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PAC prepares to flush out updates to Emergency Services Network timeline

David Bicknell Published 15 February 2018

Public Accounts Committee hearing next week is expected to step up its scrutiny of the delayed Home Office programme and press for specific details of an updated schedule for ESN’s nationwide rollout


The Home Office is likely to come under pressure over the next few weeks to provide an update on progress towards the delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN), the voice and data network for the emergency services which will run over a commercial 4G network.

The project was due to be rolled out to individual police forces starting in the North-West in the Autumn of last year but the start of that rollout was put back, with transitioning not beginning before June 2018.

The Home Office had intimated late last year that there was likely to be an update on the programme at the end of 2017, which, Government Computing understood, “may or may not include an update of the timeline.”

However, it is understood there has been no update on the programme nor any new timeline.

Next week, however, things may become clearer, because the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) will hold a review hearing on Wednesday February 21, part of its regular scrutiny of the project.

Its witnesses will be Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam, and Senior Responsible Owner, for the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) Stephen Webb. 

At a previous hearing last November, Rutnam told the committee, “…earlier this year we announced that there would be a nine-month delay in the programme and that it would not begin transition before June 2018. We are now reviewing the timetable for the programme—both schedule and cost—because since the Department came to the Committee last, there have been further delays. It is clear that the programme will take longer, but I am afraid I cannot give you a date now for when the programme transition will begin, because we are in the midst of that review.”

The committee is likely to press both Rutnam and Webb for further updates on the delay and an indication of a renewed timeline for forces. It is also likely to press them as to whether an extension for the existing Airwave network will be necessary in the wake of delays. In the November evidence session, it emerged that notice to Airwave or Motorola of a need to extend Airwave for longer than expected had to be given as a contractual requirement by the end of 2018. 

There is no guarantee that a new timeline will definitely be forthcoming at the PAC hearing. Any new information given is likely to depend on what questions the committee decides to ask about progress on the programme.

A further update on ESN will also take place at the BAPCO emergency services conference in Coventry on March 20 and 21 when one of the speakers will be the ESMCP programme director Gordon Shipley. The fact that Shipley himself will attend the conference is perhaps a clue that the Home Office recognises the need to provide greater clarity on the programme’s progress.

In supplementary written evidence supplied to the PAC in November by Surrey and Sussex Police, the two forces expressed concern at ESN delays and warned of an estimated cost of £1.2m for the South East region for each month of delay. 

The forces said, “There is an ongoing cost of maintaining the existing communications service over a longer period. The cost of running Airwave has not reduced and any potential savings predicted as a result of the new ESN service have been moved into later financial years within Forces’ medium term budgets.”

As well as the potential savings on Airwave contracts and running costs (compared to the cheaper ESN service), forces in the South East region had planned to rationalise existing mobile phone contracts as a result of the new technology offered by ESN, the evidence said.

Forces had “planned the renewal of these commercials with mobile phone providers to coincide with the original timeframe for ESN.  The delay has resulted in an early re-negotiation of these contracts to bridge the gap between the old transition dates and the potential new ones. As a result, there is now no immediately feasible way to provide an alternative to officers’ digital equipment, resulting in additional cost, not expected,” the Surrey and Sussex forces said.

They added that, “Forces are concerned that any financial burden as a result of delay will fall to them in the form of a “top-slice” to Police Grant.” 

On strategic risks, Surrey and Sussex warned that due to the adverse publicity around the delay to the programme, there is a strong possibility of a loss of confidence in the product being delivered and the potential benefits that are seen to be now minimised.

The two forces said, “A number of benefits were set out as a result of the new technology, both operational and strategic: For the South East region, ESN is seen as an enabler to a collaboration ambition by providing a single shared technology, implemented in a consistent way to support operational policing.

“Operationally, the exploitation of ESN has numerous benefits to the Police Officers and staff on the frontline. It promises to provide up to date and future-proof technology with guaranteed service and supports the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) 2025 Digital Vision for the future of frontline digital enablement.

“The delay is minimising these benefits and as a result there could potentially cause a delay to further collaboration opportunities in the region to make better use of resources, ultimately impacting on service to the public.”

On technical risk, the pair said, “Plans for exploitation of the ESN technical opportunities have now been delayed within the medium term regional technical ambition.  Ageing technology will now not be replaced by ESN within the next 18 months which will have potential impact on Forces’ ability to rationalise the technology estate, resulting in a further cost burden to forces."

The Mayor of London's Office for Policing and Crime also has its concerns on ESN delays. In a paper requesting approval for release of capital funding for the Metropolitan Police's Emergency Services Network Strategic Project Team from November 1 2017 to March 31 2021, there was a note that the capital funding requested includes a 10% contingency "to allow for the current uncertainty around the Home Office delivery dates, the content and quality of the deliverables, and the impact this may have on the workload of the Emergency Services Network Strategic Project Team." 



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