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UK Home Office sheds 70 staff on delayed 4G upgrade to Emergency Services Network

Perm Sec declines to confirm if review will be published as planned next month

The Home Office's massive project to replace the UK's radio infrastructure with a 4G network has shed 70 staffers and plans to expunge another 130, officials have said.

In a tense evidence session in front of Parliament's influential Public Accounts Committee, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office Philip Rutnam and the civil servant running the venture, Stephen Webb, were grilled on the Emergency Services Network (ESN) project's progress.

The ambitious plan will see the national radio infrastructure Airwave replaced with a £1.2bn EE-run 4G network, but it has been beset with delays and the Home Office is in the process of resetting the programme.

That, Rutnam told MPs, involved redesigning the team to make sure it was focused correctly – and the leaders have decided that the team, which currently numbers 340, could be smaller.

"We're in the process of downsizing the team," he said, adding that there was a large proportion of contractors and consultants working on the project – which suggests that these will be the first for the chop.

Webb said that about 70 staff had already gone, and that the aim was to get the number down to about 140 "probably by the end of the year".

Throughout the session, MPs expressed concerns about the project's future, which is now over budget and behind time. These delays cover not just the work but also a review of progress that was originally expected in January but got pushed back to July.

However, despite it being only a month away, Rutnam declined to guarantee delivery of the review next month. "I'm reasonably confident it will be done in that time scale," he told Lee Rowley, the Tory MP for North East Derbyshire, at the beginning of a drawn-out and at times frosty exchange.

In response, Rowley brandished a copy of The Register's report that one of the options the Home Office was considering was a complete shutdown of the 4G network.

Rutnam struggled to dispute any of the facts in the article, but complained about the "presentation" and "emphasis" that had been put on the options.

"Of course as we are in the process of resetting the programme, we look at alternative options... it is always an option to consider not proceeding with it," he said. But, he went on, this does not mean the "strategic intent" behind the ESN has changed and emphasised that the plan was still to move to 4G.

Rowley also pressed the permanent secretary on whether he had all the data necessary to complete the review, how well briefed the department’s ministers were and what the new timeline for the project looks like.

Rutnam refused to be drawn on most of the points, declining to give a final date for completion and instead highlighted the fact the department was now opting for an incremental approach.

Expanding on this, Webb said that two elements of the work – critical data and critical voice – would start being rolled out at the end of this calendar year and the start of 2019, respectively.

This would mean services reached some users before others, although this would be done based on which users were interested in using them first.

For voice, the group is having advance discussions with immigration enforcement services, he said, while ambulance trusts were tipped as early adopters for data, especially if they were updating their mobile data terminals.

"It's relatively simple to put in an ESN SIM card and have far better data quality," he said. "Ambulances are reaching the borders of what they can do with commercial broadband as it stands."

Elsewhere, the officials were quizzed on the Home Office's preparations for Brexit, including how it would deal with increased pressures at the borders and plans for continued access to security and intelligence databases. ®

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