Ongoing ESN delays creating crisis of confidence
The Public Accounts Committee has reported that costs of the crucial ESN communications system continue to rise while the benefits to the emergency services remain unclear.
Effective, reliable mobile communications are vital for police, firefighters and ambulance crews to do their life-saving work. However, despite repeated warnings from experts and MPs, the Home Office’s programme to create the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) has been beset by problems. The committee finds that delays to the delivery of the programme have continued and costs have escalated. ESN is now three years late and expected to cost the taxpayer at least £3.1 billion more than planned.
The Home Office announced that it was to ‘reset’ the programme last year, but MPs remain unconvinced that it has done enough to turn the programme around. The plan for delivering ESN is still not sufficiently robust and the government does not yet have the skills to make it work. Furthermore, on current evidence it seems inevitable that there will be further delays and cost increases, with the committee concerned about the programme's progress and the Home Office’s ability to meet the challenges ahead.
The commitee suggests that the department should set out, by October 2019, a detailed, achievable, integrated programme plan including a realistic date for turning off Airwave and the cost of any extension of Airwave that may be needed and update the Committee when this plan is ready. The Home Office should also write to MPs by the same date setting out the steps that it has taken to: improve senior oversight of the programme; ensure assumptions are subject to appropriate challenge; and to make sure the findings of independent assurance reviews are widely shared and taken seriously.
Lastly, the department should, without delay, agree with users a set of specific and detailed criteria that will be used to determine when ESN is ready to replace Airwave, and who will ultimately decide when those criteria are met. Before contracting with a new delivery partner, analysis of the skills and tasks needed to integrate ESN should be established, how any skills gaps will be filled, and how lessons from the failure of the KBR contract will be applied to the new delivery partner contract.
Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: "The endless delay in delivering a new system for our emergency services to communicate and share data is creating a crisis of confidence as police, fire and ambulance on longer have trust in the new system being 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 anytime soon. In the meantime services are having to find work arounds and buy new equipment to prop up the old Airwave system.
“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. The key technology behind the ESN is not yet fully proven and we were 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.”