Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Report


  28. There were three key elements to the process of the restoration of supplies following the storm damage. These were:

      ·  identification of the scale and nature of the faults;

      ·  repairing the faults in a way which sought to minimise the duration of interruptions; and

      ·  providing information to customers about the likely timescale for the restoration of supplies.

  29. Both the Regulator[41] and the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity[42] have criticised aspects of NIE's response to the network damage. Central to this was getting information about precisely who was off supply, and where. Two specific difficulties arose:

      ·  the volume of calls to NIE's Helpline substantially overloaded the capacity both of NIE to handle the calls and, at times, the capacity of the telephone system to carry them;

      ·  NIE could not provide accurate and up-to-date information to many of those who did get through either to NIE, or to the Message Link Facility.

  30. Over the period 26 to 31 December, customers made over 650,000 attempts to contact NIE on its 0345 Helpl ine, over 300,000 of which were made on Boxing Day alone. [43] These levels of calls are substantially higher than those experienced by PES in Great Britain.[44] In all, about 153,000 calls were responded to,[45] a level exceeded by only one G reat Britain PES. In response to experience of the Christmas 1997 storm, NIE had increased its maximum capacity to handle calls by a factor of three, to just over 1500 calls per hour and its maximum capacity for call messaging to just over 8,400 calls per hour.[46]

  31. It is clear beyond doubt that the volume of potential traffic was well beyond the capacity of NIE to handle it. Similar capacity problems were faced by some PES in Great Britain, notably Scottish Power. This situation creates a vicious circle, where customers ring back repeatedly in an attempt to obtain, or convey, useful information, thus increasing the volume of calls and the likelihood that the system is overwhelmed.

  32. We note that NIE plans to implement measures to improve the information available to call handlers and to improve its media communications strategy. We welcome this. It is clear that customers found performance in this respect in relation to the Boxing Day storms lamentable, a fact which NIE, to its credit, frankly admits. As we recognise that it will never be possible for the system to handle this level of calls, the priority should be to seek to minimise the need for customers to call to obtain information, so that as many lines as possible are free for customers seeking to convey information about supply failures, which can only help to plan the reconnection process. To that end, we recommend that the comprehensive media communications strategy in the event of a major disruption to electricity supplies should be designed so as to minimise the need for queries about reconnection times, etc. We also recommend that the NIE should publicise widely its plans for providing information in such circumstances, perhaps by periodically including an approp riate insert in account mailings.

  33. We sought written evidence from British Telecommunications plc (BT) and from the Office of Telecommunications (OFTEL) on the resilience of the telephone system in Northern Ireland to the burdens placed on it by this emergency. OFTEL's general conclusion[47] is that BT's handling of the high levels of traffic was an appropriate response to preserve network integrity and that substantial reinforcement of the BT network in Nort hern Ireland is unnecessary. OFTEL was concerned, though, about BT's response to an apparent intermittent fault on the message facility.

  34. BT, for its part, drew attention to the very substantial level of calls it was able to deliver to the NIE Helpline number,[48] but conceded that this volume of traffic could only be handled because it was a holiday weekend during which there was little other commercial traffic to 0345 numbers. BT's evidence also revealed that there was in fact no fault on the message facility: the problem arose because there was apparently no independent means of communication for NIE personnel to update the message.

  35. As a direct result of this incident, BT is working with NIE to investigate and agree how they can work together to improve their call answering facilities. This may include additional contingency call answering back-up capacity which can assist NIE during periods of heavy demand and review of the design of Message Link access facilities to provide priority access for message updates during periods of high call volumes.

  36. We also believe that BT should itself review the operating arrangements for its 0345 numbers. Its evidence reveals a substantial apparent weakness in the Message Link service in that NIE could not update its own messages. This was not due to a fault, as originally thought; it was due to an inherent design problem in the service. Inaccurate and out of date messages were one of the complaints of customers who did get through to the Link. BT should provide dedicated updating lines as a matter of urgency. There would also appear to be a case for BT to review the overall level of capacity on the national 0345 platform: it appears fortunate that the bulk of the burden from the storm fell on a holiday weekend when there was little other traffic to these numbers. This was pure chance.

  37. As to the process of restoring supplies, the storm report contains a detailed account by NIE of the steps it took. The Consultative Committee maintained that NIE had initially significantly under-estim ated the number of customers affected by the storm, and NIE has conceded that this was indeed the case. Mr Coulthard, of OFREG,[49] considered[50] that NIE were initially slow and disorganised in their response, possibly as a result of underestimating the likely duration of the storm. As to NIE's approach to restoring supplies, working down from the highest voltages, Mr Thomas, giving evidence on behalf of OFREG, agreed that "to a large extent it is the only practical way of doing it." [51]

  38. It is clear that NIE field staff faced many difficult challenges in restoring electricity supplies on December 26 and subsequently. Not only was there substantial damage to the electricity network, the storm had also damaged NIE's private communications networks. Continued adverse weather hampered repair teams in the field who were undertaking damage assessment and restoration work against a background of continuing damage caused by the weather. We pay tribute to the dedication and skill of the field staff in particular, who worked throughout the period 26 to 31 December, often in atrocious weather conditions, to restore supplies to customers.

  39. NIE proposes to implement the main conclusions of its review with the target of having further substantia l improvements in performance capability in place for this coming autumn and winter and agreed programmes of investment already under way and in place for medium term development of the network. It will be looking at the potential for further improvement beyond the initial recommendations in its report.[52] This will include consideration of the introduction of new technology and systems-based solutions to provide further significant enhancements in call-handling capacity, where the improvements c urrently proposed are based on existing technology and systems. NIE also proposes to seek to draw on the experience of other utilities, including US utilities who deal with hurricane conditions on a regular basis.

  40. As a result of the measures to be put in hand, NIE aims to provide:[53]

      ·  an expanded emergency call-handling capability and improved systems which will enable a greater number of customers to make the vital initial contact earlier to report their own off-supply situation;

      ·  a much improved (two hourly) public broadcast providing customers with regular accurate information updates on damage assessment and the process of restoration;

      ·  a more extensive database on its customer care register, to enable NIE better to identify customers with special needs, such as a dependence on electricity for equipment for medical support;

      ·  a greatly strengthened network of contingency communications which ensures that public representatives, other key service providers, voluntary organisations, etc, are kept informed on the damage assessment and restoration processes and are able to respond to the needs of individual customers and customer groups with special needs;

      ·  an incremental improvement to its damage assessment and restoration processes so that, as far as possible, the length of time any customer is off-supply is reduced to the minimum consistent with priorities in restoration and the resources available.

  41. To achieve this, NIE is taking immediate steps:[54]

      ·  to spend £2 million on increasing its communications capacity and on technology to enhance its call-handling capability;

      ·  to accelerate the £12 million planned investment in Customer Service and IT programmes, including the new Trouble Management System, which will enable information to be obtained and distributed to customers and the media more rapidly;

      ·  to step up its tree-pruning programme significantly, with the co-operation of landowners, in view of the fact that falling trees and branches caused nearly 25% of faults during the storm and contributed disproportionately to faults on the low voltage network, i.e., the final delivery of electricity to customers' premises;

      ·  to host an inter-agency forum to enable utility providers and government agencies to develop and co-ordinate plans to respond effectively to emergency situations.

  42. NIE also proposes to reallocate £24 million of capital expenditure into an accelerated programme of network refurbishment with a view to improving network resilience to storms. We consider this in more detail later in this Report.[55] This will include increased undergrounding of low voltage supplies (albeit at the expense of a reduction in the high voltage undergrounding programme). NIE took a policy decision some years ago that all new low voltage supplies would be by underground cable, [56] so the result will be a reduction in the extent of the overhead low voltage network.[57]

  43. There has been a general welcome for the compensation proposals ultimately made by NIE. The cost of the compensation, and all other uninsured costs of repairs, will be borne by shareholders under the current price controls.[58] According to the Regulator,[59] no customer will receive less than they would have received under the Guaranteed Standards (which do not apply to weather-related interruptions) and many will receive more. In comparison to t he annual average domestic bill, the value of the compensation payments in the worst case will be the equivalent of more than a year's electricity supply. [60]

  44. The cost of NIE's compensation proposals was originally put at about £5.5 million but has now risen to £9.5 million. In addition to making payments to c ustomers who were off-supply for longer than 24 hours, as originally announced, NIE has made a further 16,000 goodwill payments to customers who suffered low voltage or where representations were made that the duration of interruption was so close to the 24 hour threshold as to merit a payment. In all, 81,000 goodwill payments (as of 6 July) have been made to date: NIE expects this to be close to the final figure.[61]

  45. OFFER has published details of the payments made by PES to customers in Great Britain who lost their supplies as a result of the storms.[62] From this, it is clear that NIE made more payments than any of the PES by a substantial margin, and that the average value, at about £117, was also greater than the a verage payments made by any of those PES. [63] By contrast, no compensation is payable in the Republic of Ireland under such circumstances: the commitment on the part of ESB is to do "everything possible to restore supply as soon as possible."[64]

41  Q88, 90. Back

42  Appendix 2, p. 69 and Appendix 20, p. 85. Back

43  See Appendix 14, p. 78 and NIE storm report, p. 21. Back

44  OFFER Report, p. 37. Back

45  Calls handled by the BT Message Link service; see NIE storm report, p. 21. The Consumer Committee stated that 13,650 consumers' calls were dealt with by NIE Call Centre staff; see Appendix 20, p. 85. Back

46  For comparative data for Great Britain PES, see OFFER Report, p. 39. Back

47  Appendix 12, p. 76-7. Back

48  Appendix 14, p. 79. Back

49  The Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas. Back

50  Q 88-90. Back

51  Q94. Back

52  Ev. p. 8. Back

53  Ev. p 8-9. Back

54  Ev. p. 9. Back

55  See paragraph 54 and Appendix 27, p. 109. Back

56  See Q55 and Appendix 21, p. 102. Back

57  See NIE storm report, p. 33. Back

58  Appendix 21, p. 87. See also Appendix 22, p. 103. Back

59  Ev. p. 40 Back

60  Net of VAT. Back

61  Appendix 33, p. 119. Back

62  Supply interruptions following the Boxing Day storms 1998. OFFER, May 1999, Table 13. Back

63  These were typically in the range of £79 to £91, and the overall average was £88. Back

64  Appendix 19, p. 84. Back

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