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PAC recalls ESN inquiry after Vodafone revelations

The Home Office officials in charge of delivering the Emergency Services Network have been questioned by the Public Accounts Committee after new information came to light concerning some of the existing subcontracts

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has reconvened its inquiry into delivery of the Emergency Services Network (ESN), a 4G mobile network for mission critical communications for the blue light services, after subcontractor Vodafone set a hard deadline for the cancellation of part of the old Airwave network.

The PAC held hearings in the autumn of 2016 to gather evidence for its inquiry, which was first launched after a National Audit Office (NAO) report branded the controversial project exceptionally risky.

The PAC published its own report on the ESN in January 2017, saying in the members’ opinion that it was unlikely the ESN was deliverable on schedule for the beginning of 2020.

Throughout the process, the Home Office stood by its claims that if the ESN was not ready by 1 January 2020 in some parts of the UK, it had contingency plans in place to fund the use of the old Airwave terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network for some time.

However, the government has now learned that Vodafone – which Airwave had subcontracted to supply infrastructure support services for the Tetra network – plans to withdraw these services on 31 March 2020.

Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary at the Home Office, told the committee that Airwave’s owners Motorola first notified the Home Office of this on 16 January 2017, and following a couple of weeks of deliberation contacted the PAC on 27 January to inform its members.

Committee chair, Labour member of Parliament (MP) Meg Hillier, said this was a concern because it committed the Home Office to a hard deadline for switchover, and told the Sedwill and Stephen Webb, the Home Office’s senior responsible officer for the ESMCP, that Vodafone had the Home Office “over a barrel”.

Sedwill refuted this, saying: “I don’t think that’s an accurate characterisation. We’ve been given notification at this point, we haven’t worked through it with them yet.”

Committee member, Conservative MP Richard Bacon, asked how the Home Office had got itself into a position where Vodafone could effectively hamstring a critical national infrastructure project.

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“We aren’t a supplicant,” Sedwill said. “We don’t think we’re at the point where we need to bring out the big guns.”

Webb said the issues that needed to be considered were the overall extension of the Airwave network that may be required as a result of the time that the emergency services may need to transition onto the ESN, and the specificities of how the retraction of the Vodafone service will impact the switchover.

The PAC has asked the Home Office to revert to it with more information on any commitments to pay more to upgrade the Vodafone capability, or further extension costs.

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