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Emergency Services Network

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the National Audit Office Progress delivering the Emergency Services Network, published on 10 May, in particular its finding that the new emergency services communications network may go over budget by at least £3.1 billion.

My Lords, the emergency services network aims to deliver an ambitious world-leading digital communications network for the emergency services by 2022, resulting in savings of £200 million a year. 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.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Audit Commission has provided an excoriating judgment on this Home Office-run project. Not only has the cost risen by 49% but the project should have finished in 2019, while it is now hoped that it will finish in 2022. The Audit Commission has no confidence that this project will be delivered, given that a technical solution is not defined, and the police have no confidence. So will the Government guarantee that the extra funds needed for this project—which will be significant—will not be taken from the police, fire or ambulance budgets?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out what the NAO report says. I am not going to sugar-coat the cost and time overruns, but we can take some comfort from the fact that a new team is in place, and the additional costs should ultimately be recouped. But I take the point that a reset is needed, that the project needs to run to time and cost, and that that needs to be done as a priority.

My Lords, there are a number of factors involved in what is not a satisfactory situation. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, I am not going to pretend that it is a satisfactory situation. Some of the technological solutions and the infrastructure have run mainly according to plan, but there is now the testing phase, which is going to be done incrementally. That is probably the right way to do it, so that if any part of it is not running as planned, it can be changed. But there are a multitude of problems, for which a multitude of solutions are needed.

My Lords, Motorola owns the current Airwave communications system used by the emergency services, and it is also a main supplier for the new system. It is being paid £1.4 billion to keep the existing system going beyond its contracted date, and stands to benefit even more if the project is delayed further. How did the Home Office get itself into a contract that rewards one of the main suppliers for delays?

What the noble Lord points out is correct. As I said to the noble Lord, currently a change notice is being prepared for signing to reset the situation. I think that Motorola acquired the contract after it had the Airwave contract, rather than at the point when the contract was signed. But a change notice is being issued to try to resolve the situation.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the Government’s record on procuring high-tech projects is lamentable? Will she consider consulting Mr Ken Livingstone, under whom the very successful congestion charging system was introduced into London without a hitch? He might be able to point her in the right direction of good management.

My Lords, I am not sure that even the Labour Party would consult Ken Livingstone if it wanted any advice. The congestion charge was done under Ken Livingstone, and I am sure that there were many good people behind it. On a positive note, this infrastructure project is sorely needed, both in terms of its reach and the potential number of victims it can get to. As a result of the upgrade to 4G and 5G it will have reach underground and from surface to air—therefore, there is no going back on it. But, as I said, we need this reset and I am glad that the change notice is being issued.

My Lords, will the £3 billion overspend come from existing policing budgets or is it being found centrally? When I looked at this three years ago, I could not find a single serving emergency service officer at senior or junior level who had any confidence in this system. Has that changed?

My Lords, the team that will be responsible for delivering it has changed, and I know that the Permanent Secretary is taking personal responsibility for its delivery as well. The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out the £3 billion, which is a very large sum; it is hoped that the savings that are realised will go towards mitigating that loss.