Murderers ‘may go free’ if forensic labs shut

Police are searching for private companies which can carry out work to the same standard as the Forensic Science Service.
Police are searching for private companies which can carry out work to the same standard as the Forensic Science Service.
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Major crime investigations in Yorkshire could be hampered because the region’s police forces will be hit hardest by controversial Government plans to close forensic laboratories.

All exhibits found at Yorkshire crime scenes requiring scientific analysis are sent to the Forensic Science Service (FSS), whose laboratory in Wetherby has helped to solve some of Britain’s most notorious cases.

But the FSS is said to be losing £2m a month and will be wound down by March 2012, giving police chiefs less than a year to find private companies which can carry out the work to the same standard.

It means samples may have to be taken away from Yorkshire for analysis because of a lack of appropriate service providers, lengthening investigations and costing forces millions of pounds.

There are even warnings that murderers and rapists will walk free because forces may have to send fewer exhibits to save money.

South Yorkshire Chief Constable Meredydd Hughes will raise the problem next week at a meeting of his force’s governing police authority.

He claims the closure of the FSS will have a “disproportionate effect” on forces in Yorkshire and the North East because they are more reliant on the service than constabularies elsewhere.

South Yorkshire Police’s director of scientific support, Kevin Morton, said: “Forces in the North East, not just Yorkshire, use the FSS as their sole supplier and, as a result, receive good discounts and priority service from what is a world-renowned organisation. The procurement of these services on a regional basis has saved the forces millions of pounds over the last five years and given them an exemplary and preferential service.”

Yorkshire forces have benefited from access to a “DNA pipe” system at the FSS, which enables samples to be analysed up to three times more quickly than normal.

“The samples are put through on a pipeline rather than in batches,” Mr Morton said. “This is used in serious cases to assist investigations and/or prevent further victims.”

Scientists at the FSS have uncovered crucial evidence in some of Yorkshire’s most shocking cases, including investigations into the 7/7 bombings, the abduction of Dewsbury schoolgirl Shannon Matthews and the murder of Lesley Molseed, whose body was found on moorland near Ripponden in 1975.

The Home Office announced in December that the service would close, putting about 1,650 jobs under threat and potentially jeopardising cold case investigations into crimes committed decades ago.

Evidence from thousands of crime scenes is stored at the FSS, to be analysed at a later date in the event of a technological breakthrough, but the future of the archive remains unclear.

Alan Organ, of the Prospect union, which represents FSS staff, said: “There is a whole range of private providers, some better than others, but there are none in the North East of England because the FSS has always had a fantastic relationship with North East forces. Unfortunately, that loyalty has led to this situation.

“There would have to be some kind of collection service whereby evidence was taken to the nearest private lab or supplier, which I think is in the Manchester area.

“With the cuts in police budgets, my fear is that more murderers, rapists and house burglars will go free as a result of there being fewer submissions for forensic services to look at.”

The region’s three other police forces – West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and Humberside – declined to comment.