Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Report


  75. Our principal conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

  (a)  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 appropriate insert in account mailings. (Paragraph 32)

  (b)  We believe that BT should 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 Inaccurate and out of date messages were one of the complaints of customers who did get through to the Link.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. (Paragraph 36)

  (c)  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. (Paragraph 38)

  (d)  We note that OFFER is to consider the quality of supply achieved during storms in the light of the historic capital and operating expenditure of PES in Great Britain. If OFFER deems companies to have been inefficient in their allocation of expenditure, they will be dealt with through the forthcoming distribution price control review. We consider that a similar mechanism would be appropriate in Northern Ireland in the context of the 2002 revision of the NIE price control. (Paragraph 53)

  (e)  The level of security of supply through the overhead supply network is, and will remain, lower than that through the underground network: customers served through the overhead high voltage network suffer on average an annual level of Customer Minutes Lost nearly ten times greater than those served through underground network. Given that customers pay the same price for their electricity whatever the means of supply, we believe that NIE's concentration on enhancing the resilience of the overhead supply network is reasonable. (Paragraph 59)

  (f)    Establishing how much more consumers themselves are willing to pay is an essential input to decisions on what consumers should be prepared to pay. We emphasise that this exercise should be completed before the price control and the allowed level of capital expenditure are re-set in 2002. (Paragraph 60)

  (g)  Given the difficulty of ascertaining how far capital underspends are due to genuine efficiency gains, we support the Regulator's proposal that NIE should provide cost- benefit evidence that proposed changes in the capital expenditure programme during a given price control period are economically efficient and more beneficial for consumers than the original capital expenditure programme approved by the Regulator. Like any well run company, NIE is certain to make such calculations before it decides to defer particular projects. (Paragraph 61)

  (h)  Given our general support for measures to improve the resilience of the overhead distribution system to storm damage, we welcome the assurance from the Regulator that meeting his target for reducing domestic electricity bills, which, if achievable, will no doubt be widely welcomed in the Province, does not depend on a substantial reduction in transmission and distribution expenditure. (Paragraph 64)

  (i)    We consider that the scope for using some of the £40 million remaining from funds announced in 1995 to reduce the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland to improve the resilience to storm damage of the overhead electricity supply network in Northern Ireland should be investigated. We recommend that, before any of the £40 million is allocated to reducing generation costs, a thorough study be carried out of the case for investing some at least of that sum in strengthening the resilience to storm damage of the overhead supply network. (Paragraph 71)

  (j)    Since we took evidence from NIE, OFFER has published its own report on the experience of Public Electricity Suppliers in Great Britain in responding to storms caused by the same weather system. We hope that NIE will study this report carefully and the recommendations that it makes, as many of these may also have potential application in Northern Ireland. (Paragraph 73)

  (k)  We note that the Regulator plans to publish very shortly a comprehensive a report on the lessons to be learned from the storm. We look forward to receiving copies of this report in due course. We would also like NIE to let us have a comprehensive progress report at the time that the Government replies to this Report on the implementation of its plans, on some of which they have made interim announcements, to minimise the impact of future severe storms on the electricity distribution system in Northern Ireland. We would like that report to include a list of all outstanding steps to be taken, with a firm timetable attached to each. (Paragraph 74)

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