Senior officials facing ‘very serious questions’ from MPs over Emergency Services Network
Chair Meg Hillier says Public Accounts Committee is ‘determined to get to the bottom’ of problems that have beset rollout of new infrastructure
Senior Home Office officials including permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam are to be grilled over delays to the rollout of a new communications system for emergency services after the Home Office was accused of sneaking out the announcement.
Speaking on the Today programme this week, the Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said that MPs would question the Home Office perm sec later this month after the committee had been “repeatedly assured” the rollout of the Emergency Services Network system would be completed before the end of 2019.
The ESN system is intended to upgrade communications for emergency services across the UK. The project has been in development since 2011 and has cost around £5bn but it has faced delays and the Home Office announced last month that rollout would now be phased, in a further slippage.
Under the “new strategic direction” for the project, the rollout of mobile data services will now begin in 2019, followed by voice services, although a full business case for the shift is not expected until early next year.
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This delay is estimated to cost as much as £1bn as the existing Airwave communications system continues to be paid for as the new system is introduced.
Hillier said that the problems the project faced included the use of untried technology, as well too few bidders for the contract and delays to testing across the country.
“Every step of the way we have been warning [the Home Office] that their projections were over-ambitious and they kept saying to us that it was going to be fine,” she said. “They have slipped out this announcement ten days ago, which gives us very little comfort.”
Asked if the failures amounted to a resigning matter for Home Office officials who had provided the committee with assurances on the projects progress, Hiller – who last week claimed there was a “culture of denial” surrounding failing government projects – said: “I think there are very serious questions. What has happened since then is there is a new permanent secretary at the Home Office [after Rutnam replaced Sir Mark Sedwill as permanent secretary in April 2017], and he said that he needed to do a review – this announcement is what they would call their review. We at least have got them to look at it closely.
“The problem always in the civil service is that people move on, but we call people back [to appear before the committee]. We are actually having the permanent secretary appearing before us in just over a week’s time [the date has not yet been published], so we will be asking questions then.
"We are determined to get to the bottom of this – it has got to work, it is absolutely crucial for our emergency services, but it is not delivering what it has set out to do, and the cost is getting absolutely ridiculous.”
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