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 19981 January 1999. The Committee has
already submitted to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee a
copy of its response to Northern Ireland Electricity
(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.
1. THE FAILURE
OF NIE TO
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
calls to NIE, only 13,650
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
2. THE COMPANY'S
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.
3. FUTURE ARRANGEMENTS
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
4 February 1999
2 Appendix 1. Back
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
Source: NIE Draft Report 1999. This figure represents the response
to all calls made to NIE during the period in question. Back