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 (NICCE) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in relation to the Storm Report published by Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE).

  In this response to the Storm Report the NICCE will follow the structure of the Report and will comment on matters arising as necessary.

  NICCE welcomes the very serious response by NIE to the problems which occurred as a consequence of the storms. NICCE accepts that the storms were of exceptional severity. However, this is the third year running in which there have been severe storms at this time of year, and NICCE was assured at its November 1998 meeting that NIE had in place new technology and an effective strategy to deal with what might arise over the Christmas period. Lengthy presentations in relation to enhanced communication capacity were made, and the Committee was assured that there would be no repeat of the difficulties experienced in 1997. In the event the situation in 1998 was worse than that in any preceding year.


  During the first Regulatory Period NIE underspent on its allowed Capital Expenditure budget by some £97 million. The statements by NIE in relation to current levels of investment in the network (paragraph 3.1) are not set in the context of this very major fact, or of the fact that during the period prior to privatisation the network was not as old as it is now. Hence the components of the system would have an anticipated outstanding lifespan and one would not expect as much work to be required in terms of refurbishment and maintenance, as are inevitably required on an ageing system. The fact of the underspend of £97 million has never been satisfactorily explained and the Committee is of the view that there is a correlation between capital underspend and the failure of the network when it comes under strain such as that imposed by the Christmas Storms. It is not totally relevant to compare NIE spend in this context with spend by the other Regional Electricity Companies (RECS) as the necessary capital expenditure was determined for the regulatory period and NIE underspent approximately 30 per cent of the sum allocated. The NICCE is of the very clear view that what happened at Christmas is related to the underspend.


  The Committee acknowledges that work has been done on the 11kv network which comprises a very significant part of the network. The NICCE welcomes the acknowledgement that refurbished lines suffer noticeably fewer interruptions of supply than unrefurbished lines (Figure 3). This is as the NICCE would have expected it to be! However the number of faults arising on the 11kv and 6kv network were some 856 (approximately 25 per cent of the total). The 11kv and 6kv network comprises some 23,297 km of line. The number of faults occurring on the LV system was some 3,000 (almost 75 per cent of all the faults). The most extensive damage therefore occurred on the LV system. NIE's LV system consists of some 13,564 km of line. Of this 7,231 km are underground and only 6,332 km are overhead. The majority of the faults are believed to be on the overhead LV system. It would therefore appear that there was a very high incidence of failure in this part of the system. This must be subject to further scrutiny.

  The cause of these faults is acknowledged to be principally wind (approximately 60 per cent) and trees (approximately 30 per cent).


  The tree pruning cycle is stated to be based on an industry standard of five years. It is also stated that full protection of the lines would require the removal of very large numbers of trees. The NICCE is not satisfied with the adequacy of this response. Anecdotal evidence suggests that trees were pruned more regularly in the past and that inspection was done on a more regular basis. Moreover the NICCE is of the opinion that the particular characteristics of the Northern Ireland transmission and distribution system are different from some other RECS, and that what is appropriate to a system with a higher level of undergrounding and a higher proportion of urban territory may not be appropriate to a largely rural system.


  The Report states that 1,133 poles were replaced as a consequence of the Storm. Faulty poles accounted for some 10 per cent of the faults. Consumers are clear that the level and effectiveness of pole inspection has deteriorated over the years. Consumers report helicopter inspection of poles, and also report that there is no systematic pole analysis. NIE state that there is. The Storm Report does not address this issue in any detail. Nor does it provide any analysis of the causes of pole failure, or the age of the affected poles. The NICCE considers such analysis to be necessary.

Fault Analysis

  Whilst there is a table of geographical fault analysis on the HV system (Table 4) there is no other table of fault analysis of the whole system. Hence it is not possible to identify which areas were affected and to what extent they were affected.


  There is no clear evidence as to the effectiveness of NIE's response to the various faults. The Report states that management of the field response was devolved to the 13 local Customer Services Centres. It states that this devolution was a key factor in the success of the restoration process. NIE has acknowledged that its radio system and its phone system were subject to serious failure during the storm period.

  It is in this area that the NICCE has grave reservations as to the content of the Storm Report. The NICCE has no doubt that engineers and linesmen worked very hard in appalling circumstances. However there is no indication of what proportion of the number of technical staff employed on the system were employed in each part of the system. There is, therefore, no correlation between geographical fault analysis (even at HV level), and distribution of technical staff. The NICCE is of the view that it is not possible to determine the effectiveness of the technical response without analysis of the areas of loss, the nature of the damage to the system and the way in which technical staff were deployed. Given that many customers remained without supply for several days the NICCE can not be satisfied that the strategic management of the response by NIE has been shown to be either adequate or appropriate.


  By any standards, NIE's response to customers was woefully inadequate. The NICCE has already cited in its supplementary response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the fact that during 26 and 27 December some 650,000 calls were made to NIE, and that only 13,650 consumers were able to get through to call centre staff.

The telephone system

  NIE state that the volume of attempted calls was unprecedented. This must be largely a product of the fact that people were unable to contact NIE and made repeated attempts to do so, over many, many hours. Had there been an initial response, it is the NICCE's view that there would not have been such a volume of calls. The NICCE considers that this element of NIE's response can only be described as a catastrophic failure. The NICCE is gravely disappointed at the inadequacy of the response. This inadequacy was, we think, compounded by the fact that communications between customer service centres and management and technical staff do not seem to have been in any way satisfactory. The inability of various sections of NIE to communicate with each other is not investigated in the report, and the NICCE considers that it would have been necessary to conduct an analysis of the aspect of the situation.

The fault on the BT Message Link facility

  There is no explanation of the nature of the fault on the Message Link facility, no indication of what might be done to prevent a recurrence of the situation, and no analysis of the impact of the fault on communications. The Report identifies a fault on the evening of 26 December which was not resolved until late afternoon the following day. However consumers identified difficulties with the Message Link situation over a much longer period than 24 hours. The NICCE is of the view that more information is required in relation to the operation of the Message Link system. The NICCE is aware that in parts of England a similar system was updated half-hourly and provided an adequate and effective response to consumer information needs.

Customer care

  NIE have identified the need to revisit the operation of the customer care systems as a consequence of the experience of the Storm. The NICCE welcomes this and will assist NIE in every way possible to ensure the identification of customers at risk and an appropriate caring response to them.

Vital services

  A number of consumers lost their water supply in addition to their electricity supply as a consequence of the storm. This was caused by a failure of whatever emergency generation arrangements had been made by the Water Agency in the context of its responsibilities to provide a water supply. This should not have happened, and the NICCE welcomes the commitment to formalising arrangements in respect of vital service providers. Obviously such arrangements must be tested at regular intervals, and we look forward to hearing more of the substance of these proposals.

Goodwill payments

  NIE involved the NICCE from the earliest stage of this crisis in its goodwill response. The NICCE welcomes this opportunity to acknowledge that involvement and to state its appreciation of the efforts made by staff in this context. However the NICCE is disappointed that the Report does not indicate any intention to formalise these policies, and considers that this is a notable deficiency.


  Much of what is stated above in relation to NIE's response to customers is relevant to this Chapter. The scale of the failure of these systems was so extensive that NIE have committed themselves to extensive work in this context. We welcome the proposals but with the caveat that we received similar assurances last year. Such assurances proved to be groundless. We will therefore monitor this matter constantly. The NICCE is to visit the new IVR system during April to review the effectiveness of the new system. Obviously there is a need, once the telecommunications system has been installed, to revisit the issue of information flow in crisis situations.


  During the post-storm period the NICCE have had repeated meetings with NIE in relation to the content and progress of the recommendations contained in the Report. We have received extensive information on the progress of some 150 remedial actions being undertaken by NIE. We welcome this level of involvement and the obvious determination on the part of the customer services managers to ensure, as far as they can, that there is a genuine improvement in relation to all aspects affecting customers' enjoyment of electricity supply.

Recommendation 8.1

  The NICCE is of the view that contact with those on the medical support equipment register must be made within a much shorter period than the 24 hours proposed in the Report. Similarly the commitment to a further 12 hour period for contact with the emergency services is too long. The NICCE is of the opinion that further emergency planning is required in this context.

  The NICCE welcomes the remainder of the recommendation, and is pleased that NIE is setting itself targets in relation to information supply.

Recommendation 8.2

  Whilst welcoming these proposals, the NICCE is of the view that more rigorous analysis of what happened this year is necessary in order to achieve the necessary outcomes.

Recommendations 8.3

  The NICCE welcomes NIE's commitment to augmentation and refocussing of the capital expenditure programme. However the NICCE would like to remind all concerned that what is being spent here is no more than would have been spent anyway, and that NIE is always required to review its proposals to secure the best possible outcome for consumers. The money being spent is paid for by customers not shareholders. It is not new money. The Committee will monitor the implementation of this proposal rigorously. We are of the view that these plans are critical to an improvement in the level of customer supply.


  There is much useful information in this Report. However there are significant gaps in the analysis and in the information provided. The NICCE has identified many of these gaps in the course of this response. Effective action by NIE can only occur in the light of complete information. The Report does not indicate the existence of such information, although the NICCE accepts that there will be more information available to NIE than is contained in this report. The NICCE welcomes the positive action which is currently under way at NIE, will continue to monitor the situation and to articulate the consumer interest.

29 March 1999

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