Monday, 7 February 2011

Closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS)

Trawling the net, on a quest for a post about justice, I came upon this article in the Telegraph, this in the Independent and this from the Financial Times, which in turn led to this from the union, Prospect.

The immediate question raised is why was the FSS losing money - was this due to bad management and being a "Government-owned company"; liability for "losses" incurred through subsequent court decisions as a result of "mistaken/incorrect/missed evidence"; the market being "opened-up" to private enterprise or the fact, as Prospect claim, that police forces were commencing "in-house" forensic work. On that last point it would seem that one of the fears Prospect has is quite relevant: does having the police procure and host their own services not have implications on impartiality in the criminal justice system - and does it not lay the police open to charges of 'fixing' the forensic evidence to suit their own ends, thus ticking the 'another crime solved box'?

One particular aspect of all three newspaper articles may have escaped initial attention - they are all basically similar in content and presentation. Instead of what appears to be the journalistic re-write or copy & pasting government press releases, had those journalists done a little 'digging', spoken to one or two people, they may have found something worthwhile about which to write.

It would appear that the FSS and every Agency (take the Fire Service College for example, whose accounts can be accessed from their website) lose money - that is actually the intent of the way they are set up. The Treasury sets them up to fail, they are established under "rules" that mean they cannot raise any working capital by the normal means - ie: selling shares or taking a bank loan - and must operate from day one with nothing in the bank except an "advance" from the parent department. On top of this, the "advance" must be repaid quarterly and the Treasury imposes a "Deemed Loan" which is their valuation of all "assets" which is then given a higher than commercial interest rate - which again must be paid quarterly out of "sales." The subsequent failure to provide a nice healthy 'profit' means that Ministers are routinely fed the information that the "Agency" is a burden, operating under poor management, failing to achieve targets, etc, etc...

This then results in the Agency having to peddle like fury to raise the money for salaries, operating costs covering consumables, etc. Then, you add in a layer of "Directors", non-specialists from the Civil Service who "manage" the "company" and they bring all their "assistants" so that the experts, who are what the companies actual "assets" are, are demotivated, ignored and pushed around by overpaid and overqualified filing clerks. All of this has to be "costed" at "market costs" which typically mean that agencies are forced to charge above the going rate for everything they do. The Treasury then has another little trick to add at this point. Agency customers are given the money to buy their services, but told they must go to "competitive tendering" for them and ensure they get "value for money" which the Treasury interprets as "cheaper" and, in the case of the FSS, the Police Forces find that, as the money isn't "ring fenced", Police Authorities can then find 'cheaper', resulting in their then having the ability to divert some of the orginal 'grant' to other purposes. (Now where have I heard that before? Oh yes, the Supporting People programme!)
One has to ask if the Fire Service College is allowed to remain in existence, why not an agency just as important in that it could save a live, such as the Forensic Science Service?

I am all for private enterprise and competition, however there are certain 'services' that I do believe it impossible on which to put a 'price' - and one of those is access to an aspect of the justice system - one on which my life might depend!


Sue said...

As we are all aware, the EU believes you are guilty until proven innocent. This means the onus is on us and not the government to establish whether you committed a crime or not.

Why waste money on a service that is irrelevant?

Tufty said...

It isn't easy to judge the FSS rationale from the outside. It may be that the basic workload has become pretty routine and ripe for contracting out. This tends to happen in scientific service delivery, where procedures become standard, better and more reliable instruments are developed and automation takes over.

Or it may be that some powerful individual just doesn't like the FSS.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

Sue: you may well have hit the nail on the head - and I missed that point! Trust a woman to show me up!

T: My comments are from the inside, you could say.......

Also I prefer your second suggestion!

Anonymous said...

If it goes private, serco will probably get the contract. Read some weeks ago, but cannot find the link as cleaned the pc up, but seem to remember they deal with thousands of pathology reports here in the uk. If you think Tescos do everything, check out serco !

Edward Spalton said...

PRIVATISATION is the outcome of an EU-inspired policy known as "The Enabling State". That is, the state commissions services to be run by private contractors, competing in an EU-wide "market" for every possible type of service.

It is now about 4 years since the East Riding of Yorkshire outsourced all its administrative services to a German-owned company, Arvato, which is part of the Bertelsmann group.

The obvious outcome of this is that most of the vital infrastructure of every member state will be infiltrated by foreign-owned companies (which themselves can be sold on to other companies). The companies will owe a sort of allegiance to the EU for creating the "market" for them and be in a position to report on the internal workings of everything from District Council upwards.

One result to date is that the freehold of many British government offices have been sold off to private providers, registered in tax havens. The Inland Revenue was one of the first to do this! (I kid you not. You could not make it up!).

This is not, of course, private enterprise in the Adam Smith, free market tradition. It is a welding together of political and market power. Its proper name is corporatism and Mussolini (who knew as much as anybody about it) said it was the basis of fascism. It doesn't need the fancy uniforms, shiny boots and silly salutes.They were just window dressing to display apparent dynamism. Common Purpose (with its emphasis on "leadership" - aka the Fuehrerprinzip) provides the ideology for the lounge-suited storm troopers of the New Order. Cameron's "Big Society" is another aspect.

It is infinitely corruptible, as demonstrated by the "revolving door" by which politicians and officials leave public service and return again as directors and consultants of the firms to which they awarded contracts.

The idea is to let the gravy train run sufficiently far so that there is a adequately large, powerful politico/business class to suffocate any possible rebellion.

And the system is so opaque and diffuse that people do not know who or what to attack. The mixture of private and public functions makes it near impossible to tell 't'other from which.