Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam has been criticised over the long-delayed review of the troubled Emergency Services Network (ESN) roll-out, after he was unable to make any firm commitment as to whether it would be completed on schedule.
At the start of 2018, Home Office chief data, digital and technology officer Joanna Davinson told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) its ongoing review of the programme would be complete by July – after Parliament breaks up for the summer – but, under questioning from MP Lee Rowley, Rutnam declined to.
“It’s not there yet, but I am reasonably confident it will be done,” he said. “We have some very significant milestones ahead of us, including a major projects review group discussion towards the end of July.”
During a testy exchange before the PAC, Rowley, who represents North East Derbyshire at Westminster, pressed Rutnam on why, a month out, he was only able to say he was “reasonably confident” the Home Office would be able to deliver its review. Rutnam responded by saying he felt it was best “not to over-promise” to which Rowley replied “there’s no danger of that”.
“I am aware of the huge complexity of the programme,” said Rutnam. “I have seen good progress but would like to see more.”
Rutnam went on to say he was not prepared to give a 100% guarantee the review would be completed by the end of July because a guarantee on such a complex project was not something he felt it easy, or wise, to give.
He claimed there were still outstanding elements that were largely outside of his control, such as commercial negotiations with supplier partners, and the governance processes of other government departments, notably the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
During the hearing, the Home Office representatives also disputed the accuracy of May 2018 reports suggesting the government was considering ditching ESN altogether, saying that while this possibility was indeed one of several outcomes that had been considered, it was a virtual impossibility that the Home Office would actually follow through with it.
“We are very clear that the strategic intent behind ESN is the right strategic intent,” said Rutnam. “We need to move the technology underpinning emergency services communications to a modern, adaptable technology which is capable of providing much greater functionality at less cost.”
During the hearing, Rutnam also revealed that around 70 people have now been let go from the ESN team amid the wider project reset. At the start of the year, it is understood around 340 people were working on ESN, and the Home Office wants to bring that down to 140.
“We have a high proportion of contractors and we have been reducing the number of contractors and consultants,” he said.
The first ambulance, fire and police services were originally supposed to have transitioned off the legacy Airwave Tetra radio network and onto the ESN, which will be run by EE, in the autumn of 2017. The cost of the delay to the public purse is already thought to be in the hundreds of millions.
The Home Office said it would be in a position to start to roll-out some elements of the ESN service, most likely critical data and voice services, before the end of 2018.