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Emergency Services Network

Volume 689: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

The programme continues to make steady progress, and confidence in the technical viability of the solution continues to increase. The core network has been built, and much of the ultimate functionality has already been demonstrated. We are working hard to demonstrate the emerging product and agree realistic plans with users for the final stages of delivery and deployment.

I know that my hon. Friend knows the critical importance for the shared rural network of delivering the ESN. It is vital for my constituency, to deal with the notspots that are sadly all too common in mid-Wales. As well as the technical capabilities he outlined, will he update us on the delivery of the ESN, alongside the shared rural network, in Montgomeryshire and other rural areas across the UK?

I share my hon. Friend’s frustration. Representing a large rural constituency myself, I know exactly his experience and therefore his keenness to have his constituents better connected—all the better to reach him with their various problems and difficulties, which he will no doubt solve with skill and speed. We are rolling out the programme. I am pleased to say that, after a difficult period, shall we say, last year, the programme is back on track. We expect to appoint contractors to allow the execution of the shared rural network later this year, but I am more than happy, once we have clarity on the programme, to write to my hon. Friend with details of where and when he can expect his mast to be lit up.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), many communities in my constituency, in particular around Auchenblae, Drumtochty and the wider Mearns area, remain unable to get an adequate phone signal or even any at all. Having been promised that the emergency services network would contribute to solving that issue, many are still to be connected to decent 4G services. May I ask what the delay seems to be in opening up mobile telephone masts to commercial operators, as was initially planned?

I know that living in one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country is not sufficient compensation for a lack of connectivity, although it provides some commiseration to my hon. Friend’s constituents. As somebody who found out just the other day that, frustratingly, the fibre network in my constituency stops 200 metres short of my house, I understand the impatience for connectivity in his area. It is true to say that we have experienced some delays, not least on legal negotiations last year. Happily, those have now been overcome, and I am confident that we can now proceed with all speed to make sure that the shared rural network, alongside the emergency services network, is rolled out on schedule to 2025.

The new emergency services network, which is much needed to replace our outdated system, has become yet another embarrassment for the Home Office. Costs have spiralled to an eye-watering £10.3 billion, and constant delays mean that the project will not be finished for up to seven years. Local police forces, already under strain from cuts and covid, have to foot a large part of the bill, and their bill has just increased by £600 million. That would fund around 8,000 new police officers, yet when I asked the Minister about this in a parliamentary question, he said that the extra cost was “minimal”.

There is a pattern: £600 million is “minimal”; the catastrophic loss of 400,000 essential data records is brushed aside and still no answers given; and the Home Secretary breaks the ministerial code and we are all somehow to brush that aside as well. When will the Government accept that their incompetence is wasting taxpayers’ money, delaying vital work and putting the public at increased risk?

I understand that the hon. Lady feels that her job is to trade in hyperbole, but I think she has slightly overstated her case today, not least on the cost of the emergency service network, which is actually only—“only”— £4.2 billion, not the £10 billion-plus that she quoted. Governments of all stripes—and, indeed, many private companies—experience challenges, shall we say, in executing large technical IT projects, and this project has been no different. Having said that, we have made significant changes to the leadership team and we have reset the project. It is broadly back on track and, critically, we now have a new system of, effectively, joint decision-making with the end users—the police and the other emergency services—which we believe is breeding much greater confidence in the programme at the moment and hopefully over the next two or three years as we bring it to execution. This is an absolutely vital piece of equipment for police officer safety and, indeed, for the better prosecution of crime, and we are determined to get it right.