Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Department of Economic Development Northern Ireland



  1. The Department of Economic Development is the Government Department responsible for energy matters in Northern Ireland.

  2. Following the restructuring of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland in the early 1990's, statutory responsibility for the protection of consumers in respect of continuity of supply and quality of supply services provided rests with the independent Director General of Electricity Supply for Northern Ireland ("the Electricity Regulator"). The relevant provisions are contained in the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992.

  3. The severe storms which affected Northern Ireland on 26 December 1998 and succeeding days caused widespread disruption to the electricity system. Some 165,000 consumers were off supply at the peak of the storm on Boxing Day.

  4. The Regulator's Office wrote to Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) on 31 December 1998 (i) seeking detailed information in the form of a questionnaire on the impact of the power disruptions and the actions taken by the company to restore supplies; and (ii) requesting a report on:

    —  the arrangements put in place to keep customers informed during the emergency;

    —  the arrangements for customers with special electrical needs and other vulnerable customers;

    —  the NIE assessment of the problems with the use of emergency and helpline numbers;

    —  the NIE assessment of any problems associated with lack of local knowledge amongst call handling staff; and

    —  the actions planned following the company's review of the emergency.

  5. NIE submitted a preliminary response to the Regulator on 14 January and a detailed final report on 27 January. The Regulator plans, on completion of his analysis, to publish the NIE report along with his conclusions on how NIE needs to improve its systems, including those for providing information to consumers, for dealing with future emergency situations.

  6. The Secretary of State met Dr Patrick Haren, Group Chief Executive, Viridian Group Plc (the holding company of NIE Plc) on 6 January 1999. She expressed her concerns about the problems encountered by consumers over the Christmas and New Year holiday periods and requested a report on the company's response to the widespread and lengthy disruptions by the end of January. NIE agreed to provide the response requested by the Secretary of State.

  7. Ministers look forward to receiving the considered views of the Regulator, following his analysis of the detailed reports submitted by NIE, on the company's performance over the Christmas and New Year periods and, in particular, on the measures he wishes the company to take in the event of future emergency situations to ensure (i) the physical impact on the network is minimised; (ii) effective and timely arrangements to restore supply are in place; and (iii) a revised and fully tested system for informing consumers—individually and collectively—on the supply situation is in place.

  8. Ministers may wish to take an appropriate opportunity to meet again with senior management in NIE to reiterate the importance Government places in the company having flexible, deliverable and customers focused plans for dealing with future emergencies.

1 February 1999

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