Emergency Services Network to be hit by delays, warn MPs

Slippage of life-critical system could cost taxpayers millions

Hugely ambitious plans to replace the radio system used by the emergency services need more testing and are likely to face delays, the Public Accounts Committee has warned today.

The £2.9bn Airwave contract, which dates from 2000, will be switched off at the end of 2019 and replaced by the 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN) run by EE.

That will be used by the 105 police, fire and ambulance services in Great Britain.

But the committee found that the ESN “may require more testing and assurance work than the current December 2019 delivery date seems to allow for," said the PAC report.

It also warned the Home Office has not budgeted for an extended transition period, which would cost an estimated £475m for a year’s delay nationwide. Neither has the department put in place detailed contingency arrangements to manage this risk.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “The stakes in this programme are extremely high."

She said: "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 added: “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."

In November, the National Audit Office estimated that the programme was between five and 10 months behind target and emergency services representatives are less than 50 per cent confident that ESN will be delivered on time.

Work is ongoing to expand coverage of the EE network in remote areas and the London Underground but it is not clear whether this will include plans for other underground systems in the UK, said the Committee.

EE is being paid to roll out its network across Great Britain and into remote areas, with 250 new sites being funded directly by the Department.

The Home Office has negotiated a fixed price with Airwave’s new owner, Motorola, to extend Airwave if needed on a regional and monthly basis but detailed contingency plans to manage any such extensions have not been prepared.

The committee recommended the department budget for the cost of an extended timeframe and put in place arrangements for Airwave contract extensions as required.

It warned: "We are concerned that the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position when the ESN contracts are re-competed.

It also raised concerns about the letting of the two main ESN contracts, finding the Home Office “did not manage to maintain competitive pressure” in the process.

It concluded the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position when these contracts are re-competed and urges measures to ensure no individual supplier is favoured. ®

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