Mat Hayward - stock.adobe.com
The Home Office project to build a new communications network for the emergency services faces “substantial levels of risk”, and further delays and cost increases are “inevitable”, according to a highly critical report by MPs.
The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is already three years late and £3.1bn over budget, but the Home Office has still not done enough to turn the project around, says the report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Given the likelihood that costs will continue to increase, the business case for continuing with ESN could become increasingly weak, the MPs concluded as part of an inquiry into the troubled programme. The current forecast cost of ESN is £9.3bn, an increase of almost 50%.
“The plan for delivering ESN is still not sufficiently robust and the department does not yet have the skills to make it work,” said the PAC report.
“The programme faces substantial levels of technical and commercial risk, and failures to date have undermined the confidence of users that the programme will deliver a system that is fit for purpose and meets their needs.
“On current evidence it seems inevitable that there will be further delays and cost increases. The department has put itself in a position where the status quo is costly and leaves little option but to progress with ESN.”
The Home Office “reset” ESN in 2018, but even the revised plans have problems. The emergency services were due to start migrating to ESN in September 2017, but no plans yet exist to show when each of the police, fire and ambulance services will make the move away from the current Airwave network.
Some of the technology required for ESN, which is meant to be based on more modern 4G mobile communications, is still not ready, and the contract for Airwave has already been extended to December 2022. The National Audit Office said in September last year that ESN delays were costing an additional £330m per year.
The Home Office is acting as a systems integrator for the different elements of ESN, but the committee warned that it does not have the skills necessary to undertake such a role.
“Its plans for testing ESN are not well developed and its track record of coordinating this programme so far is poor,” said the report.
The MPs also questioned whether ESN will ever be better value than continuing with the current Airwave system. The Home Office expects ESN to be cheaper than Airwave by 2029 – seven years later than the original 2015 business case – by which time the likelihood of further delays and extensions to the Airwave contract could undermine the financial goals, “weakening the argument” for continuing with ESN, according to the PAC.
“The department should ensure it delivers a revised and approved business case, which the emergency services and the other funders of ESN support, by the end of 2019 at the latest. The business case should include an appraisal of when continuing to spend money on ESN ceases to be value for money and should set out a ‘plan B’ for what would happen if that point was reached,” said the report.
The committee blamed an “unhealthy good news culture” at the Home Office for missing problems in the project and failing to take opportunities to correct issues earlier.
“We have been warning that ESN is a high-risk programme since 2016, but only now does the department accept that it was too optimistic about how long it would take to build ESN,” said the report.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said the delays to ESN have caused a “crisis of confidence” in the emergency services, which no longer trust that the system will be delivered.
“Neither the emergency services nor the PAC are convinced that the Home Office has a credible plan to deliver a reliable and effective service any time soon. In the meantime, services are having to find workarounds and buy new equipment to prop up the old Airwave system,” said Hillier.
“The Home Office’s reset of the Emergency Services Network programme has failed to deliver any more certainty. The financial benefits originally predicted for this programme are rapidly evaporating and it will not now realise cost savings, on the most optimistic forecasts, for at least a decade,” she added.
“The key technology behind the ESN is not yet fully proven and we are not convinced that the Home Office has the capability and plans to deliver a coherent single system that provides the functionality and dependability the emergency services demand.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Emergency Services Network will provide police, fire services and ambulance crews with an innovative mobile-based communications system that can transform their emergency response and result in savings of £200m a year. This ambitious project has not been without its challenges, but following our thorough review and decision to roll ESN out in stages, our approach has gone to plan, with the network already live and devices and software being tested. We will continue to monitor progress to ensure the successful delivery of this programme.”
Last year, the Home Office revealed it had come close to abandoning the overarching Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme. Programme director Bryan Clarke told an evidence session at the Greater London Authority that the first phase of the reset had been to “really look very seriously as to whether we should continue with the programme or not”.
“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,” he said at the time.