Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Monday, 10 March 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr

Witnesses:

Mr David Brooks )
Mr Stan Brown ) Forensic Science NI
Mr Peter Connon )
Mrs Janet Kirkwood )

Also in attendance:

Mr Victor Hewitt ) Specialist adviser

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McCartney):

I remind everyone to switch off their mobile phones as, even on silent, they interfere with the recording equipment.

I welcome Mr Brown and his delegation. I apologise for the delay and thank you for your patience. I hope that it has not been too disruptive for you.

Mr Stan Brown (Forensic Science Northern Ireland):

We got a free lunch at your expense, so there was no problem with that.

The Deputy Chairperson:

By the end of the meeting you will know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Will members please declare any interests?

Mr McCausland:

I declare an interest as a member of Belfast District Policing Partnership.

Mr S Brown:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee. Forensic Science Northern Ireland’s (FSNI) mission is to provide effective, impartial forensic science in the support of justice. Our staff complement for the coming year is 214; 179 of those, including 136 scientists, are directly involved in service delivery. Our main customer is the PSNI, but we also carry out work for the Police Ombudsman, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), the state pathologist, defence representatives and other customers both here and further afield.

Despite its small size, FSNI is a complex organisation that plays an important role in the criminal justice system. The complexity arises from our broad range of scientific disciplines, the legalities of expert witness in court and the detailed quality assurance throughout the end-to-end process from the crime scene to the court. We are accredited to stringent quality standards for that process.

We are a net-funded agency. Our resource cost for next year will be £11·1 million, of which cash funding is £527,000. Customer revenue, at £9·5 million, will cover 86% of our total costs. Matching resources to customer demand is a complex matter in an organisation such as a forensic science laboratory. However, the biggest challenge facing the agency is the need for new accommodation, which I will return to in a moment.

In the past, the agency’s focus was on effectiveness and getting things right. More recently, the creation of a forensic-science market in Great Britain, the police imperative to ensure value for money and the need to reduce delays in the criminal justice system have required an increased focus on efficiency as well as on effectiveness.

Therefore, we are in a period of rapid change: we are redefining our entire product range and restructuring our service level agreements to a three-year horizon. Those initiatives need a close focus on business processes and customer services. The Perseus management information and business change programme will be vital in driving that forward. The agency has ongoing capital requirements for equipment, and we are content that current funding is adequate for that purpose and for the initial phases of the Perseus programme.

Similarly, our resource funding from the Department is generally adequate, although a number of one-off pressures may arise with regard to the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling on DNA databases, possible new regulatory requirements from the forensic regulator on DNA contamination control, and facilities projects required to maintain our current premises.

We have been in a temporary, and increasingly unsuitable, facility since 1992, which inhibits our efficiency substantially. The proposed new laboratory is a specialist building, and much work has already been done on the specification. The Strategic Investment Board is closely involved, because the project will straddle two comprehensive spending review (CSR) periods and, probably, the devolution of criminal justice. The total cost for the building is in the region of £50 million; £25 million has been set aside by the Department within this CSR period. Project delays may require some rollover of that into the next CSR.

The alternative to new accommodation is refurbishment of the existing premises, which would be very problematic operationally, would cost £26 million and would yield an inferior solution, both operationally and in the physical independence of FSNI from the police. Without new accommodation, the agency will gradually become technically non-viable.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Your paper states that FSNI will be self-sustaining by 2011-12. How much investment will you need to achieve that?

Mr S Brown:

Being self-sustaining depends very much on what customers are prepared to pay for our service. As most of our revenue hangs off the police budget, we very much depend on how much the police decide to put in the direction of forensics. There is some expenditure that should naturally belong to the Department, such as research and development, which, under HM Treasury rules, should be an allocation from the Department that we recoup through product sales. Therefore, sustainability is a question of what our total costs and total revenue will be. Those figures are currently somewhat unpredictable, by the nature of the beast.

The Deputy Chairperson:

What impact will the proposed increase in costs have on the budget of the PSNI?

Mr S Brown:

The major cost increase is probably due to the depreciation charges and capital charges on the new building. If we build a building for £50 million with a 25- to 30-year lifetime, there will be a depreciation charge of between £1·5 million and £2 million per annum, which will need to be folded into our total costs. Ostensibly, we should recoup that from our customers, but we are not sure how the Department intends to treat that. The programme to deliver the new accommodation is a departmental project, not a project of this agency.

Mr McCausland:

You mentioned that the income from the police was dependent on how much they requested. Does that mean that the amount of work that they give your organisation is determined by their budget, rather than by the requirements of the cases?

Mr S Brown:

There is always a finite amount of resources available to the police and therefore, ultimately, to us. There is always a greater demand for our services than we can normally fulfil, so it is a question of prioritising and trying to get ahead of the game. It takes quite some time to ramp up resources in a forensic laboratory in order to meet demand fluctuations. For example, it takes two to three years to train a new reporting officer up to the competency required to go to court. There is also investment in equipment and so on. Getting that right and strategically aligned is the complex part of it. We are working very closely with the PSNI on that at a number of levels.

Mr McFarland:

These charts that you have provided — do they represent outcomes, or do they represent the budgets for the three previous years?

Mr Peter Connon (Forensic Science Northern Ireland):

They represent the budgets.

Mr McFarland:

How far off are they from the outcomes?

Mr Connon:

The resource figure, at £1·9 million in 2007-08, can be compared to the final outcome of £1 million in that year. I do not have the other figures to hand, but I can provide them.

Mr McFarland:

That is almost a 50% underspend. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Connon:

In that particular year, yes.

Mr McFarland:

Is that the norm?

Mr Connon:

No, it is not necessarily normal. Look quite closely at the subsequent funding years — there were various reasons in that year for perhaps not being able to utilise the spend towards the end of the year.

Mr McFarland:

The budgets for the two previous years were £1·4 million each. What were the outturns?

Mr Connon:

I will have to come back to you with those figures.

Mr McFarland:

I am curious to see those. If one is handing back money all of the time, there is a great tendency for the Treasury to assume that it is not needed. It is useful for us to know those sorts of things.

Mr S Brown:

It is one of the complexities of lab work that it can take quite a lot of time to specify and procure an investment. Sometimes the permission arrives too late for us to do it in that financial year.

Mr McFarland:

The Eames/Bradley group has made a proposal to ring-fence the historic cases into a separate organisation, and there is some discussion about whether that would remain with the NIO. Clearly it makes some sense that it should not continue to affect the current policing budget. What sort of contracts does your organisation have at the moment, and how would those be affected if, in fact, the NIO continued to deal with those historic cases, presumably under new contracts? If your organisation were to move across with the estate, as it were, presumably you will be contracting separately.

Mr S Brown:

There would be no problem with contracting with any organisation. For example, our organisation has some contracts with laboratories and partners in England, and even with some police forces in England. We also have an agreement with the HET. It would be a standalone agreement, which we would negotiate with the NIO.

Mr McFarland:

Is there much spare capacity in your organisation? It is a bit like a research area in a university. If there are a group of extremely experienced scientists — which, by and large, one usually has to be to do your sort of work — there are tons of kit sitting around that does magical things. If the organisation is fully utilised by the police, then it does not have spare capacity. The logic is that if there is spare capacity you might look at starting some commercial venture with that capacity in order to bring more money in, and presumably help to buy new equipment, etc. Does that feature in your view?

Mr S Brown:

It does indeed. Capacity is a complex issue, in that there are around 14 different specialist teams, and each team has to be a certain minimum size in order to function. It is conceivable that that minimum size inherently has some spare capacity in some areas. We are actively looking to sell that spare capacity.

Mr McFarland:

Are you allowed to keep the money from that, or does the Treasury claw it back?

Mr S Brown:

The money is clawed back at the end of the year, but our framework agreement is currently being renegotiated with the NIO, and we are looking for some more freedom on the ability to retain receipts and roll them forward. That would be very helpful and would enable investment and development in the business.

Mr McFarland:

If you were encouraged to do that, what sort of income do you imagine achieving? For example, if the new justice Minister were very impressed with this all-singing, all-dancing service and was eager to make use of the scientists and decided to get some money in by doing a deal with the Treasury that would allow the money to be kept, what level of activity would that involve? If you were freed up to do that sort of thing, what level of financing might that raise?

Mr S Brown:

That is the $64,000 question; perhaps even more than $64,000. Some forensic science is easy enough to export, in the sense that exhibits can be moved from another country to here and we can work on them and get the results that we need. Other services need close scene attendance and close interaction with the police on an hourly or day-to-day basis. Some exhibits are very small and can be moved easily; some are bulky and very expensive to move. Therefore, only some aspects of what we do are exportable.

We can export products and do work for other countries or customers, or we can export consultancy services. For example, there is a big potential demand for our services in many parts of the world because of our experience over the last 30 years. I do not have a figure for how much we could raise, but it could be quite sizeable — at a guess, it could be 10% or 15% of total turnover. However, our top priority must be to serve the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. If we were to do business elsewhere, that would be done in order to bolster our capacity and maintain our home capability.

Mr Attwood:

I found your submission to the Committee somewhat neutral; it did not give me any meat. You may have heard the evidence that the Public Prosecution Service and others gave earlier — they gave a lot more insight into their financial situations. It may be that what is outlined in your submission is the height of it, but I would like to see if it is. Is it going to be the case that you are self-sustaining by 2011 and that, in the event that we have devolution of justice by that time, there will be no call on the public purse in respect of the Northern Ireland budget?

Mr S Brown:

A lot of the money that comes to us from the Northern Ireland public purse is circular money.

Mr Attwood:

Yes, I know that.

Mr S Brown:

It is our goal to achieve that by 2011-12, but there are a number of unknowns. One unknown is how the new accommodation will proceed and how the financial treatment of that occurs. Another unknown is how much research and development should be funded centrally from the Department, and another is how much we need to spend on our current accommodation before the new accommodation is ready. A further unknown is the effect of the European Court of Human Rights ruling on DNA — that could have a big impact on the work that we do. We are also investing in a major business change programme called Perseus, which is scalable. We will get benefits as we start to roll that out, but we are not yet sure how far it could actually go.

Mr Attwood:

You have named five unknowns, and there are only two years before we reach 2011. I would conclude that certainty around all those unknowns is not going to arise between now and then.

Mr S Brown:

I would not bet my house on our reaching it by 2012; it is a goal that we are trying to get towards. It focuses the mind and helps us be more businesslike.

Mr Attwood:

Whatever about how money from the public purse moves from one agency to another, if there is devolution of policing and justice powers by 2011, there will be a call upon public funds to directly grant-fund your organisation, but we do not know what the amount is going to be.

Mr S Brown:

Yes, but I still think that the vast majority of our moneys will be customer revenue.

Mr Attwood:

There is a budget line of £25 million in the last two years of the CSR for your new accommodation. Given that no new site has been identified yet, will that money just go back —

Mr S Brown:

We have identified a site — it is not absolutely confirmed yet, but it has been identified, and a lot of study has gone into the location of that and the various options around that.

Mr Attwood:

You may have identified a site, but there are still procedures to go through, so it is unlikely that that money is going to be spent in the next year. Do you expect that the £25 million that has been allocated for the next two years will be spent by the end of 2011?

Mr S Brown:

We have checked that with the consultant architects. They feel that the vast majority of it probably will be spent within that time, if we have the approval for the outline business case shortly. The programme has taken much longer than we anticipated. If we can get approval this summer, then there is a good chance that we will be able to spend most of that money.

Mr Attwood:

So your best guess at the moment is that that budget line will be exhausted by the end of 2011?

Mr S Brown:

Or there will be some rollover from it.

Mr Attwood:

How much is needed after 2011?

Mr S Brown:

Roughly the same again. The total cost will be about £50 million. We have been rigorous on the design of the building, with regard to size, scope, specification and so on. We have taken full cognisance of optimism bias and things like that. The final cost looks like being around £50 million.

Mr Attwood:

In view of what you said earlier about being self-sustaining by 2011, how much of that will have to come from our funds?

Mr S Brown:

I imagine £26 million or £27 million. I have not discussed it with anyone, but my guesstimate is that just over half should be coming in the next CSR.

Mr O’Dowd:

I want to ask about your current income; specifically, your current contracts with the PSNI and other bodies. What is the format of those contractual obligations? How safe are they over the next few years? Are you confident that they will be renewed? You said that you might be taking on further contracts; are you confident of your present contracts as a source of income?

Mr S Brown:

We are confident that the PSNI wants us to be its local provider of choice. It is under legal pressure to ensure value for money in its own procurement, so it will have to test us against other providers in England and Wales. We have to become businesslike. We are competitive, for many different reasons. We can compete with English providers, and we have the substantial advantage of local responsiveness. If and when we have our new laboratory, we will have the finest forensic laboratory in Europe, a very experienced team of people and a good, competitive cost base. Therefore, we should be able to retain the vast majority of the PSNI’s business. Senior police officers have told me that that is what they would like to see happen. We are open to the fact that they have the right to compare our costs and service levels with what is available elsewhere.

Because there is a market in England and Wales, and because PSNI is a part of the Association of Chief Police Officers, there is a market aspect to this whole provision. There is also the criminal justice system here which, I would argue, is more important than the marketisation. We are confident that we will do it. We have a business development directorate, whose sole responsibility is to ensure that we provide customer satisfaction and that customers want to stay with us. However, where there is a market, there will be no 100% guarantees.

Mr O’Dowd:

Is it simply based on best value for money? Does the PSNI go to the open market, and suppliers bid for their business?

Mr S Brown:

Yes and no. It is best value, but not just in terms of unit price: there is much more to it than that. It is a complex, wrapped-up service with respect to responsiveness. We are confident that we can be highly competitive in our home market because of our physical proximity to our customer and to scenes. It would be very hard for any provider based outside this country to match that. We may also be competitive in taking some business in England and Wales. We also partner with other laboratories in Europe and further afield, as well as across the UK and Ireland. There is potential for partnering with competitors and adding some of our services to theirs as they compete for business. Forensic science is a very collaborative area.

Mr O’Dowd:

You mentioned the ruling of the European Court on the preservation of DNA evidence. What are the implications of that ruling? Can we have a little background?

Mr S Brown:

This is a ruling known as S and Marper. Two people were arrested, and samples of their DNA taken. Later, they were released without charge. The European Court ruled that their DNA should not be retained on the DNA database. At that time, DNA profiles of anyone who was arrested were retained. We have to go through all our many, many thousands of DNA profiles — and physical samples, which we hold in deep freeze — isolate those belonging to people who were not subsequently charged or convicted and remove them from the system. The administration of that will be quite time-consuming. It affects the whole of the UK, except for Scotland. Scotland already conforms to the European Court’s ruling.

The impact on cases is that there will be fewer hits on people who might turn out to be of interest in an investigation. In the case of sex offenders, I understand that DNA will be retained whether or not they are subsequently charged.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Are there any other developments in the criminal justice system that will have a similar impact?

Mr S Brown:

Yes. The other example that I mentioned was the Forensic Science Regulator, who controls all forensic science in the UK. Partly in response to the Omagh bomb trial, the regulator has been looking at the contamination-control measures around the end-to-end process of DNA samples. He may come out with requirements for an enhanced way of controlling DNA handling, and in order to comply with that we may need to invest in facilities and consumables, and allow more time.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Does value added tax (VAT) have any impact on you?

Mr S Brown:

We are VAT-registered in our own right, separately from the Department.

The Deputy Chairperson:

A question that the Committee has asked of all witnesses is whether there is any issue that you have not raised here that may emerge further down the line to put additional demands on your budget.

Mr S Brown:

We need to maintain our capabilities. The broad scope of capability that we have is very good indeed for the size of our lab. Maintaining those capabilities is very important, because they synergise with each other. The issue may arise about whether — in case of future need — we wish to maintain a capability that is particularly underused. There is also the fact that science changes constantly, and one is never quite sure what will come along. As recently as 12 or 15 years ago, DNA testing was not standard practice; that has had a huge impact on laboratories such as ours.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

For the record, I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board.

One of the pressures that you identified was that you are in temporary accommodation. Will you outline some of the problems that you face as a result?

Mr S Brown:

We are based in a converted cigarette factory; most of our staff work without seeing daylight from morning until evening. In winter, we never see it at all. The other accommodation consists of Portakabins outside. That creates a workflow problem. We have to keep our exhibits separate — for example, of a suspect and an injured party — in order to avoid creating a false connection. We must decontaminate the inspection rooms between cases. Those flows, and being stuck for space, mean that it takes us longer to do that. Processing material would be much easier and decontamination quicker in a new building, because there would be reserve capacity that would obviate those bottlenecks.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

How far down the line are you towards achieving a newbuild project?

Mr S Brown:

We have a conceptual design; we have sized out the floor spaces that we need for each of the specialist forensic areas; we have specified the high-level finish and equipment that we need; and, based on that, we have done an analysis of what the building will cost.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Which is how much?

Mr S Brown:

Roughly £50 million. The outline business case is currently being prepared and will hopefully be submitted in the next two or three months. We will then go into full design. We will have a tendering process for architects to quote against that particular specification.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

At what point do you foresee being under real pressure over accommodation?

Mr S Brown:

It will be a gradual process. The first thing that we will have to do if the Forensic Science Regulator rules that DNA contamination-control procedures must be ratcheted up even higher will be to spend money on the existing accommodation. It might cost £500,000 to bring that lab up to a satisfactory condition. Those things are very important in validating and supporting evidence for the courts.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

That is certainly true of recent trials. If there is any question at all about the forensic evidence, it can affect the result.

Mr S Brown:

That is right. Quality is absolutely critical.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

That is one fairly significant cost for you. From what I gather — do not pull any punches, because it is better to know early on — it will be an immediate pressure.

Mr S Brown:

It becomes an immediate pressure if and when the regulator rules that those additional standards are required. For other operational reasons, we may choose to gradually move premises ahead of the regulator’s decision.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Do you have a location in mind?

Mr S Brown:

We have a putative location, which we are not 100% certain that we will get. However, we are reasonably confident that we have a site that meets our purposes.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Will you have to spend money purchasing that site?

Mr S Brown:

No, it is a publicly owned site.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

It is a land swap. Thank you.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for your evidence and your patience. We hope that the lunch in some way compensated for your long delay. Thank you very much.

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