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Public Private Partnerships: Airwave

Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office told parliament today that a new radio system for the police, Airwave, could deliver considerable benefits. For instance, Airwave will give a clear digital voice service and offers the possibility of data transmissions and remote access to police computers.

The service, procured under the PFI by the Police Information and Technology Organisation on behalf of the police, will cost some £1.5 billion over the 19-year contract with O2. When implemented, these services could result in officers spending more time on patrol.

The procurement itself was hindered by a lack of competition when all but one of the original bidders withdrew. Nevertheless, a range of complex issues had to be addressed and PITO handled the negotiations with O2 on behalf of more than 50 forces and their respective authorities in a competent manner.

The report recommends that the number of users for a service should be settled at the beginning of the project. Original plans to develop a unified system for both fire and police have not been realised. Although there is still the opportunity for Airwave to compete with other systems for fire and other emergency services radio communications needs, possible economies of scale may have been lost. Also, the police are not entitled to a share of revenues earned by O2 if additional users do join the Airwave service.

Although PITO thought through the risks of accepting the service before all aspects had been shown to work properly in the pilot and effectively protected the interests of the police, conditional acceptance should be the exception rather than the rule.

Benefits arising out of a service should be identified early on and steps taken to ensure they are realised. Some police forces felt that Airwave could cost almost £300 million more than a less ambitious system, but PITO’s experts questioned these findings as too superficial in several areas. Moreover, the efficiency savings from Airwave could be the equivalent of up to an extra 1,200 police officers. However, it will be difficult to calculate the actual benefits or attribute them solely to Airwave.

Sir John Bourn said today

“It is too early to reach a conclusion on whether Airwave will bring about all of the benefits envisaged. The three emergency services currently have radio systems which do not allow full interoperability between them. The Airwave service should be a significant improvement in police communications but it is unfortunate that the benefits of a single procurement for all emergency services were not realised and that other emergency services will not, as yet, share the same high quality communications and information sharing capacity as the police.”

Notes for Editors

  1. In November 2001 British Telecommunications plc demerged its mobile communications businesses, including the Airwave contract, into a separate company, O2 plc.
  2. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  3. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office employing some 750 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 31/02