A new communications system that the emergency services plan to use in life-and-death situations is at high risk of failing and may not be suitable for covert anti-terror operations, the government’s spending watchdog has found.
Theresa May, when she was home secretary, approved plans to purchase the £1.2bn emergency services network (ESN) as a cheaper option to replace the Airwave communications system currently used by police, fire and ambulance services. It is due to be introduced in three years’ time.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has analysed the new system and found it is “inherently high risk” because it has never been implemented anywhere before, is not being overseen by senior civil servants and is being pushed through too quickly to allow for teething problems.
In a highly critical report released on Wednesday, the NAO also concluded that the new system appears not have the necessary functions for use by officers apprehending alleged terrorists.
Its findings have provoked deep concern from senior MPs and the ambulance drivers’ unions, which say that the Home Office is gambling with the public’s safety.
Jack Dromey, the former shadow policing minister who has taken a close interest in the system, said: “Ministers have been warned repeatedly that they will put at risk the safety and security of the police and the public if they proceed with a second-rate, cheap alternative to Airwave.”
Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, said: “The Home Office cannot afford to get this wrong.”
Rehana Azam, the GMB national secretary, said: “It is totally unacceptable to put lives at risk with untried cost-cutting exercises.”
Setting up the new network would cost around £1.2bn to March 2020, the report said, which would be a significant saving on the Airwave system.
Public organisations currently use 328,000 Airwave devices, but those used by ESN will cost an estimated £500 less per device every year. The new network is expected to save money by using parts of EE’s existing commercial 4G network.
The report said emergency services and other users of Airwave were concerned that ESN will not replicate all of Airwave’s functions.
“It is unclear, for example, whether the current specifications for ESN will meet the security needs of counter-terrorism and covert operatives. Another concern was the use of direct device-to-device voice calling, particularly used in covert and counter-terrorism operations,” the report said.
The NAO concluded that there are “significant technical challenges” to overcome. These include working with EE to increase the coverage of its 4G network and developing handheld and vehicle-mounted devices as none currently exist that would work on ESN.
Auditors concluded that ESN is the most advanced programme in the world but is yet untested, with only one other country – South Korea – seeking to deploy a similar solution.
“Only South Korea is currently seeking to deploy a solution similar to ESN nationwide but starts from a better base with significantly greater 4G coverage,” the report said.
Officials planned that sufficient network coverage would be available by September 2017. The process of moving on to the new network is due to be finished in December 2019.
Staff using the new system told auditors that this timetable would not give them enough time to plan for the new system.
“Emergency services personnel do not agree [with current plans] and told us that the transition period from September 2017 to December 2019 already gave them limited opportunity to plan or learn lessons from each other,” the report said.
The report points out that last December, when May was in charge, the project’s internal risk rating was downgraded to “amber”.
“Our view is that despite the programme’s mitigations, ESN remains an inherently high-risk programme that will require the highest levels of senior oversight throughout its lifetime,” the report said.
A Home Office spokeswoman said ESN would help keep people safe and would be a more capable and more flexible communications network than the existing Airwave system.
“As the National Audit Office’s report has itself concluded, ESN is the right direction strategically for maximising these benefits.
“The timescale for ESN is deliberately ambitious because we want to maximise the benefits it will bring to the public and we have comprehensive risk management tools in place as well as the best possible expertise to design, build, test and roll out the new network,” she said.