Private sector providers of police forensic science services are in danger of pulling out of the marketplace leading to a possible drop in expertise and the risk of court cases collapsing, a National Audit Office (NAO) report has warned.
In a briefing for the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee the NAO said police forces were increasingly purchasing forensic services from in-house laboratories that were often held to lower standards than private sector equivalents.
Since March 2012, when the publicly-owned Forensic Science Service closed, the 43 police forces in England and Wales have been allowed to purchase services such as fingerprint and DNA analysis from the private sector or in-house laboratories.
The NAO said available information on police forensics spending was incomplete, inconsistent and sometimes difficult to access.
But it said that from the figures available it appeared that the internal market for forensic services was growing while the external market was shrinking. The NAO said there were concerns that police forces undertaking more forensics work internally could undermine the market.
There was already evidence that small providers were pulling out of the market and concern that larger suppliers would follow, the report said.
“If suppliers did pull out of the market this could present a risk of service interruption, and lack of capacity could hold up criminal cases or cause them to collapse,” it said.
“Longer term, private sector suppliers told us that declining profits could make it difficult to invest sufficiently in research and development.”
External laboratories are complaining of an “an unequal playing field between private sector suppliers and in-house suppliers”, said the report.
For example police force laboratories could treat their buildings as a free resource, giving them an unfair advantage when it came to costs in the bidding process.
Whereas private sector firms have to be accredited before they can supply forensic services in-house laboratories were not obliged to follow the same procedure and not all were working towards accreditation.
“To meet these standards forensic service suppliers have to make significant investments and the forensic science regulator is concerned that forces are viewing accreditation solely as a cost burden and consequently may delay compliance.”
A further disadvantage for the private sector is the fact that some police forces have been granted funds from the Home Office police innovation fund to develop their in-house laboratories.