Home Office: final ESN product to be available in Autumn 2020

A letter from Sir Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary at the Home Office, together with oral testimony during a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing on 10 October has provided some additional details on the status of the project to roll out the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

In the letter (dated 8 October), Rutnam wrote that “We expect the first versions of critical voice and data products to be available from early 2019 with the final version of the product available by Autumn 2020.” He noted that the original plan was to start user transition in September 2017, which was subsequently shifted back by nine months due to contract changes.

Rutnam added that the review of the project has been completed and that it “concluded that ESMCP remains the right strategic approach to replacing Airwave and the programme continues to represent good value to money for the taxpayer. The review also concluded there is growing confidence in the technical viability of the solution, particularly given the improved software solution now being deployed. The programme team and governance has also been strengthened.” He then mentioned the need for the incremental delivery model that was announced on 21 September.

In his letter, Rutnam also said that: “The programme will work with users, sponsor organisations and stakeholders across Government to develop a revised Full Business Case with a view to getting this through governance in the New Year.” He added that “Clearly the delays in turning off Airwave mean that these costs will continue for longer, increasing costs over the life of the business case,” and said that the cost of the core system provided by Motorola Solutions and EE has not materially changed.

During the PAC hearing, Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said the committee was dismayed by the lack of detail in the 21stSeptember ministerial statement and the lack of a supporting document and described Rutnam’s letter as “frankly unbelievable” and “incredibly evasive”, highlighting the lack of any figures regarding the additional cost of extending the life of the Airwave network.

Rutnam responded by putting the cost of the Airwave extension to the end of 2022 “at about £1.1 billion pounds”. He added that “the alternative to the programme introducing an alternative to Airwave is to seek to rely on Airwave essentially forever and that would be much more costly…. The reason why the programme is taking to the end of 2022 is because that is the realistic timeframe given the complexity and scale of the programme, given the criticality to emergency services…”

Rutnam also said that he is “reasonably confident” that the revised contracts with Motorola Solutions and EE will be signed by the end of this year, noting the “enormous work” that the programme and its suppliers have put into the heads of terms, which he believes has resolved “most of the big issues”. He explained that he would be able to provide more figures with the intended completion of the final business case in the new year and noted that the National Audit Office “is also planning to… do a review of the programme to roughly that timescale.”

When asked for more detail on the ESN Assure product which the programme will deliver by the end of this year, Rutnam said that “It will be a device which provides automated information on network coverage… About 250 participants initially from across the emergency services will be using this device, carrying it around with them and that will provide automated information to us on network coverage, going to provide assurance about the actual level of network coverage and also therefore helping us to identify if there are particular gaps where the network needs to be strengthened. That’s just the first product which is already in an advanced stage of development.”

Prior to the PAC’s questioning of Rutnam, Hillier asked chief constable Michael Barton, Durham Constabulary whether his force will embracing the incremental delivery approach or wait and transition to ESN later.

He replied: “I don’t even know what the pick and mix [approach] is. The problem is you’re asking me a question that none of us know what we’re talking about because it hasn’t actually been designed. So, if you show me a couple of handsets and whether or not some officers will have to carry one or two, I’ll you what officers will say: ‘we’re not carrying two handsets’ and if the British Transport Police runs through my force area, I want [them] to be on the same system as I am and I want all my neighbours to be on the same system, because that’s the only safe way to run policing because the most challenging bits of policing that we do are where pursuits cross county and force boundaries, this is not to be toyed with.”

He also said that “My sense at the Chief Constables’ Council last week is that this [ESN] is probably one of the most pressing concerns facing chief constables.”

Jane Kennedy, Merseyside police and crime commissioner added: “The North West is the forerunner region, we are supposed to be the first to go onto the new system, there is deep anxiety at chief constable and PCC level across the region about what the implications might be.”

When Hillier put these concerns to Rutnam, he said: “I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Chief Constable Barton about this...We have of course talked to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), [it’s] lead Francis Habgood of Thames Valley, [we’ve] talked extensively to Sara Thornton of the NPCC, to Cressida Dick of the Metropolitan Police. There is strong support for the programme in policing, there’s a recognition of the need to get off Airwave, a recognition of the strategic driver around technology and technology capability.”

The PAC oral testimony can be viewed here (the questioning of Barton and Kennedy begins at 15:41:37, while Rutnam’s starts at 15:46:46).

Author: Sam Fenwick
11th October 2019