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Home Office ‘seriously’ considered ESN shutdown

New disclosures from those responsible for the troubled Emergency Services Network project have revealed that, contrary to previous denials, the Home Office came close to pulling the plug earlier this year

The Home Office has admitted that it gave “very serious” consideration to whether or not it should abandon the troubled and delayed Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), the ongoing project to replace the terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network currently used by the UK’s emergency services with a 4G mobile network, the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

Earlier this year, the Home Office disputed the accuracy of media reports that claimed the government was considering ditching the ESMCP altogether. It insisted that although the possibility had been suggested, it would almost certainly never have happened.

Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam branded the initial report “an exaggeration and misleading, as so often in journalism”.

He added: “It is always an option in a programme to consider not proceeding with it. It is wise to consider that option. Is that what we are intending to do, is that what we are aiming to do? No.”

However, speaking to an evidence session of the Greater London Authority (GLA) Oversight Committee, ESMCP programme director Bryan Clarke confirmed that, in the initial stages of the reset process, the possibility of shutting down ESMCP altogether was given more than just lip service.

“We are two-thirds of the way through what we are describing as the reset of the programme,” he said. “So we have completed the first two phases of that. The first one was to really look very seriously as to whether we should continue with the programme or not, and we did a very serious comparison of the two alternatives and we concluded, quite clearly, I think, that if we could find a way of completing the project effectively, it was quite clearly the right thing to do – and the advantages were significant.”

Computer Weekly understands that the two alternatives that Clarke referred to were the shutdown of the project or a retreat to a phased, incremental roll-out, which is what has since been announced.

Clarke also revealed that although the Home Office has now negotiated the possibility of extending its deal with Airwave to continue using the Tetra network beyond the initial planned shutdown date of 31 December 2019, it had not yet formally exercised that option.

“The current contract with Airwave terminates in December 2019 and we are obliged to give 12 months’ notice if we want to change the shutdown date,” he said. “We will formally need to give notice that we are changing the shutdown date in December.

“It is worth pointing out that there is no alternative available beyond December next year, and so if we don’t extend then, we won’t have an emergency services network in play.”

‘We don’t have a strong track record’

Clarke went on to tell the GLA committee that there were currently two key areas of risk around the ESMCP, the biggest of which was the Home Office’s inability to execute against the plan.

“We don’t have a strong track record of delivery to date on the programme,” he said. “I think we have a very viable recipe for success, but we need to bake the cake.

“We have a series of milestones and measures of behaviours and ways of working that we can tick off between now and Christmas. My feeling is that our confidence should rise significantly in our ability to mitigate those risks as we evidence that we can do it over the coming weeks.

“For example, we will deliver the first product within a month. We will also deliver the first push-to-talk application, and we will witness the next version of the push-to-talk application operating in the US with FirstNet before Christmas.”

The other set of risks for ESMCP are associated with managing the uncertainties of the programme, said Clarke. He pointed out that there were a number of areas in such an ambitious programme where it was impossible for the Home Office to be definitive in how they would resolve themselves.

While there is a plan that targets these areas and sets out desired outcomes, as more information becomes available through ESN testing, there is potential that things might get more expensive, take longer, or become otherwise more challenging, he said.

“We are factoring that explicitly into our planning so that we know what sort of contingency we need to build in, and that’s in the business case,” said Clarke.

“Why is there that level of uncertainty? The plain fact is that we are a world first in terms of what we’re aiming to achieve. It’s a highly technically ambitious programme.”

The uncertainties picked out by Clarke during the evidence session include how the much-vaunted push-to-talk application might be deployed effectively in a police helicopter or air ambulance, and how a mobile signal will be provided on the London Underground.

Angry exchanges

Last week, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), to which the repeated problems with ESMCP have become a source of frustration, was again the scene of testy exchanges between Home Office representatives and MPs.

At October’s evidence session,  Rutnam again came under fire after disclosing that a three-year extension to the Airwave network would cost £1.1bn, which would fall to local emergency services.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said it was “frankly unbelievable” that Rutnam had utterly failed to include details of this cost in a letter sent to her office earlier in October.

Hillier said the cost overruns would eat up five years of the £200m a year that ESN is supposed to save the taxpayer, while Rutnam insisted that ESN still represented value for money.

The Home Office has been approached for comment on this story.

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