Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland
Consumer Committee for Electricity
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has demonstrated
a keen interest in matters relating to electricity supply in Northern
Ireland, and I am therefore enclosing a copy of the 1997-98 Annual
Report of the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity.
This Report comes as electricity consumers have faced the worst
interruptions of supply for many years. The Report deals with
a very wide range of issues of particular interest to consumers,
in particular issues of consumer representation (page 4) prices
(page 5) and the potential effects of forthcoming competition
in electricity supplywhich may lead to higher prices unless
great care is taken (page 7). I hope that you will find the Report
interesting and informative.
The Boxing Day storms and the consequential
widescale loss of power across Northern Ireland, with all the
attendant misery and disruption of life, are a cause of major
concern to this Committee. Last year we had lengthy discussions
with NIE about the communication problems experienced as a consequence
of the 1997 storms. We had expected that there would be a significant
improvement in the communication system, instead of which this
year was even worse than last year. We are also very concerned
about the apparent vulnerability of our electricity supply systems
to storms and other events such as the Monkstown failure in March
1998. We are determined that effective action must be taken immediately
to ensure that customers can get through to report faults and
find out how long they are likely to be off supply. We are also
determined to ensure that NIE carry out as much maintenance of,
and improvement to, the system as is practicable and necessary.
I thought it might be helpful for you to see
a copy of the initial response of the Northern Ireland Consumer
Committee for Electricity on the Boxing Day storms and their aftermath,
and I therefore enclose a copy of this document.
22 January 1999
RESPONSE BY THE NORTHERN IRELAND CONSUMER
COMMITTEE FOR ELECTRICITY TO A REQUEST FOR COMMENT BY NORTHERN
IRELAND ELECTRICITY ON THE BOXING DAY STORMS
The Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for
Electricity was extremely disappointed by the extensive failure
of the electricity supply system during the period of the Boxing
Day storms. Moreover, following its extensive deliberations with
NIE on the matter of communication following the Christmas Eve
Storms of 1997, the Committee was appalled at the level of communications
failure this year.
The Committee recognises the dedication and
perseverance of the linesmen and other engineering staff during
this period. The Committee's general response however is one of
anger and disillusionment. Comments are summarised under four
Since privatisation NIE has, on balance,
underspent on maintenance, refurbishment and capital development
of the system. The Committee is clearly of the view, as stated
by Mr Harry McCracken following the 1997 Christmas storms, that
where the lines have been refurbished they are more robust and
are less likely to fail. The Committee has expressed its concerns
on this issue repeatedly. The assurances which have been given
ring very hollow in the light of the experiences of consumers
as a consequence of the latest storms.
The Committee has been advised that
many new poles put up since last year appear to have failed. If
this is the case, why did this happen?
The Committee received numerous reports
of damage caused by falling trees and tree branches coming into
contact with lines. The Committee wishes to know whether there
has been an ongoing programme of lopping and topping of trees,
or whether, as reported by customers, NIE have reduced or discontinued
this necessary practice.
Many of the faults appear to have
been very local and involve very few customers. Such customers
appear to suffer repeated loss of supply.
Consumers found it impossible to
get through to NIE to report faults.
There was a perception that for at
least two days it was only possible to communicate indirectly
with NIE, either through word of mouth to employees or through
Consumers were asked to identify
their location. Normally this is done by postcode, but some customers
were asked which zone they were in. Customers do not have this
Call centre staff appeared unaware
in some incidences of the geography of Northern Ireland. This
caused a sense of despair as customers were not confident that
the staff had understood the message.
On occasion consumers appear to have
been put through to other RECs and not to NIE. This caused great
Customers were disconcerted to be
told on eventually getting through that they would be restored
only to find that the supply did not return as predicted. When
NIE were contacted further for information, customers were, on
occasion, told that there was no record of any fault having been
It was not possible for consumers
on the special care Register to contact NIE. The Committee was
assured at a very early stage that all such customers had been
contacted. This clearly was not the case. The Committee expects
that NIE will carry out further investigation into the company's
performance in relation to these customers.
The message link system, which should
have been available as a back up, did not work. It was not updated
sufficiently often and consumers did not receive useful information
when they phoned.
Information given by the broadcast
media was often insufficient. Customers were unable to begin to
cater for their loss of supply because of the lack of information.
Very few customers appear to have
battery powered radios. Where the electricity was off there was
therefore no way for NIE to communicate with its customers.
Not enough use was made of press
There is a query as to whether NIE's
internal communications systems were working. Communication within
the company does not seem to have been satisfactory.
There is a perception that the number
of staff on duty in the call centre was totally inadequate particularly
on Boxing Day. Given the problems experienced in 1997 the Committee
had expected a much higher level of personnel on call this year.
Customers need to be told if NIE
know that they are not going to be able to restore supply within
a given period. Very often customers were left in intolerable
situations because of the lack of information.
Such information as was supplied
by NIE to the media was too generalised in most cases to be of
There appears to have been no overall
strategy for ensuring a comprehensive, effective system of communication
within and without the company.
there are many reports of trees coming
down on lines and lying smouldering near or on fallen live lines
for days after the incident was reported. If live lines are down
in this way the Committee would assume that there is a safety
no general safety bulletins were
issued by NIE. ESB inserted large notices in the press warning
people of the dangers attaching to fallen wires.
there appears to be general feeling
that NIE's public relations are much diminished as a consequence
of recent events.
the issue of compensation/goodwill
payments was very badly dealt with, in so far as NIE appear to
have had no previously determined strategy despite the events
of 1997. It is not necessarily the case that NIE bear no responsibility
for the chaos which followed the storms. Where there has been
a failure to maintain and upgrade the system, NIE is responsible
to the extent that loss is caused by that failure.
there is general perception that
the goodwill payment is inadequate for those who were off supply
for long periods but who are only entitled to £115.
by making automatic payments, NIE
has saved itself the burden of dealing with thousands of freezer
claims. There is therefore a saving to be made by NIE as a consequence
of this. Whilst the Committee welcomes automatic payments, it
is very aware of this dimension to the issue.
there is still a lack of understanding
about what people are entitled to claim. For customers off supply
for periods in excess of 48 hours it is suggested that £65
is inadequate recompense.
there are a number of customers who,
for example, lost supply for periods of 20 hours, had their supply
restored and subsequently lost supply again. Some consumers have
suffered repeated interruptions. Their position is less than satisfactory.
NIE should publicly invite such customers to contact them. Such
communications should be responsibly and positively dealt with
it is not clear whether the payment
of £165 to commercial customers is to be made automatically.
Nor has there been a public announcement of this amount. Such
payments should also be made to farmers who form a significant
part of the Northern Ireland economy, and who had been badly hit
by power loss, which appears to have lasted longer in rural areas.
22 January 1999
Availability of supply: Supply minutes
lost per connected customer: Northern Ireland Consumer CommitteeElectricity
|Source: NIE and OFFER (GB).
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