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Scrapping the ESN programme will not save money, says Home Office

Technology chief admits Airwave replacement project is “very challenging” but scrapping it would be a “false” option.

Stopping the hugely overspent and overdue Emergency Services Network (ESN) project and reinvesting in the existing Airwave system will not save money in long term, the Home Office has warned.

Speaking at the Police ICT Summit in Manchester today (22 January 2020), Joanna Davinson, Chief Digital Data and Technology Officer for the Home Office, said there was no point keeping going a system that was very expensive to maintain and out of date.

“I think that is a false choice”, she said.

“We would have to invest very large amounts of money to enable it to keep going under its current contract terms. In the long run it is not going to save us money, it actually is going to cost us more. You are also going to end up with a platform that is not fit for the future.”

She added that if ESN was stopped it would just have to be started again in two to three years’ time.

A new business case setting out the future of the beleaguered project is due to be published this month, she told delegates.

In a damning report on the project published last year the Public Accounts Committee said the business case should have been prepared by the end of 2019 including the option that the project was scrapped if it was proving unaffordable. 

But Ms Davinson warned the conference that if that happened the police service would still be spending hundreds of millions of pounds keeping the Airwave system going. She said it was more sensible to spend that money on the future instead of shoring up an old system. 

A Home Office spending review was due in the next few months which will include deciding the future of ESN. Ms Davinson told delegates that the new government and the Home Secretary had injected a clear sense of purpose into what it wants to do. She said Priti Patel does not want to hear about “extended transitions” from old to new systems. But she did want to hear about leveraging the power of technology and getting better at using data very quickly.

Ms Davinson admitted that the ESN was a “very, very challenging programme”. But she said some progress had been made. The first push to talk capability on ESN was being tested by Home Office staff working in immigration. 

“These are small steps and we have a long way to go”, she said. She also said that other countries looking to introduce the next generation of emergency service networks are looking at similar solutions to ESN.

“We are no longer an outlier, we are in the centre of things”, she said. 

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