Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


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.[1] 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 supply—which 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


  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 main headings:


    —  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 other routes.

    —  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 information.

    —  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 concern.

    —  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 reported.

    —  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 and advertisements.

    —  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 any value.

    —  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 issue attaching.

    —  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 by NIE.

    —  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 Committee—Electricity
1991-921992-93 1993-941994-951995-96 1996-971997-98
253268 381213240 212319
Comparator RECs
SWALEC325212 200212233 189183
MANWEB108129 12110288 7697
SWEB176184 167133111 103108
Comparator's average203 175163149 144123129
Source: NIE and OFFER (GB).

1   Not printed. Back

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