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Home Office still unsure when Emergency Services Network will be ready for use

Blue lights on police cars
Image source: Gush

The Home Office still does not know when the Emergency Services Network (ESN) will be ready for use, despite having spent almost £2 billion on the programme so far, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Central government’s auditor has published a highly critical report on the programme – which is aimed at providing a new voice and data network for police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales – indicating a serious waste of taxpayers’ money.

It also points out that the Home Office has had to spend a further £2.9 billion than expected on the predecessor Airwave network. This continues to work effectively, but the department cannot be sure that this will continue into the 2030s.

Two earlier NAO reports, in 2016 and 2019, assessed the ESN programme as high risk, and the new one says a reset from 2018 has not worked.

The situation has been complicated by the role of communications technology provider Motorola Solutions, with concerns that its profits from providing Airwave would hold it back from completing its work on the software and systems for the ESN. This led to an approach to the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), then an agreement for the company to withdraw from its contract with a payment of £45 million.

New contract to come

After analysing its options the Home Office will award a new contract to a different supplier, but this is causing further delays and the technology developed so far has not been tested in real world conditions to the necessary scale.

Other elements of the programme have also been delayed, with some not able to progress until a replacement for Motorola is signed up, although EE has nearly completed its work to establish the main network and is expected to be offered a new contract without competition to avoid additional delays.

More widely, the Home Office must still obtain planning permission for work on 42 of the 292 remote area sites and has paused considering how the ESN will operate.

The Home Office told NAO that it has increased confidence in the programme’s leadership, which improved the user relationships critical to ESN being accepted, and is developing a new business case with a revised timetable and costing for approval in 2024. This will take account of any charge control on Airwave the CMA may propose.

The forecast for completion has been pushed back to 2026 at the earliest but is still uncertain. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining Airwave could be £250 million a year, the report says.

Individual police forces will make their own decisions about when to stop using Airwave and move to the ESN.

Reassess objectives and timeframe

The report makes a series of recommendations to the Home Office, including that it completes its reassessment of the programme’s objectives, assumptions and timeframe, and establishes a process for continually assessing the investment required and risks by the end of this year.

It should also use its experiences from the user service contract to better manage the risks, improve the programme’s management information, ensure the new infrastructure has mechanisms to provide value for money, and provide a strategy to avoid future supplier lock-in.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: "After eight years and almost £2 billion, it is extremely worrying that the Home Office does not now know when the Emergency Services Network will be ready or what it will cost.

"Home Office is in the process of letting new contracts to put the programme on a sounder footing. It must now also put in place a realistic timetable and robust contractual and governance arrangements to address the significant risks this programme still faces and avoid any further waste of taxpayers' money."

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