UK using ‘outdated’ DNA forensics kits
According to a European research committee, forensic science in the UK is using outdated equipment in DNA profiling, falling behind most western European countries, which are using more advanced technologies.
Professor Peter Gill, from the University of Oslo told a Commons select committee that UK systems could eventually not be comparable with those from overseas:
“[The] UK is currently locked into outdated technology that is more than 10 years old,” he said. “This means that cases will not be analysed using best practice methods.Cross-border comparisons with other countries will be compromised since the systems in use will no longer be entirely comparable.”
Traditionally, the UK has been one of the leading countries in terms of forensic technology, but as of late, the system has really fallen behind, and now, we’re only one of the 4 EU countries that had not upgraded to a marker set recommended by the EU.
However, the Home Office argued thatt techniques used in serious cases were already “as sensitive, if not more sensitive, than those being proposed”:
“While we recognise this new profiling technology has benefits, its introduction needs to be handled carefully to ensure it does not compromise the integrity of our existing forensic DNA techniques,” the spokesperson said.
But this is also a sort of confession – the sensitive equipment being used only in “serious cases”. Experts also say that the “chemistry” that underlies DNA testing kits used by UK forensic science labs is now more than a decade old and that newer, more sensitive systems can obtain results from even low quality samples – improving success rates. This is the kind of information that can make or break a case.
Dr Chris Maguire, from the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Sciences (NUCFS), was pretty worried about the situation:
“If you change your system to one of the new European standard marker sets, and you have a crime stain with a match in [the old system] and you want to upgrade it – what do you do? You’ve got to go and find the individual and ask them for another sample, instead of just going to the second swab, re-processing it and confirming it.”
Dr Sue Pope, from Principal Forensic Services, agreed:
“The effect will be that upgrading to the ESS system will require taking another sample, with obvious costs,” she explained.
There is another problem with the system: UK’s new Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 allows DNA samples to be stored for a maximum of six months before they are destroyed – a period many forensic scientists believe to be insufficient. But the Home Office reacted once again:
“For too long we failed to collect the DNA of prisoners while still retaining information about people who were arrested but never charged. We are now taking steps to ensure that we no longer retain the DNA and fingerprints of innocent people. Through the Protection of Freedoms Act we are protecting the privacy and human rights of the public while keeping them safe from crime by ensuring the right people are on DNA databases.”
Argue what you want, but one thing’s for sure: the UK forensic system is really starting to fade out, and this is one of the core elements of crime fighting.