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Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme

Volume 823: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current estimate of the total cost of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme; how this compares with the original estimate; and when they expect the Emergency Services Network will be rolled out fully.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the estimated cost from 2015-16 to 2036-37 is £11.3 billion. This includes £1.6 billion for programme costs, compared with the original estimate of £1.2 billion. The current Airwave system costs about £450 million annually, compared with £250 million for the emergency services network, delivering around £200 million of annual savings after Airwave shuts down. This could vary depending on the outcome of the current CMA investigation. The 2021 business case expected ESN transition in 2024, with Airwave shut down in 2026. However, changes to programme delivery arrangements may impact timelines.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. The original business case said that the cost of the programme would be £5 billion. We are now talking about £11.3 billion and delivery probably nine or 10 years later. This was cutting-edge technology that would, we were always told, be world beating—we have heard that before—but in fact, as the National Audit Office pointed out, it has never been proven in real-world conditions. Who exactly is responsible for this fiasco? When this fiasco is finally delivered, will it ever deliver the capability expected? Near-instant calls at the push of a button are vital for emergency services and policing. Will they be provided?

The answer to the final part of the noble Lord’s question is yes. The estimated cost of programme delivery has increased since 2015, as I outlined. The primary reason for the increase is additional coverage costs being much higher than originally anticipated. The additional coverage relates to things such as build work for extending ESN into remote areas, to the London Underground and into the air. The noble Lord knows that I remain concerned about the delivery of this programme, but when it is delivered it will achieve that which we have set out.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the delay to masts piggybacking on the emergency services mobile network in North Yorkshire is regrettable? I welcome the fact that they are coming online within the next six or nine months. Will my noble friend ensure that there is no further delay? These are the emergency service communications enabling North Yorkshire Police to communicate with each other in the very remote terrain of North Yorkshire.

On the back of the point from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that is precisely the sort of capability we are looking to achieve. We are also building 292 masts in some of the most rural and remote parts of Britain, known as the extended area service or EAS. I am confident. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, because when he pointed it out to me all those years ago, it was a huge concern. It remains a huge concern, but we are very much determined to deliver it.

My Lords, in preparation for this Question I googled the emergency services network and saw that the director role was advertised in April, with a closing date in May. First, is the new director currently in place? Secondly, while this is clearly an ambitious programme with a lot of scope for overruns, in terms of both delay and cost, does the Minister agree with me that the reliability and interoperability of the emergency services network should be the new director’s number one concern?

I totally agree with the noble Lord’s latter point, because unless that is the case it will completely undermine what the emergency services are trying to do. I assume the new director is in place. I will double-check, but I think the answer is yes.

My Lords, I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority when the current Airwave radios were introduced. The whole thing was fraught with difficulty because of time delays, cost overruns, batteries that did not last long enough and a lack of bandwidth. The list just went on and on. Can the Minister reassure the House that at least some of the lessons have been learned, because we have just been told that we still have cost problems and time delays with this one, and that not all of the problems I have outlined will happen again with these radios?

The noble Baroness points out the reason why we need the new system. Airwave is expensive and out of date, and will start to become obsolete towards the end of this decade. It uses old technology and has only voice and slow text-based data services so, yes, that is entirely the aim of the new system.

My Lords, this network programme is much needed and has to be the right solution. As I understand it, one of the benefits of the new programme will be that the emergency services can send out text messages. Those were very useful during Covid and would perhaps have been useful yesterday, during the heatwave. Can my noble friend outline which services will have access to the text-messaging programme and what kind of use cases are envisaged?

I totally agree with my noble friend. It would have been very useful yesterday and it should be available across all emergency services networks: fire and ambulance, and in the Underground as well.

The noble Baroness knows that I have a great deal of sympathy with the situation, given the appalling dealings we had with the tech system all those years ago. In the transition period between now and 2026, what discussions will take place with the College of Policing about preparatory work for that transition? Crucially, what reskilling will there be of the workforce to be able to take this on?

The noble Lord makes absolutely the correct point because the transition cannot have any gaps in it. In other words, when Airwave is turned off and the new emergency services network is turned on, there must be full capability across the piece and for those wh1o are using it, so we are regularly engaged with the policing community.

My Lords, the advertisement for the new deployment director included this in the job description:

“You will … ensure that the Programme delivers its deployment requirements in a timely manner to enable users readiness to transition according to the agreed timeframes”.

The Government’s website no longer includes any timeframe for this project, so can the Minister tell us what the timeframe for the deployment director is?

The timeframe for switch-on of the new emergency services network, as I said in my initial response, is 2026. I shall be working to make sure that that timescale is met, if I am still in post.

My Lords, the noble Lord opposite talked about the importance of text in this, but what is actually crucial in an emergency situation is voice communication at the point concerned. The worry that many within the emergency services have is that that is being treated as secondary to text and data. What consultations will there be to make sure that these new arrangements and this new system are fit for purpose in the eyes of those who will use it?

I can assure the noble Lord that the new system will not be switched on and up and running until there is that user confidence in it, which goes to his point.

I do not know the answer to that question. I have been focusing on England and Wales, but I shall get an answer to the noble Lord.