A three-year extension to the emergency service communication network Airwave caused by delays to its replacement will cost an estimated £1.1bn, the Home Office has confirmed.
In a tense hearing in which MPs questioned whether the upgrade represented value for money, Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam also confirmed the cost of replacing equipment needed to maintain the existing system will fall to local emergency services.
Last month the Home Office earned the ire of the Public Accounts Committee after saying it would begin rolling out the services for the new emergency communications system in stages beginning next year. The network had been expected to be operational before the end of next year.
It did not say when the rollout would be completed, but confirmed that it would extend the lifespan of the existing system, Airwave, for three years. In a letter to the committee this week, Rutnam said the final versions of the programme’s voice and data elements would not be available until Autumn 2020.
In one of several stern rebukes to Rutnam throughout yesterday’s hearing, committee chair Meg Hillier said the letter was “frankly unbelievable” as it included no details of the cost of the Airwave extension and few details about contracts with suppliers.
Rutnam said extending Airwave to the end of 2022 would cost “about £1.1bn”. He also confirmed the cost of replacing Airwave-compatible handsets policy and fire services have said they will have to buy because of the extension was a “matter for the emergency services”.
“We are not paying for the costs of handsets. There are costs for this programme which will fall to local emergency services,” he said. However, he insisted the programme represented value for money as the Emergency Services Network will save in the region of £200m per year compared to the existing system.
But Hillier argued that “five years of that £200m saving is already eaten up” by the extra cost of extending Airwave.
Rutnam also confirmed that the changes to the programme announced last month also included previously unplanned testing of the new system, but was unable to say how much testing would cost.
“The state of this programme will need to be taken into account in the spending review,” Rutnam said. Hillier responded: “If I were the Treasury I might be asking questions about how this was managed and whether Home Office deserves the extra money, or whether it has to come out of other parts of your budget.”
Another committee member, Lee Rowley, slammed Rutnam’s insistence that the Emergency Services Network upgrade represents good value for money because it will ultimately cost less than Airwave, saying the Home Office had taken a “totally relativist” approach to determining value for money.
“So if the Home Office is unable to find an alternative that is better value for money, it is happy to shovel money into any programme indefinitely, for a total amount of money which is totally uncosted because it still represents value for money?” he said.
Rowley asked when permanent secretaries should take responsibility for “dramatic and vast cost overruns, projects which have clearly run into the wall”.
Rutnam said he had taken responsibility for the delays but said “The project has not run into the wall.
“The project continues to move forward and in fact it continues to move forward better than any time I would say in the last several years. It is making good practical progress,” he said.
Ultimately, Hillier said, the delays to the ESN and other projects and the associated “spiralling” costs made the committee question the Home Office’s ability to “to take on, set up and manage and deliver major technological solutions which are essential to our emergency services”.