PAC sounds further alarm over emergency services network plans
Committee worries Vodafone will stop providing infrastructure that enables current Airwave system to function; Home Office and Motorola insist they are not taking risks with public safety
The Public Accounts Committee has followed up a recent critical study into the Home Office’s emergency services communications plans by issuing a further hard hitting report.
The report , published today by the committee, highlights “new and serious concerns” about the provision of emergency service communications in Great Britain.
In the report, the committee warns that the government’s plan to replace the current Airwave system used by police, fire and ambulance services with a 4G-based new Emergency Services Network (ESN), taking part of the existing communications system out of service early “strikes a major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe”.
The committee had previously concluded in a report on the programme released in January that it was unlikely the December 2019 target date for delivering ESN would be met and that the Home Office would need to reassess its timescales.
It also concluded the Department had not budgeted for delays, nor put in place detailed contingency plans to manage them. The Home Office has since admitted that ESN will be delayed by around nine months until what is now estimated to be September 2020.
According to the committee’s latest report, “it has also now come to light that extending the Airwave contracts, the Department’s sole mitigation against delay in putting the new system in place, might not be possible.”
In January, the PAC said Motorola had informed the committee that Vodafone, a key supplier to Airwave, will from March 2020 “stop providing an important piece of infrastructure that Airwave requires to function, essentially turning it off.”
It continued, “This raised the possibility that emergency services may not be able to communicate with each other after March 2020 until transition to ESN is complete in September 2020.”
The report has called on the Home Office to get around the table with Motorola and Vodafone and discuss the options for resolving the Airwave issue.
It wants the department to provide the committee with regular updates on progress and estimates of any additional costs to the taxpayer.
It has also warned of the “significant and imminent risk” to the ESN programme of providing emergency communications underground, notably in London on the Tube system. It has called on Transport for London (TfL) and the Home Office to work together urgently to ensure there will be effective network coverage.
The committee said “it now seems inevitable that taxpayers will also be paying substantial additional sums, with no certainty of delivery.” It also said a change of leadership with a new Permanent Secretary at the Home Office added to its concerns.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said, “The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable.
“Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.
“Addressing this and other serious concerns about ESN raised by our committee today and in January are significant challenges for the new management at the Home Office.”
The strength of the committee’s feeling prompted the Home Office to issue a statement defending its ESN project and reiterating that it won’t take any risks with public safety in implementing ESN.
Brandon Lewis, minister for policing and the fire service said, “We are clear that we won't take any risks with public safety and there will be no gap in the emergency services’ communications provision. The existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to the ESN is completed.
“Keeping people safe is our priority which is why we are delivering the world-leading ESN to support our police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives".
The Home Office insisted that it is working together with TfL to install ESN in the London Underground in time to support the transition to the new network by the three emergency services in London. It promised that it will keep the PAC informed and said the first emergency services organisations should transition onto ESN in mid-2018.
Motorola Solutions issued its own statement responding to the PAC report. It said, “We are committed to a smooth transition of the emergency services from Airwave to the Emergency Services Network (ESN). Airwave is not being switched off early.
“We identified the need to upgrade the legacy core transmission network provided by Vodafone to ensure that Airwave can continue beyond its original operational end-date of March 2020. We are working with the Home Office and Vodafone to identify viable technical options to extend the service and will be proposing our recommendation in June 2017 to the Home Office. None of this impacts our Lot 2 delivery of the ESN for which we are on track.”