The Home Office is still unable to say when a planned communications system for Great Britain’s blue light services will be operational, despite spending almost £2bn on the project, the Whitehall spending watchdog has said.
The proposed emergency services network (ESN), first announced in 2015, was supposed to have replaced the ageing Airwave system for police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales by 2020.
However, the National Audit Office (NAO) says despite the turn-off date for Airwave having been extended twice, first to 2022 and then to 2026, the Home Office now admits it is likely to be later, although it cannot say when or how much it will cost.
Motorola, which provides Airwave, was contracted to provide elements of ESN but in 2021 the Home Office wrote to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) expressing concern its profits from Airwave were “excessive” and acted as a disincentive for completing ESN on time.
After an initial estimate by the CMA that the company stood to make “super-normal profits” of £1.1bn, Motorola told the Home Office it may not continue as a supplier to ESN beyond 2024 amid fears it could be forced by the CMA to sell Airwave.
At the end of 2022, the Home Office agreed to end the contract early, paying Motorola £45m, taking the total spent with the company on the project to more than £300m, even though it does not expect to be able to use any of its critical software or systems.
Until a new contractor has been appointed, the Home Office cannot say when Airwave can be turned off.
In the meantime it has estimated that between April 2015 and March 2023, it spent £2bn on ESN and £2.9bn on keeping Airwave going. Maintaining Airwave into the 2030s could cost at least £250m a year.
The head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, said it was “extremely worrying” the Home Office still did not know when ESN would be ready or what it would cost.
“The Home Office is in the process of letting new contracts to put the programme on a sounder footing,” he said. “It must now also put in place a realistic timetable and robust contractual and governance arrangements to address the significant risks this programme still faces and avoid any further waste of taxpayers’ money.”