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Home Office chief Rutnam defends ESN progress before PAC

David Bicknell Published 14 November 2017

Home Office permanent secretary admits “challenging” project remains behind schedule before terse MPs’ questions over delays, local funding and installation on the London Underground


Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam yesterday mounted a robust defence of his department’s delayed project to overhaul emergency services communications.

In a hearing before the Public Accounts Committee {PAC) he admitted the project remains behind schedule and declined to provide a new timetable for the project, saying the timeline is currently still under review. He also declined to provide complete financial support to local forces that might be impacted by the project’s delays.

The project, which was due to be rolled out geographically from this autumn, starting in the North-West was running around nine months behind schedule, Rutnam said.

“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. What we are doing now is 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’s clear that the programme will take longer. But I’m afraid I cannot give you now a date for when the programme transition will begin because we are in the midst of that review. It’s clearly going to be more than nine months but I’m afraid I can’t give you a timetable. But the programme continuesto make good progress on a whole range of fronts.”

Pointedly asked by one committee member, Tory MP Nigel Mills, ‘What’s its risk rating now? Is it scarlet red with lights flashing now, this one?’, Rutnam said he was unable to give a rating. 

He said, “Well as I think you know, the government’s policy is to publish the risk ratings on GMPP programmes roughly six months after the Major Projects Authority (MPA) has completed its reviews so I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say the risk rating at this hearing because the government’s policy is to publish these six months in arrears. So it will be published in due course.”

Rutnam defended the project, saying he did not accept Mills’ suggestion that “it looks from your letter of 31 October, Mr Rutnam, that it was only you turning up in the department that led to it being looked at bit more closely.”

“No. I don’t accept that. That’s not correct,” Rutnam said. “This programme is as you say a challenging programme. It’s also a necessary programme. Sincemyarrival in the department, I have sought to take a close personal interest in the matter which can only be helpful. But this programme has been right at the top of the department’s agenda.  Right at the top in terms of the scale and complexity of our change programmes for a number of years. And the department has consistently sought to put a lot of effort into it.”

Responding to Mills’ suggestion that the department was overconfident and is now playing catch up on  the project, Rutnam said, “This is a challenging programme. It is very complex in terms of the range of stakeholders involved, in terms of the number of component parts there are and it is also in certain limited respects, technically innovative. It is a complex and challenging programme.

On getting ESN into the London Underground, Rudman said, “I think we have made good progress at a number of levels with Transport for London. Yes, we are confident. There is a technical solution which is now well defined for extending coverage through the Tube. The programme with TfL is well underway. The first phase of it is already happening. The second phase starting procurement. “

Pressed by committee chair Meg Hillier whether the Underground programme would be in place by next December, Rutnam said, “So the schedule actually involves some deliverables by December. Other deliverables I think by mid 2019. So I don’t want to pin everything on the December 2018 date. But there is a programme with TfL. TfL’s level of co-operation with this programme is now very good and we have significantly intensified our work with them over the last several months.”

Rutnam was then asked by the committee who is going to be paying for the project delays. Hillier asked, “Is there going to be any additional costs for local forces, brigades? Have you looked at the cost for individual areas and the individual services in those areas? Is this the costs associated with the delay in the entire programme?”

Rutnam said, “There will be some additional costs associated with the delay in the programme. I would distinguish two types of costs. One is the fact that we will need to keep running, if it’s more than a nine month delay, we will need to keep Airwave running longer. We will obviously address commercial issues with Motorola but nonetheless it will cost more to keep Airwave running for longer. 

“That’s one type of costs. There is also another type of cost which is the costs of the programme itself – it is going to cost more to deploy the new solution  in the Tube, and there are also the costs of running the programme itself, the team, which you need to keep running for longer.”

Hillier responded, “There are lots of concerns around the House about the costs to the individual forces and are you going to cover that?”

Rutnam replied, “The costs of Airwave at the moment are split several ways as I understand them. The bulk of the costs are actually borne by the Home Office centrally.

“There are some costs for local emergency services. We are not planning to provide additional funding to emergency services associated with the individual costs they may face associated with say, needing to replace Airwave handsets or something like that.

He continued, “There are different categories of cost. There are costs that may be borne by individual police forces or fire and rescue services associated with handsets, which I believe are borne locally. We would not propose to find any funding specifically for those.  Then there are the costs of the Airwave extension as a whole which include the main costs associated with the programme which are borne centrally by the Home office.

The National Audit Office chief Sir Amyas Morse also intervened in the hearing to raise the prospect of the additional investment that would be needed in Airwave.

He said, “If memory services me rightly, it was pretty clearly spelt out that if Airwave continued for any length of time there would have to be a substantial additional investment in Airwave to equip it for longer running. I take it that hasn’t changed. Have I remembered that correctly?

That’s not just continuing to pay for Airwave, that’s a substantial capital contribution. That’s correct isn’t’ it? Do you think they’ll just pay for that, do you?”

Stephen Webb, the senior responsible owner for the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme at the Home Office said he believed Motorola should absorb the additional Airwave investment.

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