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ESN delays are leaching vital funds from UK police forces

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The Home Office is paying out £330m a year from the UK’s police budget in order to keep the legacy terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) emergency services community network up and running in the face of delays to the roll-out of its replacement, the 4G mobile Emergency Services Network (ESN), according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

In an NAO report on the financial sustainability of police forces in England and Wales, which was released earlier this month, the Home Office said it was spending £1.3bn on police IT between 2015-16 and 2019-20, and as much as 80% of the savings from this work – £330m out of total running costs of £400m – were expected to come from the introduction of the ESN.

The ESN is just one of a number of technology projects under way across the country’s police forces, including a biometrics programme for data sharing, a national data service to replace the police national computer, a national automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system, and a child abuse database.

However, almost from day one, the ESN has been dogged by controversy, at first due to concerns over national 4G availability and the wisdom of ditching the Airwave service, which most users still regard as effective and reliable, but more recently because of serious problems with the programme’s finances and roll-out.

With the programme now 15 months behind schedule and costing huge amounts in legacy support, eight out of nine police forces visited by the NAO told it they were “having to make significant investments to extend the life of their Airwave equipment” while they wait for the ESN to come online.

The NAO said this meant it was unlikely that the Home Office would realise any significant savings through the ESN in the short term, even though the new network is supposed to be much cheaper to run.

At the end of June 2018, in one of his increasingly frequent appearances before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam said he was still unable to give any firm commitments as to whether or not the project would complete on schedule.

However, Rutnam reiterated the Home Office’s commitment to the troubled project, and said there was no chance that the ESN would be terminated, as had been suggested in the media.

“We are very clear that the strategic intent behind ESN is the right strategic intent,” he said. “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.”

The in-house review of the ESN programme was expected to wrap up in July 2018, but at the time of writing, details of its conclusions, or of the steps the Home Office might take to rescue the scheme, had not been confirmed.

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