The Home Office has yet to “get a grip” on whether it can deliver its Emergency Services Network programme despite extending its budget and deadline multiple times, MPs have said in a scathing report that questioned whether the programme would ever deliver value for money.
In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee said an “unhealthy, good news culture” at the Home Office had meant officials ignored warning signs that the programme to deliver ESN, which will replace the emergency services communication network Airwave, was undeliverable.
“Many of the issues with the department’s original approach were foreseeable and should have been challenged earlier,” the MPs said of the programme, which is now expected to cost £9.3bn – nearly 50% more than its initial budget.
Since work on the programme began in 2011, the programme has been delayed on several occasions, once because it emerged that technology developed by two of the programme’s suppliers was incompatible.
And just a few weeks ago, the Home Office revealed in a contract notice that it had extended the deadline for completion of the service by another year to December 2024 and agreed to pay supplier Motorola an extra £82m to adopt an off-the-shelf "push-to-talk" product.
The MPs said despite the multiple revisions to the programme, they had yet to be convinced that the Home Office would be able to deliver the programme. Some of the technology needed to make the network function is not yet ready and the department does not yet have a fully developed plan for how and when each emergency service will deploy ESN, they said.
The report also questioned whether the department had the “plans or skills” to integrate the different elements of ESN into a coherent service, and officials’ ability to manage the commercial risks faced by the programme, given their failure to date to ensure contractors delivered ESN to the agreed timetable.
The Home Office has consistently said the ESN will eventually be cheaper to run than Airwave. However, its latest estimate is that this will not be the case until 2029, seven years later than expected, according to the 2015 business case.
But the department’s cost forecasts for ESN will not be finalised until its revised business case for the programme is approved in early 2020 – over a year later than planned.
And the MPs said it seemed “inevitable” that the £9.3bn cost would increase still further. “This will further delay the point at which ESN is cheaper than Airwave, weakening the argument for continuing with ESN,” they said.
Continued delays to ESN were “likely to create cost pressures for emergency services” as they may need to buy new Airwave devices while they wait for its replacement to be completed, the report said.
Last year the National Audit Office found that delays were already costing the Home Office’s police budget £330m a year, because of the cost of maintaining the current Airwave system.
And further issues could arise because the intended users of the network – emergency services including police and fire services – also lack confidence that the ESN will meet their needs, the report added.
It said although the Home Office has said it will not force services to use ESN until they are content that it is “as good” as Airwave, “but it has not defined what this means with sufficient clarity”.
“It has also yet to confirm what happens if some users require expensive changes before they will accept ESN.”
Committee chair Meg Hillier said the MPs 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”.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
She added: “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.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the ESN could “transform” emergency response for police, fire services and ambulance crews and save £200m a year.
“This ambitious project has not been without its challenges, but following our thorough review and decision to roll ESN out in stages, our approach has gone to plan, with the network already live and devices and software being tested,” they said.
“We will continue to monitor progress to ensure the successful delivery of this programme.”