MPs torch failed FiReControl project

The project to unify the IT of England's fire and rescue services has been called a 'complete failure' and a waste of £469m by a select committee
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

MPs have strongly criticised the FiReControl project to revamp communications for England's fire and rescue services, calling it a total failure that wasted at least £469m of taxpayers' money.

Fire engine

MPs have slammed the FiReControl project to revamp communications for England's fire and rescue services as a 'complete failure'.

FiReControl was cancelled in 2010 after six years of development with nothing to show IT-wise bar nine "white elephant" control rooms with no technical capability, noted Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The committee issued its report into the project, which was initially budgeted at £120m, on Tuesday.

"The contract to implement a national IT system linking the control centres was not even awarded until a full three years after the project started. The contract itself was poorly designed and awarded to a company without relevant experience. The computer system was simply never delivered," Hodge, said in a statement from the committee.

"The [Department for Communities and Local Government]'s ambitious vision of abolishing 46 local fire and rescue control rooms around the country and replacing them with nine state-of-the-art regional control centres ended in complete failure," she added.

The drubbing from the PAC echoes criticisms made in July by the National Audit Office (NAO), which described FiReControl as a poorly managed project that failed to understand the complexity of the IT revamp it sought to carry out. After the NAO report was published, the government pledged to invest more than £80m in fire and rescue authorities across England to improve the technology of their control services.

The PAC identified a swathe of factors behind FiReControl's failure, including chronic mismanagement by the civil service and a lack of accountability. It also noted there was poor consultation with local fire and rescue services, and an over-dependency on consultants. In particular, it criticised the handing of the IT component of the contract to Cassidian, which it said had no prior experience of working on similar IT projects.

"Nobody realised how complex the IT project was — getting 46 different IT projects talking together so that when you dialled 999, you got a national response," Hodge told the BBC on Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday. "Nobody tackled that and, again, the consultants there walked away with a lot of money."

Dogged by problems

FiReControl was dogged by problems over the course of its life. In 2005, the Fire Brigades Union said costs of implementing the system could spiral to as high as £2bn, and in 2008 the deployment of the IT systems for the nine control centres — at that stage, two years late — slipped a further five months behind schedule.

You cannot think of any other walk of life where you would be spending that kind of money to sit people down and enable them to do their job in what is effectively a very sophisticated call centre .
–  Ian Swales MP

The select committee report picked out consultants as causing particular problems with the scheme. Hodge lambasted the main company — PA Consulting — on the Today programme. "£40m went into the pockets of PA Consulting, and they walked away without ever taking any blame," she said.

Over 70 percent — £68.6m — of FiReControl's management team budget went on paying consultancy fees, the PAC said. Those consultants proved difficult to get rid of as, over the lifetime of the project, they had developed specialist knowledge of the scheme, it noted.

"Lions led by donkeys, that is what it looks like, doesn't it?" Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for South Norfolk, said during oral evidence to the committee, quoted in the report.

Civil servants were blamed as well for not being accountable and therefore not having enough of an incentive to see large IT projects through to completion.

"If you're going to say to me, did it happen on Labour's watch? It did," Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, told the BBC. "But also there is a culture within the civil service where individuals are not responsible or accountable for the work they do."

Nine 'white elephants'

The legacy of the project will be the nine FiReControl centres which, though lacking in IT equipment, are still being considered as a resource by some fire and rescue services. The London centre is set to be used by local services, but the other eight remain empty, costing the taxpayer £4m per month to maintain.

In the future, five of these centres might come into operation, though full use is unlikely for the time being, the PAC heard during oral evidence.

A clause in the lease agreement for the centres means that if the government chooses to leave the centres before the 20-to-25-year lease runs its course, then the buildings and land will revert to their private owners. These firms can do with the buildings as they please, including knocking them down and building other properties on top and reselling them.

Ultimately, the costs of the failed scheme could be equivalent to £2m per person expected to work in the centres, Ian Swales, an MP for the Liberal Democrats in Redcar, said in response to oral evidence in the committee.

"This is just unbelievably outrageous. You cannot think of any other walk of life where you would be spending that kind of money to sit people down and enable them to do their job in what is effectively a very sophisticated call centre," he said. "It is just stunning."

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