Clare Short: Madness to lose forensic skills from Birmingham
Many people understand the importance of forensic science services from detective stories. They are the quiet people who turn up at the scene of a crime and find a thread, a hair, a footprint or spot of blood that proves crucial in finding the guilty party and convicting them in court.
Few people in Birmingham are aware that we have a major Forensic Science Service laboratory in Gooch Street North in the city centre employing large numbers of skilled and dedicated forensic scientists.
Consultations are currently taking place which will lead to the closure of the Birmingham laboratory and the loss of 800 jobs across the country. A small laboratory providing a limited number of services is to be retained on the outskirts of Birmingham, but our main laboratory is to close.
This proposal flows from the decision of the Home Office in 2005 to turn the service into a Government Company. It has also encouraged the police to look for the cheapest services and therefore private firms have set up offering cut-price services for the cheap and easy work such as DNA sampling. Home Office Ministers gave us a firm undertaking in 2005 that the change to a Government Company which was to be wholly owned by the Home Office would not endanger the quality of British forensic services.
But now, four years later, they are back. They tell us the Forensic Science Service is not making a profit and therefore must be reorganised. Three of its seven sites are to close and large numbers of highly skilled jobs will be lost.
The staff are of course worried about their jobs, but also about the loss of quality in British forensic services. Our service has been a world leader, but now the cheap and easy jobs are provided by the private sector and the service is being told it is charging too much for the more difficult and painstaking work.
Nowhere else in the world are forensic services being turned into commercial services. Of course they do not make a profit. They are run by publicly-funded scientists who help to solve complex and difficult crimes. This is yet another reorganisation where the Government tries to make a public service operate as though it is a commercial organisation and in the process reduces the quality of the service.
The whole service cost only £150 million per annum before reorganisation and now costs £70 million. So we are to damage the quality of our national service to save small amounts of money. The proposal is foolish and should be stopped.
There is a big campaign against the proposed closure in Wales and in Chorley. But we haven’t seen much campaigning about the loss of the Birmingham office which will mean the few forensic scientists we have left will spend much time travelling to crime scenes or to court and less and less time in their laboratories.