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Significant costs to emergency services caused by Home Office failures on communications network

14 July 2023

  • Home Office appears complacent in its confidence it could reduce risks to programme
  • PAC calls for plan with main building blocks of Emergency Services Network by end of year

Significant costs are being created for emergency services by the Government’s failure to deliver their replacement communication network. In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee finds that, with the delivery of the Emergency Services Network (ESN) facing continued delays, emergency services are facing financial pressures as a result with no specific mechanism put in place by Government to help them bear these extra costs.

The Government started the programme to deliver ESN in 2015 and expected to turn off current system, Airwave, in 2019. Airwave will eventually become obsolete and does not provide users with access to modern mobile data.  But the Government still does not know when ESN will be ready and, despite having spent some £2 billion, ESN has not delivered anything substantial or reduced any risks.

The PAC’s inquiry, its fourth into the delayed programme, looked into how much delays to ESN had cost the emergency services, which have had to pay for additional Airwave devices as a result. ESN transitional costs for the ambulance service amount to £9.5m, while the fire service said it had spent £6m preparing for transition, and £2m on early versions of ESN which now had to be replaced. Police forces estimate that Airwave devices cost £125m since 2018, and expect to spend another £25m by 2026. Forces had spent a further £5m on transition teams. Further costs are inevitable, as current systems will be obsolete in 2028 and may need replacing again before ESN is ready.

The report warns that the Home Office appears complacent in its confidence that it could reduce the risks to the project, and its optimism appears disconnected from the reality of its performance to date and the challenges ahead. Following Motorola’s departure from the project, to whom the Department estimates it has paid some £140m without the taxpayer getting full value, only limited further progress can be made before the Home Office finds a new supplier. Other challenges include integrating the various parts of ESN together, testing the technology, providing the right level of coverage and resilience, and transitioning all emergency services onto the new service.

The PAC is calling on the Government to explore how to help fund the transition to ESN, new Airwave devices and maintaining Airwave for emergency services, as well as producing an outline plan for the main building blocks of ESN by the end of 2023.

Chair's comments

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in Government. There has never been a realistic plan for ESN and no evidence that it will work as well as the current system. Assertions from the Home Office that it will simply ‘crack on’ with the project are disconnected from the reality, and emergency services cannot be left to pick up the tab for continued delays. With £2 billion already spent on ESN and little to show for it, the Home Office must not simply throw good money after bad.

A clear direction must of course be established for this long-delayed project, but ESN raises wider issues on the approach to public procurement. The Home Office told our inquiry that it admits the commercial approach taken with ESN is suboptimal, but will be pursuing it regardless. New risks will be created if it now rushes procurement or delivery as it searches for a replacement main contractor. The risks of outsourcing services must be better managed, as the Government is still accountable for value for money when it does so.”

Further information

Image: CCO