Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

MONDAY 22 APRIL 2002

MR JOHN GIEVE, MR VAUGHAN ASQUE MR PHILLIP WEBB AND MR JEFF PARRIS

  40. Should you not have done this in 1993?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes, we should have perfect foresight but 11 September was a surprise in a number of ways.

Jon Trickett

  41. It does not take any foresight at all, does it, to know that the Ambulance Service should know what the Police Service and Fire Service are doing or the Fire Service should know what the Police Service and the Ambulance Service are doing in cases of civil emergency? I am surprised that we only realised the emergency services needed to communicate with each other several years after looking at radio communications which is what you seem to be saying.
  (Mr Gieve) No, that is not what I am saying. In the case of emergencies there are well established procedures about bringing the commands of the Fire Service and the Police Service together. They do co-operate very closely.

  42. I did not say "co-operate", I said "communicate".
  (Mr Gieve) Yes, and communicate very closely together.

  43. Are they already able to communicate prior to this system?
  (Mr Gieve) Yes, of course they are able to communicate. The question is at what level they need to be able to communicate as a matter built into the radio system as opposed to other means of communication. The police, fire and ambulance communicate all the time.

  44. What we have here is a luxury which I do not think we can afford. Looking at the figures, at the moment the estimate is that about 0.8% of the police budget goes on communication and this system will cost £180 million a year. My estimate of the difference between the existing communication, which you say is working between the services, and the new system is about £120 million a year. I do not know what a police officer costs, but let us say £40,000 per annum. I calculate £40,000 into £120 million is an additional 3,000 Bobbies. I know what my constituents want who are threatened by a tidal wave of crime which the Home Office has presided over, for a long period of time and that is more policemen. I would look really for a much stronger case than has been made so far for referring this, which is now going to cost £2 in every £100 of the entire police budget to maintain. I just wonder whether you have your priorities right in the department.
  (Mr Gieve) We think we have. Your constituents want properly equipped police. When I was saying the emergency services communicated with each other, I was not saying it was perfectly done. They know it is not. We hope this is going to improve in particular communication between police forces, which is not perfect at the moment and where you do have different systems in different areas. I am not saying we cannot improve it; we should be improving it. In terms of the percentage of the budget, the £180 million is a significant increase in cost but we do not know what the budget for the police force is going to be in three or four years' time when that sort of cost will become apparent because that is still to be settled in the spending review.

  45. The fact is that something well over £100 million additional costs per annum are now being incurred so that police officers can speak to each other at best marginally more efficiently than they could in the past.
  (Mr Gieve) No, "marginally" is not true.

  46. Would you agree with my estimate that the comparative figure in terms of police officers is somewhere between an additional 2,500 to 3,500 police officers?
  (Mr Gieve) I cannot do that in my head.

  47. You have not done that calculation.
  (Mr Gieve) I have the cost of a police officer somewhere in my papers. In any business you have to decide whether you put money into equipment or manpower and the police have to decide this on all sorts of fronts: about this equipment, about vehicles, about planes and everything else. You could make the same calculation about any of their equipment budgets. It is a matter of judgement. You say this is just so they can communicate across borders better. That is not the whole point. We hope Airwave is going to produce and we think it is, there are signs of that already, very much better communication within police force areas and that is what we are hearing from Lancashire and North Yorkshire. That is an improvement in efficiency.

  48. I am going to ask you about that in a minute because some of the figures beggar belief and some of the defence which has been mounted in favour of this beggars belief. From my point of view the two priorities which communities I represent have are: the public being able to speak to the police, which is a very difficult problem even on 999 calls, it is difficult for people to get through; secondly, the police being able to attend incidents which are occurring in villages and towns. I would have thought that the priority would have been for additional police officers. I see that you disagree with me in relation to that.
  (Mr Gieve) No, I do not; we are employing more police officers. We have a record number already and we have plans to increase them.

  49. The fact is that you could have employed even more police officers had you not decided to go down what appears to me to be a fairly disastrous track. May I move in a different direction for a second or two? When you found you only had a single bidder for this very costly system, one of the things which the department did was to try to calculate what it would cost for the public sector to provide a similar kind of equipment. I think you cooked the books. You added £170 million for the alleged risk which the private sector were taking and you were losing. You added a further £70 million for a contingency sum. Presumably £240 million was added to the cost of the public sector price in order to get it higher than the price which the private sector was bidding. Would you agree with the way in which I have expressed that?
  (Mr Gieve) No.
  (Mr Webb) We had the private sector comparator undertaken by an independent authority, in fact Charterhouse and Masons Communications undertook that on our behalf. They did that in line with the Treasury guideline for calculating these terms. All of the things included were part of the guideline.

  50. I have a note in front of me saying that the risks which the private sector were allegedly taking if they were to be the supplier were valued at £170 million. It does not say that your consultant advised you on the contingency sum, it says that PITO decided to have this contingency sum, that is a further £70 million. You added a quarter of a million pounds to the price of a public sector provider. Is that figure correct?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, those figures are correct.

  51. Did your consultants, who themselves are in the private sector and may have an interest in trying to load the dice against the public sector, advise PITO to add £70 million for unknown contingencies? Was that the figure they recommended?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, it was.

  52. Did they identify the £170 million of risk which the private sector were allegedly taking and you were divesting yourselves of? Did they recommend that figure as well?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, they did. Bearing in mind this was new technology, it had not been done before, it was the largest IT project ever undertaken by the Police Service, risks were identified, particularly in the area of the acquisition of sites, which we have already seen have materialised. There was significant risk in terms of the figures which were being used in this activity and that is why they were included.

  53. With the Chairman's permission, could we ask for some further information on how these prices which are one quarter of a billion pounds in two global sums like this were calculated? That information would be helpful.
  (Mr Gieve) Yes; certainly.[4]

  54. Part of this report reads as though you have written it, frankly. It does not read as a report which was written jointly by yourselves and the C&AG. Paragraph 1.23 says "PITO regards the system as an enabler that can reduce the frequency with which police officers have to return to the station and the length of time they spend on tasks such as making telephone calls or receiving briefings". It goes on to say ". . . not all forces were convinced" of this. May I ask the C&AG what independent evaluation they made of these claims?
  (Mr Colman) They are claims about the future and you will see that we word this paragraph very carefully to say these are PITO's opinions as to benefits which should flow from the introduction of this system. The system was not in operation when we were doing this work, so it was not therefore possible to verify that these savings would be achieved.

  55. Have we identified how much time police officers use making telephone calls which is now going to be saved by making radio calls? Somehow they are going to be more brief than the telephone calls the police are currently making. If PITO has made that claim, which sounds bizarre, since I cannot understand why a telephone call takes longer than a radio call, what evaluation have you made with the Home Office of what I regard to be a somewhat extraordinary claim?
  (Mr Webb) They can actually make direct mobile telephone calls from the Airwave system, so they can receive and send mobile phone messages directly. A large number of our police officers could be contacted directly on a number by the public and could respond directly to that without having to go back to receive a message from an answering machine in the police station. That is one issue. Also underlying this is the fact that not only can these terminals provide access to voice, they can also provide data as well. Information can be texted down to the police officer directly so they can read it on their screen in much the same way as you have now on a pager.

  56. Why could that not happen with the existing radio systems?
  (Mr Webb) That was not available on analogue systems.

  57. I see the next paragraph as the icing on the cake. Paragraph 1.24 says these are claims which PITO has made but when Thames Valley and other police forces looked at the benefit analyses what they decided was that the most important gain from these hundreds and millions of pounds was that it would allow an overview by senior officers of where their police officers were. Is that really what it boils down to, that the senior officers will now know where the Bobbies are, because the rest of us quite frequently do not have a clue where they are? Is that really what we can claim for this system?
  (Mr Webb) That is a feature of the system. In fact there is a significant health and safety aspect associated with that in knowing where officers are at any one time. As we also put forward in the same argument, we are putting in here a digital infrastructure which will enable all sorts of other digital services to be provided to police officers in both cars and on handhelds: access to the PNC, access to a wide range of visual services. This is the way in which technology is moving but in fact it will become an increasing part of policing.

  58. I notice that a number of local police authorities felt this was not going to give value for money and eventually a kind of bribe was offered of £500 million to get everybody on line. Some authorities were saying they did not want to sign this because they were not going to get value for money from this particular scheme, which is how I feel about it as well. Was any evaluation made of the work local police authorities had done in VFM terms on this scheme? They were really saying they wanted to stick to their own schemes.
  (Mr Colman) We are not the external auditors of individual police forces so we were not able to do that kind of evaluation. From the point of view of our examination, we were concerned to see what the Home Office were trying to achieve and the measures they took to achieve that. When they ran into difficulty, as they did, with a number of local forces saying it was not good value locally, they could do two things, possibly both. One was to try to persuade them it was good value and the other was, as happened, to absorb the cost for the first three years. It seemed to us that those were perfectly reasonable responses to the problem the Home Office faced in doing what they set out to achieve.

Chairman

  59. Mr Gieve, may I just give you another chance to reply to the questions Mr Trickett put to you earlier on because they were perfectly fair questions? He said that this money would be better spent on more police officers and your reply was that you had to make a decision. If I may help you out—because I always like to help witnesses out if I can—the key paragraph here is this paragraph 3.28 on page 36. This seems to me absolutely key on the typical pattern of an officer's day. "If Airwave could help bring about a 10% saving in the time spent by officers in the police station, this would be the national equivalent to deploying an extra 1,200 officers". I know we have had a discussion on this but this is what is worrying me. I do not understand how this statement is arrived at. I agree none of us is expert on how police officers spend their time in a police station but could somebody help us out on how we are going to deploy an extra 1200 officers just because of a different radio system? You do see that it is not very clear from this report.
  (Mr Gieve) Despite what Mr Trickett says, this is an NAO Report. I think they are just giving that as an illustrative figure. You are asking how this will help to improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which police time is used. We have said that it will help in a number of ways. We shall be able to send data to police who are outside the station. They will have to make fewer calls; if you talk to police now they will tell you that very often there is interference on the calls they make, they lose contact, they have to ring back and so on. This will improve that. It will allow better deployment of police; certainly the message we get back from North Yorkshire is that knowing where your police are at any one time is no small thing in terms of deploying them and getting the nearest person to the right area. This is an illustrative number, that is all it is. The general argument is that we do not just want more police, but we want them to be effective and part of making them effective is equipping them with up-to-date equipment and that is what this is about. Yes, there is a choice about how far you go, but our view is that Airwave is giving them an up-to-date digital radio system which is a key part of equipping them properly and therefore making them effective. In most other services that would be taken for granted, as it is in the Fire Service or the Ambulance Service.

  Chairman: Are you happy with that, Mr Trickett?

  Jon Trickett: Thank you.


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