Northern Ireland Assembly: Private Members’ Business: Forensic Science Services (24 October 2011)
I thank the Members who have contributed to the debate thus far. In particular, I thank the Minister of Justice who has brought balance to the debate by discussing how the needs of forensic science in Northern Ireland meet the needs of the justice system. His contribution was important in dealing with the issue of forensic science on this island and co-operation elsewhere.
One important point is that what the Westminster Government are doing is dangerous. The privatisation of forensic science could mean — I am not saying this with certainty — a deterioration in standards, and, as Mr Craig said, an emphasis being placed on cost rather than quality. That is a danger and must be recognised by all. Forensic science is a public service and it should remain within the public service; it is not something that should be privatised. My own view is that there are certain things that can be privatised, but forensic science is one of those things that should be protected. It is a vital public service in the administration of justice.
Our forensic science laboratory does a good job and it has continued to do so in difficult circumstances, particularly given the condition of its current premises. That issue must ultimately be addressed; I know that there are plans to do so and those should be expedited. With an increasing emphasis on DNA and DNA-related methodologies, there is a need for premises to be clean and for the risk of contamination to be severely restricted.
I thank those who contributed to the debate, including my colleague Mr McDevitt, Mr Lynch, Mr Lunn and Ms Jennifer McCann, who all agreed with the amendment that we tabled. We tabled the amendment in good faith. Given the pressures that forensic science will come under as a result of its privatisation in England and Wales, we believe that there will be a greater need for additional capacity, and that could be provided for south of the border. Therefore, the memorandum of understanding, which is important and which is recognised by the SDLP, is an important step in that direction. There could, though, be a wider development that would be advantageous to both sides of the border, and in particular to Northern Ireland, given the circumstances that are imposed on us by the Westminster Government. That makes good sense in dealing with the additional pressures that we will face in Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to Mr Craig and his colleagues for tabling the motion. The motion is important, and it highlights the vital service that the forensic science laboratory in Northern Ireland provides to us and to the justice system. I thank Mr McCrea for his interesting contribution, and I regret that he cannot support the amendment. I also thank Mr Ross Hussey.
I must emphasise that the development of services on an all-island basis makes sense. The tripartite co-operation and memorandum of understanding that were referred to by the Minister are also important, and they will be helpful in the administration of forensic science in Northern Ireland. I hope that Members will see fit to unanimously support the amendment.