. Although I accept that improvements can and should be made, I am reassured by the fact that the PPS has identified only two cases that are overdue for court hearings. I will return to that issue.

We have recently seen significant growth in demand for forensic services. The unwelcome emergence of dissident terrorist activity, current high levels of serious crime and a substantial increase in the seizure of drugs have combined to place FSNI’s services under strain. As you would expect, the prioritisation of work on explosives, firearms and cases involving serious and violent crime sometimes means that other cases experience some delay. For example, the investigation into the brutal murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, as has been mentioned, generated around 4,000 forensic exhibits.

The increased workload being experienced by FSNI, coupled with the absolute requirement that the standards of investigation and analyses be maintained at the highest levels, means that work has not progressed as quickly as any of us would like on some occasions.

In response to these new demands and in order to help to clear some of the backlog in forensic science, particularly in relation to priority cases, I will make some additional resources available to the Police Service for forensic services within this financial year. This will be a one-off exercise designed to clear the backlog associated with drugs cases. However, I have to point out that the rigorous accreditation and training requirements for forensic services mean that capacity issues cannot be resolved overnight. We must accept that there is a necessary lead-in time.

There has been a very high workload in recent years. There was a surge in demand at the turn of the financial year, which has exacerbated the current backlog. The forensic science lab is feeling the keenest pressure in work on drugs cases as a result of a high level of submissions. In response to that, FSNI instigated a strategic improvement programme some months ago to increase resources in drugs and toxicology, and to review all its processes and products as well as customer needs.

More generally, the Department recognised the need to support FSNI to help it to meet the demands of a modern and challenging justice system. We are working closely with FSNI, the PSNI and the PPS to address these crucial issues and to deliver improvements.

A number of lines are being followed, and they include the recruitment of additional expert scientists, particularly in the field of toxicology, some re-engineering of services and the potential for the use of video links. I am keen that we explore all avenues to improve forensic performance. That includes the use of presumptive testing for drugs, which has been proven to work in other jurisdictions. Therefore, I am keen for any exploration that has the potential for application in Northern Ireland to be taken forward quickly. Much of the work will be linked to the multi-agency programme that I am overseeing on speeding up the criminal justice system and about which I have provided regular progress reports to the Justice Committee.

As I hope Members on all sides can see, we are taking clear action to address the challenges facing forensic services in Northern Ireland. That action includes not only making additional resources available, but looking at ways to deliver services faster and more efficiently in the longer term.

I now turn to issues regarding the Forensic Science Service in England and Wales. As it has been a little unclear, I should point out that when we talk about FSS, we are taking specifically about England and Wales. Several Members, including the proposer, referred to the UK national Government. The reality is that, in this context, we are talking about the Government for England and Wales. The position in Scotland is extremely different.

Last year’s announcement by the Home Office that the Forensic Science Service is to be wound down may have some bearing on Northern Ireland due to possible reductions in capacity for the brokering of services across the market, both in the public and private sectors. However, despite that change in England and Wales, forensic provision in Northern Ireland, in common with Scotland and the Republic and, indeed, as far as I know, the rest of Europe, is delivered by a specialist public sector organisation. Although I am committed to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of forensic science provision following an in-depth review by my Department of the option for such provision here, I am convinced that subjecting forensic science to market forces is not the best way to provide the service that we need in Northern Ireland.

FSNI’s status as an accountable government agency, operationally independent from the police, is also an important element in ensuring scientific objectivity and supporting public confidence in policing and justice. Having mentioned Scotland, I should make it clear that there have been some cutbacks in the public service provided in Scotland, which, I understand, has included some loss of staff. However, the Scottish service remains within the public sector. In that context, as Members have highlighted, on 8 June 2011, I signed a memorandum of understanding with Alan Shatter, the Republic’s Minister for Justice and Equality, to support co-operation between forensic science agencies on the island of Ireland.

FSNI has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with its counterpart organisation in Scotland to develop strategic partnerships for mutual co-operation. I am due to discuss the issue further when I meet the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, in November. It is also a standing agenda item in intergovernmental meetings with our colleagues in Dublin. In addition, the heads of the forensic science services in Northern Ireland, the Republic and Scotland have agreed a tripartite memorandum of understanding to collaborate on a range of issues, including research and procurement. Those are examples of the excellent co-operation at operational level between criminal justice organisations on both sides of the border and across the North Channel. Those memoranda ensure that the forensic science laboratories in each jurisdiction can rely on one another’s facilities in the event of sudden loss or damage and further strengthens the working relationships already in place between those services.

I am committed to working closely with my Irish counterpart on areas of mutual interest to help to build safer communities across Ireland. Operationally, criminal justice agencies on both sides of the border are working closely, and I want to continue to maximise that co-operation. I hope that that answers the points that were made by Mr McDevitt when he proposed the amendment.

My fellow Justice Ministers in Scotland and Ireland and I have recognised the importance of our forensic science providers working together to ensure effectiveness and value for money. I hope that Members will welcome that important development. Indeed, it was highlighted by my colleague Trevor Lunn. In future, such collaboration will include the benchmarking of costs, mutual support with the possible sharing of expertise, and joint contingency planning.

Members will be aware of the concerns expressed recently by some members of the judiciary about the delivery of forensic services. Indeed, some Members have highlighted those concerns. Therefore, I will say a few words about that. I understand those concerns, and I agree that we need to work together across the justice system to tackle delay and to speed up justice. I recently discussed that in some detail with the Lord Chief Justice, and I was able to get a better understanding of the judiciary’s position on that crucial issue. I was also able to give him some assurance as to the actions that we were taking within DOJ.

In truth, the judiciary’s position is similar to mine. We all acknowledge that FSNI delivers quality work under challenging conditions, but, equally, we recognise that improvements can and should be made. I want to put the scale of delay in perspective. As I said earlier, there are only two cases being dealt with by FSNI that the PPS has identified as being behind schedule in court hearings. However, with regard to the wider figures, and in response to the point made by Trevor Lunn in particular, there is a backlog of 11·9% of cases, including over 32% of drugs cases, due to the upsurge in demand in recent months.

As I said earlier, my officials are working closely with the forensic science agency and the police to address the situation. Allied to that, FSNI’s strategic improvement programme would drive performance improvements in a number of key areas. Indeed, some of those improvements are under way. They include the removal of three cross-skilled staff members from other areas and into alcohol, drugs and toxicology work. Furthermore, a recruitment exercise is under way for two new toxicology reporting officers, and FSNI has approached the Scottish laboratory for secondees and transferees. FSNI will carry out a best practice benchmark review of its key processes against the Scottish labs.

More generally, speeding up justice, as I have said frequently in the Chamber, is one of my key priorities. As the Youth Justice Review team has pointed out, it is one of the most significant challenges facing the justice system. Although I am pleased that we are making some progress in that area, I am disappointed that we have not yet made the step change that we all agree is needed. Ultimately, I am clear that fundamental reform is required to deliver the necessary improvements.

This is a complex issue, and there is no single cause of delay. Although addressing the issues within forensic science is part of the solution, we should be under no illusion that that will solve the problem overall. A comprehensive and coherent package of reforms is required, and, as I said, I am directly overseeing a multi-agency programme to achieve that. A number of measures are under consideration. A particular focus at the moment is a public consultation on measures to encourage earlier guilty pleas, which I hope to publish shortly. In addition, we are reviewing how cases are initiated, developing a consultation on the reform of committal proceedings and examining the increasing use of video links. Further proposals will come forward as the programme develops. As part of that, we will also be taking full account of the recommendations of the Youth Justice Review team, the Access to Justice Review and the forthcoming CJINI review of services for victims and witnesses. Therefore, the work to address the issues with FSNI should be seen in the context of an ambitious multi-agency programme of work to speed up justice more generally.

I have allocated over £2·1 million to FSNI for the current financial year, and that includes £300,000 to fund pressures in relation to explosives capabilities. I have committed to providing a further £1 million across the remainder of the Budget 2010 period for that purpose. I am also making a significant investment of £12 million in the development of new laboratory facilities to house DNA and evidence-recovery functions.

When dealing with a complex, technical and highly specialised field such as forensic science, money is not the only resource. We need to build capacity in our equipment and skills, and, with the best will in the world, that takes significant time. That is why we are making best use of the specialist scientific staff available through cross-skilling, seeking to second from other laboratories and direct recruitment. That will allow FSNI to build its capacity to continue to meet the complex needs of the justice system.

As Members will be acutely aware, these are very difficult economic times, but forensic science is a priority service, and I am committed to ensuring that the service is resourced sufficiently to continue to deliver an effective service.

I appreciate the contributions to the debate from all sides of the House. I express my appreciation to those who introduced the debate, those who proposed the amendment and those who contributed. If we look at practice in England and Wales and recognise the problems that are being experienced there, which are alluded to in the motion by the reference to the UK mainland, and recognise the ongoing co-operation in Scotland and with Ireland, it is entirely appropriate that the motion and the amendment should be agreed in recognition of work that is ongoing and that the Department will seek to expedite. As the House will appreciate, decisions on precise practices and resourcing have to be based on an assessment of what is appropriate, proportionate and effective to support the cohesive working we need across the justice system.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15, 24 October 2011

I thank the Members who have contributed to the debate thus far. In particular, I thank the Minister of Justice who has brought balance to the debate by discussing how the needs of forensic science in Northern Ireland meet the needs of the justice system. His contribution was important in dealing with the issue of forensic science on this island and co-operation elsewhere.

One important point is that what the Westminster Government are doing is dangerous. The privatisation of forensic science could mean — I am not saying this with certainty — a deterioration in standards, and, as Mr Craig said, an emphasis being placed on cost rather than quality. That is a danger and must be recognised by all. Forensic science is a public service and it should remain within the public service; it is not something that should be privatised. My own view is that there are certain things that can be privatised, but forensic science is one of those things that should be protected. It is a vital public service in the administration of justice.

Our forensic science laboratory does a good job and it has continued to do so in difficult circumstances, particularly given the condition of its current premises. That issue must ultimately be addressed; I know that there are plans to do so and those should be expedited. With an increasing emphasis on DNA and DNA-related methodologies, there is a need for premises to be clean and for the risk of contamination to be severely restricted.

I thank those who contributed to the debate, including my colleague Mr McDevitt, Mr Lynch, Mr Lunn and Ms Jennifer McCann, who all agreed with the amendment that we tabled. We tabled the amendment in good faith. Given the pressures that forensic science will come under as a result of its privatisation in England and Wales, we believe that there will be a greater need for additional capacity, and that could be provided for south of the border. Therefore, the memorandum of understanding, which is important and which is recognised by the SDLP, is an important step in that direction. There could, though, be a wider development that would be advantageous to both sides of the border, and in particular to Northern Ireland, given the circumstances that are imposed on us by the Westminster Government. That makes good sense in dealing with the additional pressures that we will face in Northern Ireland.

I pay tribute to Mr Craig and his colleagues for tabling the motion. The motion is important, and it highlights the vital service that the forensic science laboratory in Northern Ireland provides to us and to the justice system. I thank Mr McCrea for his interesting contribution, and I regret that he cannot support the amendment. I also thank Mr Ross Hussey.

I must emphasise that the development of services on an all-island basis makes sense. The tripartite co-operation and memorandum of understanding that were referred to by the Minister are also important, and they will be helpful in the administration of forensic science in Northern Ireland. I hope that Members will see fit to unanimously support the amendment.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I support the motion and oppose the amendment. However, there is little that I can disagree with in what has been said across the Chamber on the work that FSNI does. It is important to put on record that we value that work and, as the professionals have highlighted, to recognise that FSNI is a centre that provides excellence in the work that it delivers and that it is held up by others as an exemplar.

However, given the explanation that the Justice Minister and other contributors outlined, this is an issue that, across the islands, has to be addressed on a collaborative basis. In our view, the amendment restricts that potential, albeit that the Justice Minister tried to provide some spin that it is in the overall spirit of what is proposed for all the islands. If you look specifically at the amendment, you will see that it does not properly recognise all the work that is done across the different jurisdictions that make up the United Kingdom or that which is done by our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. That is why we oppose the amendment tabled by some of the Members on the opposite Benches.


I hear Members shout “Predictable”. I did not want to politicise this discussion. However, it is predictable that, at every possible opportunity, some Members on the opposite Benches want to all-Ireland these motions when it is completely unnecessary to do so. They did not need to so, and they could have made their points about collaboration without tabling an amendment that has more to do with the leadership bid of the Member who is gesturing now.


Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Members should make all their remarks through the Chair.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

It has more to do with that Member’s leadership bid than with the serious issue that is addressed in the motion. I will give way.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr Givan for giving way. I take his point. However, the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee produced a report that said that we should develop this work on an all-island basis, the Criminal Justice Inspection produced a report saying that we should do it on an all-island basis, and this House has endorsed an all-island approach through the framework agreement that the Minister signed on its behalf. Where is the politicisation in acknowledging what we are already doing?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

The Member knows full well that the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee did a piece of work that recognised the collaboration that was taking place across the United Kingdom and with the Republic of Ireland. His party’s amendment narrows that and makes it solely to do with the Republic of Ireland. I am not saying that we should not have collaboration; quite the opposite. If it catches criminals and prevents or detects crime, the more collaboration that takes place, the better. If that includes the Republic of Ireland, I am happy for such collaboration to happen. However, the amendment does not recognise that collaboration is also on a UK-wide basis. That is why my party opposes the amendment.

I want to move on to some of the other comments. The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee looked at this issue and made recommendations. It has been pointed out that some members of the judiciary have been critical of the pace at which Forensic Science Northern Ireland has taken forward some of its work. The report made recommendations as to how the judiciary and FSNI could work together to get a better understanding of how things operate. I think that those should be taken forward. Like the Minister, I met the Lord Chief Justice and had discussions with him about FSNI. I, too, share his frustration that, on less serious crimes, there are protracted delays in getting evidence brought before the courts. Obviously, victims and the individuals who committed crimes have an interest in dealing with that as quickly as possible.

I hope that the investment that will be made in FSNI will help to deal with that. Given those criticisms, the Justice Committee felt that it would be worthwhile going to look at the operation to get a better understanding of how things work. My colleague from Lagan Valley highlighted that we will be required to give a DNA sample. However, to alleviate concerns — I know that some members are exercised by how long that sample will be retained — we have been assured that it will be disposed of immediately and that it will not be kept even for a five-year period. I hope that that alleviates other Members’ concerns. It will be interesting to see which Members go along on that visit, even with that assurance that the DNA sample will be destroyed.

Members also highlighted that FSNI’s priority cases have to be those that relate to serious crime. The Minister highlighted that the death of Constable Kerr has generated more than 4,000 exhibits, and it is right that that case is prioritised by FSNI. However, the obvious consequence is that cases not deemed to be in the priority category are not heard as quickly as possible, as we would all like. Hopefully, work is being taken forward to deal with that.

I thank everyone who took part in the debate and those Members who tabled the amendment, but we will oppose it in a Division of the House.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Question Time is due to commence at 2.30 pm, and a number of Members have indicated that they will oppose the amendment. That process will require some time, so I propose to put the Question on the amendment after Question Time. I ask Members to take their ease for a few minutes until 2.30 pm, when Question Time will commence.

The debate stood suspended.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —