PAC voices continued concerns over ESN

The UK Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said that “significant costs are being created for emergency services” due to the protracted roll out of the Emergency Services Network.

The findings appeared in the committee’s fourth report on the project, which was published earlier this month. The document also stated that UK first responder organisations were having to deal with the aforementioned costs without a “specific mechanism put in place by government” to help bear them.

Following the most recent inquiry, the PAC has called on the UK government to explore how to help fund the transition to ESN. It has likewise called on the Home Office to look at provision of new devices for the still-incumbent Airwave network as well as maintenance of the legacy network itself. It has also asked for an “outline plan for the main building blocks of ESN” by the end of this year.

To quote the statement accompanying the report: “The PAC’s inquiry, its fourth into the delayed programme, looked into how much delays to ESN had cost the emergency services, which have had to pay for additional Airwave devices as a result.

"ESN transitional costs for the ambulance service amount to £9.5m, while the fire service said it had spent £6m preparing for transition, and £2m on early versions of ESN which now had to be replaced. Police forces estimate that Airwave devices cost £125m since 2018 and expect to spend another £25m by 2026.”

The statement continued: “Forces had spent a further £5m on transition teams. Further costs are inevitable, as current systems will be obsolete in 2028 and may need replacing again before ESN is ready.”

The report also states that the Home Office appears “complacent in its confidence” that it could reduce the risks to the project, and that “its optimism appears disconnected from the reality of its performance to date and the challenges ahead.”

The report follows Motorola Solutions’ recent departure from the project, which took place in light of its issues with the Competition & Markets Authority over the company’s provision of Airwave. Motorola was the original 'Lot 2' contractor, providing user services.

The statement continues: “Following Motorola’s departure from the project, to whom the Department estimates it has paid some £140m without the taxpayer getting full value, only limited further progress can be made before the Home Office finds a new supplier.

“Other challenges include integrating the various parts of ESN together, testing the technology, providing the right level of coverage and resilience, and transitioning all emergency services onto the new service.”

Public Accounts Committee chair, Dame Meg Hillier MP, said: “The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in government. There has never been a realistic plan for ESN and no evidence that it will work as well as the current system.

“Assertions from the Home Office that it will simply ‘crack on’ with the project are disconnected from the reality, and emergency services cannot be left to pick up the tab for continued delays. With £2 billion already spent on ESN and little to show for it, the Home Office must not simply throw good money after bad.”

Hillier continued: “A clear direction must of course be established for this long-delayed project, but ESN raises wider issues on the approach to public procurement. The Home Office told our inquiry that it admits the commercial approach taken with ESN is suboptimal, but will be pursuing it regardless.

“New risks will be created if it now rushes procurement or delivery as it searches for a replacement main contractor. The risks of outsourcing services must be better managed, as the government is still accountable for value for money when it does so.”

The core contracts to deliver ESN were awarded in 2015. It was originally anticipated that Airwave would be turned off in 2019.