The Home Office has not ruled out yet further delays and cost increases in its much-delayed and over-budget project to replace its communications system for emergency services, officials have admitted.
In a combative evidence session convened by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last week, it also emerged that despite the Home Office’s plans for a “phased roll-out” of the replacement Emergency Services Network, hardly any emergency services are willing to take it up until the full roll-out in three years’ time.
Developing and deploying the ESN, which will replace the existing Airwave service for police, firefighters and other emergency services, is expected to cost £9.3bn – nearly 50% more than its initial budget.
Nearly half of the additional cost came from a three-year extension of Airwave to December 2022 agreed with its provider Motorola last year, when it became apparent there was no way the new system would be ready in time.
But giving evidence to parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last week, Stephen Webb, senior responsible owner for the ESN, said December 2022 was “actually a not before date” rather than a hard deadline.
"2022 is the earliest date at which we would shut off Airwave," he said.
He said the revised programme budget included contingency funds that could be used to support up to a year’s further extension of Airwave.
Home Office perm sec Philip Rutnam added: I would say to her that the end of 2022 is our target for the earliest date at which we would be able to shut down Airwave
Oliver Lodge, a National Audit Office director also present at the meeting, clarified that the budget included £714m of contingency funding, “based on probabilistic analysis and a number of assumptions, one of which is a potential one-year extension”. Additional funding may therefore be needed if other issues arise that delay progress.
But the officials confirmed that in the event of further delays, the Home Office would have to renegotiate the cost of extending with Motorola beyond December 2022.
Joanna Davinson, chief digital and data officer, said that if an extension is needed, the Home Office may choose to extend only parts of the Airwave service rather than the entire package. She said there were “provisions in the Airwave contract that limit the extent to which Motorola can put the price up unreasonably”, but conceded that Motorola would not necessarily offer the Home Office the same terms in the event of an extension.
The admission came just a few weeks after the National Audit Office warned that costs could rise further and urged the Home Office to come up with a contingency plan in case it is unable to develop elements of the technology needed to make the network function in time.
At last Wednesday’s hearing, officials set out the proposed timelines for the Direct 1.0, Connect and Direct 2.0 phases of the programme, which each represent different phases of the technology needed to make the ESN work.
Webb told MPs that the Home Office was “on track” to meet its first milestone for the phased ESN roll-out, with the deployment of Direct 1.0, the first iteration of the ESN’s “push to talk” function, in July. It will be followed with the roll-out of Connect in September, and then Direct 2.0 towards the end of the year.
But Webb said it would be mostly immigration enforcement officials, rather than emergency services, that would adopt the technology at these points. In the Direct 1.0 phase, the technology would be deployed to around 120 users, “largely in the immigration enforcement area”, growing to around 1,000 with the onset of Direct 2.0.
“Generally, the users need to decide when [to adopt the ESN]—particularly the three emergency services. The emergency services do not really want to go operational until the latter versions of the product, but they absolutely want to see how it works,” Webb said.
‘A programme under strain’
Rutnam said it was apparent when he became permanent secretary in 2017 that the ESN was “a programme under strain and that there was a risk of additional time being needed”.
At that point the programme had just been overhauled, including a nine-month extension, but Rutnam said it was clear that it may not be possible to complete it in that timeframe.
“Given that the nine months had only recently been crystallised, that sounded a big warning alert for me,” he said.
One critical problem reason for the delay was that two of the project’s main suppliers were using different technical criteria – known respectively as Release 10 and Release 12 – to develop technical elements of the network, which later proved incompatible.
The extent of the problems this caused only became apparent around the time when Rutnam joined the department, when the software was tested for the first time.
“We had some really significant problems with it – we had a series of new information that revealed a whole series of problems with the programme that would not have been obvious until we had seen that,” Webb said.
Webb confirmed that the Home Office had known that Motorola and EE were using different releases before this point, but added, “until we actually saw it live in testing, it was not clear how big the problem was.”
Rutnam said he believed there was neither sufficient senior oversight of the ESN programme, not sufficient programme assurance when he arrived at the department. He responded by appointing a Davinson as CDIO, he said.
The admission comes after cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, Rutnam’s predecessor as Home Office perm sec, was forced to defend the ESN before the committee last month, saying it was “not reasonable” to describe it as a failed project. However, he admitted he had been “uneasy” about the scale of the project.