Home Office Criticised Over Delays to 4G Emergency Service Network

The National Audit Office UK exterior building

Amid mounting costs the National Audit Office has told the department to “get its house in order” as it flounders in its mission to deliver a replacement Emergency Services Network.

The National Audit Office (NAO), Whitehall’s spending watchdog, has said it is unlikely the Home Office (HO) will meet its new deadline to deliver the replacement network by 2022. According to NAO, one of the key reasons the project will miss its deadline for a second time is that the HO failed to grasp the challenges emergency services face.

The replacement of the Emergency Services Network (ESN), meant to replace the existing Airwave system, will cost an extra £3.1 billion more than expected and will be delivered three years late. Costing £9.3bn, the service will not be in service until after 2020, according to the NAO.

£1.4bn accounts for the cost of extending Airwave while £500m is to cover an increase in contingency funding; the remaining programme is predicted to cost £1.2bn more, but auditors have cautioned that cost forecasts are highly uncertain.

A scathing report attributes the 49% increase in cost to the taxpayer to the Home Office’s mismanagement, adding that the delay could go beyond 2022. The department has been accused of not heeding previous warnings around the delivery of ESN, in particular, those highlighted in the 2017 NAO report, which was released before the first delay.

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When it became apparent the HO would miss its initial deadline, it recommended that the programme be “reset” entirely. However, despite some improvements, wider mismanagement led to further delays according to NAO. It was expected that the emergency services would start using ESN by September 2017, with the transition finished by the end of the year.

Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “[The Home Office] has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order”. He said that it must draw up a comprehensive plan if it’s to introduce the new system, which is critical to the police, ambulance and fire services.

Since 2000, the UK’s emergency services have communicated using a dedicated digital radio network, Airwave. Its planned replacement, ESN, was intended to allow users to benefit from high-speed mobile data and save money by sharing an existing commercial 4G network.

The NAO asserts that the technology needed to enable effective communication using ESN, for example, aircraft such as helicopters are unable to receive the signal needed to communicate with those on the ground, or directly with one another without a network signal.

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The NAO report said: “There are still significant risks and, based on past performance, it seems unlikely that ESN can be delivered by the target date of 2022.”

Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, said: “ESN is to be used by police, firefighters and ambulance crews for the communications they need to do their life-saving jobs. The Home Office must take an urgent and honest examination of its ability to deliver to its new schedule for this critical project.

“When fully implemented, its mobile technology and infrastructure will transform the emergency response of police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews. This will result in faster and better treatment for victims.”



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