MPs have called on the Home Office to step up its contingency planning in case a new emergency communications system for the police, fire and ambulance services is not ready in time for its planned December 2019 switch-on.
Britain’s 105 police, fire and ambulance services currently communicate using the Airwave radio system, but the contracts for that scheme are set to expire in 2019.
By that time, the Home Office — with funding support from the Department of Health and the Scottish and Welsh governments — hopes to have the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) in place.
Home Office hindered by "depressingly familiar" leadership churn as it grappled with e-borders scheme, says PAC
Churn at the top of the civil service rewards managers, not leaders
Withdrawal of O2 leaves Home Office tender with just one bidder
The new system aims to cut costs by using the UK's existing commercial 4G mobile data network instead of a dedicated public service network, and Motorola Solutions and EE have been tasked with getting it up and running.
But a new report by the Public Accounts Committee warns that the “ambitious target date” for delivering ESN is “unlikely” to be met, with the separate National Audit Office spending watchdog already estimating that the programme is “between five and ten months behind target”.
According to the PAC, many emergency services are still awaiting “sufficient assurance” that ESN is “at least as good as” the existing Airwave system before committing to the switch, and the committee notes that the Home Office has slimmed-down its timetable for the region-by-region transition to ESN by three months.
"Convincing local bodies to use new services can be a difficult process" – Public Accounts Committee
“The Department told us it would not force emergency services to switch to ESN unless they were happy with it,” the committee said.
“We have observed previously that convincing local bodies to use new services can be a difficult process and believe it will be challenging to get all emergency services to collectively agree ESN is ready so that Airwave can be turned off as planned in 2019.”
The committee calls on the Home Office to take a fresh look at the timescales for the ESN programme, urging it to “work with emergency services” to ensure that transition plans for the new network are realistic.
“It must take responsibility for convincing services to switch to ESN but also be clear at what point it will mandate the switchover,” the MPs say.
The PAC also points out that the Home Office has not budgeted for any potential over-runs, “or put in place detailed contingency arrangements”, including possible contract extensions with its suppliers, to manage the risk that the switchover is not complete by the end of 2019.
Despite the risks identified by the PAC’s report, there is praise from the group of MPs for the project’s lack of leadership churn, a frequent bugbear of the committee.
The report notes that the emergency service’s project’s most senior official — its Senior Responsible Owner — “set up the programme in February 2011 and had remained in post since then”, with low staff turnover “throughout the life of the programme”.
“The Department told us it had staff who were very committed to the project and that this made a huge difference,” the committee says. “The stability of the ESN programme team contrasts
favourably with other high-profile programmes we have examined, such as e-borders, where lack of continuity in senior posts presented a considerable challenge to successful delivery.”
However, the committee’s report does raise concerns over a lack of “competitive pressure” in letting either of the two main contracts that make up the ESN. For both the user services contract — which involves providing data centres and help desks for the project — and the network contract, one of the final suppliers withdrew from the tendering process, an outcome the PAC says left the Home Office “exposed to a potentially uncompetitive single-supplier situation”.
“The department should review its tender arrangements to ensure it does not rule out potential bidders too quickly, to avoid future single supplier situations,“ the PAC recommends.
Launching the report, PAC chair and Labour MP Meg Hillier said the stakes involved in launching the programme were “extremely high”, and called on central government to do more to ensure that blue light services are satisfied with the quality of the new system.
“It is absolutely right that emergency services will not commit to using ESN in potentially life-or-death situations until they are convinced it works,” she said.
“Questions continue to hang over the technology, not least how it will operate on underground rail systems in London and elsewhere — high-risk environments that present unique challenges in emergencies. These must be addressed urgently.”
Hillier added: “It is encouraging that the head of the ESN programme has remained in post since 2011, providing a degree of stability absent from some high-profile projects ourcCommittee has examined.
“However, we are disappointed that detailed contingency plans have not been budgeted for or drawn up in the event that, as now seems likely, implementation over-runs.”
A Home Office spokesman said: "The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will give the dedicated professionals who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives the most advanced communications system of its kind.
"Police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews will be able to do their work more effectively with ESN and the new system will deliver significant savings for the taxpayer.
"The timescales are ambitious because we want to get the most from technology that will help save lives but we are clear that no risks will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to ESN is completed."