HMRC extends Airwave device deal for criminal investigation units until 2027 to cover ESN delays

The tax department has two units staffed by officers with criminal investigation and enforcement powers – who now need £1.4m of devices to remain connected to outgoing emergency services comms system

HM Revenue and Customs has signed a seven-figure deal to its criminal investigation units can remain connected to the Airwave communications network until 2027.

First implemented in 2000, Airwave was originally due to be shutdown and for good and entirely replaced by the Emergency Services Network in 2019. After repeated delays, the Home Office-led delivery of the new communications infrastructure is expected to be completed in 2029 at the earliest.

HMRC operates two units which employ officers authorised to exercise criminal investigation powers: the Fraud Investigation Service (FIS); and the Risk and Intelligence Service (RIS).

To ensure these officers maintained secure connections to Airwave, the department signed a contract with specialist supplier Sepura that ran until the end of 2022 and “refreshed all Airwave radio equipment… to comply with the encryption standard in line with all other UK law enforcement agencies”.

Newly published commercial documents reveal that HMRC had originally anticipated that the conclusion of this deal would be shortly followed by the replacement of Airwave by ESN – after which the tax agency’s officers would use smartphones, rather than the current radio devices.

However, a procurement notice issued by the department indicates that the delays in delivering the new infrastructure mean that support for the kit used by FIS and RIS now needs to be extended for several further years, to ensure officers can continue to connect to Airwave.

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“The Home Office have recently advised that the ESN timeline has slipped and it is now looking like 2026 soonest, before user organisations in the covert arena will migrate,” said a procurement notice. “To that end it is now necessary to extend arrangements with Sepura in order to ensure that HMRC are able to continue to buy spare parts, additional ancillaries and accessories.”

HMRC entered into a new contract with Sepura on 1 November. The deal, which is value at £1.44m, runs until 31 December 2026.

The additional expense for the tax department is something of a drop in the ocean in the context of a programme that, in addition to delays of at least a decade, has seen projected delivery costs spiral from £6bn to a current estimate of about £12bn.

Figures released last summer showed that the delays to ESN have required police forces around the country to spend an additional £150m on new Airwave devices, as well as a cumulative tally of about £5m to support transition teams who were first put on standby to support the switch to ESN as early as 2016.

Sam Trendall

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