Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Further Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity

  The Northern Ireland Consumer Committee for Electricity welcomes the announcement of an enquiry into the electricity supply difficulties experienced by consumers during the period from 26 December 1998—1 January 1999. The Committee has already submitted to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee a copy of its response to Northern Ireland Electricity[2] (NIE) in relation to this matter, and is pleased to have the opportunity to deliver a supplementary memorandum.

  This memorandum will confine itself to brief additional observations submitted in accordance with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's Terms of Reference.


  The Committee refers the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to its initial Response to NIE.

    —  The Committee is very concerned that customers were off supply and unable, in a huge number of cases, to make any contact with NIE. We know that, over the period from 26-27 December, of some 650,000[3] calls to NIE, only 13,650[4] customers were able to get through to call centre staff. A further 100,000 of those 650,000 calls were answered by message only.3 The message was not usefully updated during the period and was therefore of virtually no value.

    —  The Committee is further concerned that, until long after the event, NIE was under the illusion that only 50,000 consumers were off supply at the height of the storm. The number was in fact some 160,000. The Committee is of the view that this misapprehension must have been relevant.

    —  The Committee considers that this represents a catastrophic breakdown in customer care. The consequence of this was an almost total void in which consumers became increasingly frustrated and experienced serious difficulties.

    —  It also meant that consumers could not report major safety issues, such as live lines down, to NIE.

    —  It appears that some consumers with special medical needs, although on the special Customer Care Register, were not able to get through to alert NIE to their predicament.

    —  Relevant and useful information about identified damage to the system could not be communicated to NIE.

    —  Given the acknowledged failure of the internal radio system, we have great concerns about the method and effectiveness of internal communication within NIE. We wonder whether this contributed to the length of time for which customers were off supply.

    —  No information of likely reconnections was available for most of this period. This is most unsatisfactory for all consumers, but particularly for small businesses and domestic consumers who can not necessarily be expected to make alternative provision.


    —  In circumstances such as these there is no automatic right to compensation, such as is available when there are outages attracting the right to payments under the Guaranteed Standards. Accordingly there is no yardstick against which to measure an appropriate company response.

    —  The Committee negotiated with NIE during the period of the storms to achieve some payment to consumers. This was done against an ever-changing situation, and was difficult to manage. Such payments as were made were made as goodwill payments. This is not a satisfactory situation. Customers should have some right to compensation where NIE fail to restore the supply within a reasonable period.

    —  The Committee commends NIE for its decision to pay the announced goodwill payment automatically. This was a very positive development.

    —  NIE have made no proposals for the development of a policy for situations such as this. The Committee considers that such a policy is necessary.


    —  NIE, in its document "The Report 1998 Boxing Day Storm" makes a significant number of statements about its future strategies. No additional money is being put into the system, although planned spending is being accelerated. The Committee accepts that if all the proposed developments occur there should be a significant improvement in the event of a recurrence of what occurred at Christmas.

    —  The Committee wishes to see adequate and effective communication both between consumer and company, and inside the company. Further it is necessary to see effective inter-agency planning to secure the best possible protection, particularly for vulnerable consumers.

    —  As stated above the Committee is of the view that there should be a coherent policy to deal with compensation issues in such circumstances.

    —  The Committee is of the view that current and proposed arrangements for the special care consumer require to be scrutinised to ensure that appropriate action is available particularly to prevent serious medical problems.

    —  The Committee is particularly concerned that an analysis of each fault should be carried out to determine whether the response was appropriate and adequate. For example there is no point in restoring supply, but leaving an adjacent tree in a situation in which the next gust of wind will blow it against the wire and supply will be lost again. Such analysis should be used to inform future strategy.

    —  The Committee would favour the proposal of the Director General for Electricity Supply to introduce a provision for fining the company for a failure such as occurred this year.

4 February 1999

2   Appendix 1. Back

3   Source: NIE Draft Report 1999. This figure only represents calls received on the number 0345 643643. It does not include calls made to other NIE numbers. Back

4   Source: NIE Draft Report 1999. This figure represents the response to all calls made to NIE during the period in question. Back

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