Theresa May’s plan to launch a new communications network for the emergency services will cost £3.1bn more than expected and will be at least three years late because of Home Office failings, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has warned.
A highly critical report released on Friday has concluded the 49% increase in cost to the taxpayer is the fault of the Home Office’s management. The delay could go well beyond 2022, it added.
May – as home secretary in 2011 under the premiership of David Cameron – signed off the plans to buy ESN as a cheaper and better option to replace Airwave.
Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said the Home Office must draw up a comprehensive plan if it is to introduce the new system, which is critical to the police, ambulance and fire services.
“[The Home Office] has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order,” he said.
Emergency services have communicated using the Airwave dedicated digital radio network since 2000.
It is used by all police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales, for communications between control rooms and teams in the field, as well as 363 other organisations including local authorities and train operating companies.
The ESN service is intended to match Airwave in all respects. It is supposed to allow users to take advantage of high-speed mobile data and save money by sharing an existing commercial 4G network.
Auditors said a ministerial decision was expected to find ESN would not be as resilient to power cuts as the current system.
Technology needed to allow emergency services to communicate effectively using ESN is not yet ready, according to the watchdog. It said aircraft such as police helicopters were currently unable to receive the signal needed to communicate with those on the ground and devices were unable to communicate directly with one another without a network signal.
It had been expected emergency services would start using ESN in September 2017, with the transition completed at the end of this year. By 2017, the Home Office had realised its plan was not achievable.
Last year the department announced a “reset” of its approach, based on a phased introduction of ESN services, rather than launching the whole programme at once.
The latest plan is for Airwave to be switched off in December 2022.
The NAO report said: “There are still significant risks and, based on past performance, it seems unlikely that ESN can be delivered by the target date of 2022.”
Of the extra cost rise, £1.4bn is the cost of extending Airwave, £500m is an increase in contingency, and the rest of the programme is forecast to cost £1.2bn more – but all forecast costs are highly uncertain, auditors said.
Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, has warned ESN’s implementation must not be allowed to fail.
“ESN is to be used by police, firefighters and ambulance crews for the communications they need to do their life-saving jobs. The Home Office must take an urgent and honest examination of its ability to deliver to its new schedule for this critical project,” she said.
A Home Office spokeswoman did not address the criticisms in the NAO’s report, but instead released a statement that said ESN was “on track to deliver an ambitious, world-leading digital communications network for the emergency services by 2022”.
She added: “When fully implemented, its mobile technology and infrastructure will transform the emergency response of police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews. This will result in faster and better treatment for victims.”