Plans for a new communication network for emergency services have fallen further behind schedule, with the Home Office spending almost £2 billion on it since the programme began in 2015, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will enable every police, fire, and ambulance service across England, Scotland and Wales to continue to communicate by voice and data, between the field and control rooms. The existing Airwave network, provided by Motorola, continues to offer 99.86% availability. EE and Motorola both had contracts to provide elements of ESN.
By March 2023 the Home Office will have spent just under £2 billion on ESN, and a further £2.9 billion to maintain Airwave. However, eight years after proposals for a new system to replace the outdated Airwave platform were unveiled and having agreed Motorola will no-longer work on ESN after 2023, the Home Office does not currently know when ESN will be ready or how much it will cost.
In 2019, the NAO assessed the programme as poor value for money. A reset, started in 2018, has not worked. In 2021 the Home Office wrote to the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA). The Home Office considered that Motorola’s Airwave profits were excessive and had concerns about its incentives and ability to complete ESN within the time available. The CMA has provisionally estimated that, without a price control, Motorola could make super-normal profits of £1.1 billion between 2020 and 2026 from Airwave.
Motorola told the Home Office that it may not continue as a supplier when its contract ended in 2024. This was to remove the risk that the CMA would force it to sell Airwave. In December 2022, the Home Office agreed to end the contract with Motorola early and pay it £45 million; this included £27 million to settle disputes. Motorola has been paid more than £300 million since 2015. The Home Office does not expect to use the critical software or systems that it has paid Motorola for, although it considers that it has obtained some value from this work which, for example, can be used for testing.
After analysing its options, the Home Office will award a new contract to replace Motorola. The Home Office recognises that although Motorola leaving the programme will address significant risks it also creates further delays and uncertainty. Most notably, other suppliers’ work developing elements of ESN has been paused until the Home Office has replaced Motorola. This new contract will be the Home Office’s third attempt to introduce this technology, although the market for this technology has widened, and it has not yet been tested in real-world conditions to the scale necessary.
Other elements of the programme have also been delayed with some not able to progress until the Home Office replaces Motorola, although EE has nearly completed its work to establish the main network for ESN. More widely, the Home Office must still obtain planning permission for work on 42 of the 292 remote area sites and has paused considering how ESN will operate. The Home Office plans to award EE a new contract, without competition, to avoid delaying the programme, which it intends to recompete when the new contract ends.
Individual police forces will make their own decision about when to stop using Airwave and move to ESN. The Home Office told us it has now increased confidence in the programme’s leadership, who has improved user relationships which is critical to ESN being accepted.
The Home Office is developing a new business case for approval in 2024, which will set out a revised timetable and costing, alongside a strategic case for continuing the programme. This will take account of any charge control on Airwave that the CMA may propose. A provisionally proposed charge control could lead to potential savings for the taxpayer of more than £150 million a year.
The timetable for completion has been pushed back to 2026 at the earliest and is still uncertain. Maintaining Airwave into the 2030s could cost at least £250 million a year.
Regardless of how ESN is taken forward, the Home Office will need to improve the programme’s management information so it can monitor progress and identify where action is required.6
“After eight years and almost £2 billion, it is extremely worrying that the Home Office does not now know when the Emergency Services Network will be ready or what it will cost.
“Home Office is in the process of letting new contracts to put the programme on a sounder footing. It must now also put in place a realistic timetable and robust contractual and governance arrangements to address the significant risks this programme still faces and avoid any further waste of taxpayers’ money.”Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO
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