In 2012 The government committed one of the biggest acts of criminal damage in the history of the British Judicial system. They abolished the Forensic Science Service (FSS).
In 2012 The government committed one of the biggest acts of criminal damage in the history of the British Judicial system. They abolished the Forensic Science Service (FSS). For several decades the FSS was world leader in forensic Science and advised many foreign governments including China. It pioneered the use of the intoximeter machines for measuring alcohol levels and was the pioneer in mass DNA profiling and created the world’s first DNA database. Most of its work was humdrum routine; glass analysis, hair, fibre comparison, drug analysis, Blood alcohol, firearm examination. Bread and butter work for the police and other agencies. The organisation had been through several metamorphoses prior to it being abolished by the Tories. In the run up to its closure, regional laboratories had been closed “in the interest of efficiency”. Much of its work was sold off to private companies and the police took some in house. Prior to this happening the private sector had been lobbying the Conservative government to privatise aspects of the business. I do not know of anyone in the police service who thought this was good idea and police objections were overridden.
The abolition of the FSS followed a pattern of the privatisation of what traditionally were seen as public services. The Prison escort service is a similar example (the movement of prisoners between courts and prisons). A job formerly done by a mixture of Police Officers and prison officers.
The ideological commitment to the privatisation of public services in the Criminal Justice System has produced examples of why it should not be done, and I will extend this argument in the rest of this article.
Although public services are frequently maligned (usually by those who want to take over their business) there is generally an ethos of service and responsibility amongst public service workers. This is certainly true amongst Police officers and also the NHS. Similar loyalties are to be found in the Fire and Prison services.
In these services the commitment is to be doing a job, as the police oath says, without “favour or affection”. Most public servants take their responsibilities very seriously and this is no more evident than in the Criminal Justice System where the integrity of the process is crucial.
The privatisation of the FSS has backfired spectacularly. Basically, private companies cannot be trusted to do the job right. There have been several scandals in the last 12 months amongst private firms doing FSS work. Tests may not have been done properly or in some cases not done at all. One lecturer in Forensic Science commented:
‘However, fragmentation of the market and driving down of the quality of forensic science is a direct result of the closure of the FSS,’ she says. ‘The FSS was set up originally to create independence from police, but now police dictate what tests are done or have their own labs.’
‘This case highlights the dangers and repercussions of what happens when forensics go wrong … The courts and the juries need to be able to place complete faith in the system.’
Removing some quasi-judicial functions from the Police service over the years has led to a number of problems. When I first joined the police in the 1960s there used to be police departments responsible for the licensing of taxi drivers in their areas. This was quite a strict regime and it was not easy to get a licence. But following lobbying by local authorities the job was given to local councils (Probably because they could charge a fee). Many scandals have followed since this change and some very unsuitable people got taxi licenses. It is interesting to speculate whether the grooming gangs and their associations with taxi drivers would have flourished had the scheme still been run by the police.
In the 1990s many local authorities took over the enforcement of street parking from the police. I have to say the police were happy to lose this job, it was always a recipe for conflict with the motorist. Local Authorities wanted the responsibility because they saw it as a cash cow. The pursuit of income from this source has led to overzealous activity by parking wardens and further alienated the motorist. Penalties are now no longer enforced by the courts and even the appeals process has been privatised.
I have highlighted two issues, the privatisation of Public services and the consequence loss of integrity in the processes. Secondly the removal of responsibilities from the police service to local authorities and the resulting poor outcomes in terms of public safety and public confidence.
The process is still going on today. The pattern seems to be for government to starve a service of resources, (20% reduction in police numbers) declare it not fit for purpose and then sell it off to people who have been lobbying government to take over those roles. Although many police roles have been privatised just recently they have started to privatise the core policing role of patrol and response. The creation of the Highways agency patrols who have police powers is a further step in the process.
I think two principles emerge from this article.
- Keep the private sector out of the Criminal Justice System (including policing)
- Do not let politicians in local authorities take over enforcement or licensing functions.