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20 Oct 2009 : Column 887

The public meeting held at St. Martin's church in Barnehurst on Thursday 30 July, organised by the vicar, Rev. Gareth Bowen, was well attended, and the anger that people felt towards EDF for allowing the power cuts to happen and for its response was overwhelming and clear. We heard of problems that families had feeding and bathing their young children, of pensioners trapped in tower blocks because the lifts were not working and stairwells were not lit, and of thousands of people who went without hot water for days. In Britain in 2009, that is quite unbelievable. Bexley council's social service teams made the effort to contact as many known vulnerable residents as they could.

In most of the area, however, there was also financial loss as a result of the power cuts. Regrettably, many residents who shopped that weekend and had full freezers and fridges lost hundreds of pounds-worth of food. In addition, people had to have their alarms re-set at a cost to them. Even the Linkline alarm system in Bexley allegedly did not work for part of the time. Tropical fish were lost, and people have suffered considerable financial hardship. EDF got its response to the financial loss completely wrong. When challenged about recompense for the losses, its response was merely to refer people to their insurers. That has caused much anger, especially as the excess on most people's domestic policies is the same or more than the amount that they have lost. As a result of that advice, many people regard EDF as unsympathetic.

EDF has repeatedly told us that, as the power cuts were caused by malicious damage and exceptional circumstances, the usual rules relating to compensation or the electricity guaranteed standards scheme do not apply; that it does not have to pay; and that it had agreed as much with the regulator. However, that is now not so clear, as Ofgem, the regulator, is still awaiting the results of an independent audit of the cause of the accident. Under the guaranteed standards scheme, residents who went 18 hours without power would have been due compensation of £50 plus £25 for each additional 12 hours. However, EDF has offered only a one-off payment of £50 for those who were without power for 24 consecutive hours. That decision has been met with disbelief, and it has caused people to mistrust EDF. Many people see the offer as a way of limiting the amount that EDF has to pay out. My constituents feel that it was inadequate and unfair, and I have to agree.

EDF has written to all customers, advising them of the offer and telling them to apply for it by the end of the month, but the response to applications has been inconsistent to say the least. I have had constituents complain that they have not had a good-will payment, while their neighbour in similar circumstances has been granted it. Mr. and Mrs. Lee, of Crayford, attended my surgery last Friday. They have had to pay a call-out fee to fix their alarm and may have to pay more for further work. They also lost food and other things, and they alleged that they were advised on the phone that they would receive the payment. However, they were subsequently refused payment in a letter despite, they claim, other residents in the same street having received the money. I also have examples of people receiving the payment despite not meeting EDF's rules. One customer received the money without even applying-acquiring it in response to a letter of complaint rather than an application. That is unbelievable.

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Another concern is the imbalance in the level of payments to different parts of the constituency. An address that was without 24 hours' power is getting the same level of payment as those who were switched off for three days. That is unfair. These inconsistencies are furthering the anger felt towards EDF. There are now suggestions that EDF may have been wrong to limit the payment to those without power for 24 hours. Ofgem has suggested that people make their claims under the guaranteed standards scheme under the 18-hour rule, despite EDF's claims. Ofgem is still deciding whether the event was exceptional and whether EDF should take some of the blame.

The deadlines for the good-will payment are imminent. I have outlined the concerns about what happened, and I would like to make a few suggestions about what needs to be done properly to address and acknowledge the impact that this has had on my constituents and others, and what can be done in the future to prevent such events from happening.

The first issue must be the apparent complete lack of security at the point where the incident took place. Yes, EDF is responsible for tens of thousands of miles of network and cables, but my constituents do not understand why vandals were able to get on to the site and cause so much damage. Why was there no alarm at the gate? Why was there no CCTV at the site to capture images? Why was there no back-up for the network? I was astounded by that lack of security. EDF now claims that it will undertake a security review.

The next point is about contingency. Why was EDF not prepared for this incident? Of course it did not vandalise the network, but better security could have prevented it. Contingency plans put in place for a large-scale network failure could have minimised the inconvenience and problems that my constituents faced. I am very concerned, too, about the problems faced by vulnerable people. It is shocking and worrying that EDF did not have a list of its more vulnerable customers. That needs to be looked into.

My final point is about the financial loss and the good-will payment. In Slade Green and Crayford, there are some very underprivileged people who are not able to sustain the loss of a week's or a month's supply of food and were greatly inconvenienced financially by losing it. It is clear that £50 is inadequate to deal with their loss. Does the Minister think that EDF can claim not to be responsible for such losses? Is he satisfied that the system of payments is fair and reasonable? What will he be looking for in providers such as EDF ensuring better security on the networks for which they are responsible? Does he believe that this incident falls outside the guaranteed standards scheme?

EDF failed to secure the site adequately, failed to implement adequate contingency measures after the incident, failed to assist large numbers of vulnerable people, failed to appreciate the problems they faced, and failed reasonably to recompense residents. I urge it to look at its good-will payments and think again.

10.33 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and the Minister for allowing me to contribute to this debate. As they will know, my constituents in Dartford
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were particularly badly affected by this incident. Tens of thousands of houses were out of power for the full 64 hours and had no back-up power, not even intermittent supplies-absolutely nothing. The hon. Gentleman has eloquently set out the level of hardship felt by individual constituents, reflecting many of my own experiences, so I do not need to rehearse those.

When I wrote about this matter to Lord Hunt, Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, he replied:

That is fair enough, but equally it is not fair to penalise customers for events beyond their control leading to power cuts that have caused them great inconvenience, loss and hardship. Many people have lost well over £100-worth of food and other goods that are not covered by their policy excesses. Many of my constituents find it extremely hard to meet the extra costs involved.

Rather than bending over backwards to be fair to the power companies, we should remember that our first responsibility is towards ordinary customers in ensuring that they are treated fairly. Having seen the hardship caused to my constituents by these power cuts, I should like the exemptions to the guaranteed standards system to be scrapped altogether and full compensation to be paid to every customer who applies for it. Will the Minister review the current arrangements so that customers, who through no fault of their own, have suffered considerable hardship, are treated with at least equal fairness, and preferably with the balance of fairness in their direction? They deserve better than they have received.

10.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr. David Kidney): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) on securing this debate on an incident that clearly caused much disruption to those who lost their electricity supply for a long period. This is a prime example of what an Adjournment debate is for-Members speaking up passionately on behalf of people in their area who have had a hard time, and in this case, seem to have been treated badly in the ways that he has described.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I understand that the incident in question is likely to have been caused by one or more people breaking into a locked chamber adjacent to the cable bridge over Dartford creek. While they were there, during the afternoon of Monday 20 July, a fire was started. If there is a difference between us, it is that I understand there is some suspicion that the intention of those who broke in was metal theft rather than simply to cause damage. Nevertheless, the fire then destroyed four 132,000 V cable circuits. As he said, that resulted in more than 90,000 customers losing their electricity supply.

There is an ongoing police investigation into the enforced entry to the bridge, and the police are of the mind that it was probably an attempt at cable theft. There has been a rise in cable theft in modern times, because of the high value of scrap metals, and the Department and the industry are aware of the problem and trying to make new plans and prepare better defences against the risk.

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Within hours of the start of the incident, and once it became clear that the restoration of some customers' supplies would be protracted, EDF informed my Department, as it was legally obliged to do. EDF instigated its emergency plans and started the process of supply restoration. As the hon. Gentleman said, about 31,000 customers were quickly reconnected to unaffected parts of the network. Overnight, further limited emergency interconnection was made available, enabling supplies to be restored to a further 45,000 customers on the rota disconnection basis that he described. Rota disconnection is used when there is insufficient network capacity to supply all customers simultaneously, so that blocks of customers are connected for three hours at a time to share out the available network connection.

As the hon. Gentleman said, throughout the incident mobile electricity generators were deployed, with priority given to vulnerable customers and critical infrastructure. It was the largest deployment of mobile generators on the London network. The last remaining customers had their supply restored at 6.30 am on Thursday 23 July.

In parallel with the restoration efforts, there was continuous work to repair the cable bridge and replace one of the damaged cables, but 132,000 V cable jointing is a highly skilled and time-consuming process. To achieve what was achieved in less than three days was a considerable achievement by the staff involved, and they deserve credit for what they did.

EDF tells the Department that while customers were without electricity, it worked with local authorities-the hon. Gentleman confirmed that with his praise of local authorities-and enlisted the help of the British Red Cross to provide support for people in need. I give my thanks and praise to the local authorities and the British Red Cross for the contribution that they made.

As for my Department's involvement, we have an emergency response arrangement and Ministers were kept informed of the progress of the restoration. We offered assistance to EDF if it was required. Officials were in regular contact with EDF during the incident, and afterwards an official visited the site on 18 August to see the progress of the repairs and assess the security measures that were in place. It was found that the damage done to the door and lock was still visible, but the undamaged end of the bridge was found to be secure and in a good state of repair. Methods of improving security or modifying the network to prevent such incidents in future have been discussed with EDF, and those discussions are ongoing.

Electricity companies have a legal obligation to ensure that their network is designed and maintained to protect the public and consumers from the dangers of electricity and provide quality and continuity of supply. Those obligations are contained in the Electricity Safety, Quality and Continuity Regulations 2002, which have been amended since, and are enforced by the Department. Furthermore, those regulations require a report of all major supply interruptions to be made to the Secretary of State. Typically, there are fewer than 60 reportable interruptions a year, and this was one of the most significant, and certainly the longest, for many years.

The official who visited the site and discussed the incident with EDF is assessing whether there has been non-compliance with the regulations. A decision on that has not yet been announced. As a condition of their distribution licence, electricity companies are required
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to secure customer supplies in the event of such a fault. The loss of four major circuits could be described as more onerous than the networks are designed for. The cable bridge was installed late in the 1950s, at which time incidents of cable theft and malicious damage were not likely to have been specific design considerations.

No electricity network can guarantee 100 per cent. supply reliability. There is an economic balance between the cost of the network and the degree of supply security, but in this country, electricity supplies are typically 99.998 per cent. reliable. Even with a good record on reliability, we must not be complacent. Between the Government and the electricity industry, emergency response arrangements are in place and are exercised regularly.

The incidents considered range from relatively frequent storm events to the extremely remote possibility of a complete national blackout. That means planning, training and exercising alongside those likely to have a stake in a potential crisis, including the energy sector, local and regional administrations, devolved Administrations, and other Departments and agencies whose interests would be affected and whose assistance would be needed in such an event.

Since the incident, EDF has placed 24-hour security at both ends of the bridge until additional security measures can be implemented. In the longer term, EDF is investigating the feasibility of rerouting some or all of the cables. A number of the methods being considered to achieve that would not have been a practical option in the 1950s when the bridge was built. An assessment is also being carried out to identify whether there are any similarly vulnerable parts of the network.

On compensation, in addition to the disruption caused to those affected by the incident, many will have suffered a financial loss. EDF tells me that it has offered a £50 good-will payment to any customer who was without electricity for more than 24 hours. Owing to the exceptional nature of the incident, EDF has claimed an exemption from the guaranteed standards of performance, in accordance with the Electricity (Standards of Performance) Regulations 2005. Performance regulations were introduced in 1991 under section 39 of the Electricity Act 1989 and have been regularly updated to reflect changes in the structure of the industry.

The regulations would provide larger payments to more customers if the exemption did not apply. That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate). EDF certainly did not consult me on whether it should claim an exemption. I have asked whether I can object to it claiming an exemption, but apparently the regulations do not provide for that. My hon. Friend asked whether I would look closely at the regulations in future, and I certainly will.

I say this to my hon. Friend's constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman: any customers who lost their electricity supply and who dispute the application of the exemption are entitled to continue their dispute all the way up to the energy ombudsman, who would have to make a determination. Information on making a complaint to the ombudsman is detailed in EDF's complaints procedure, and on the energy ombudsman's website. For the sake of completeness, I should add that the address is; and while
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we are all together, I thought it would be helpful to give hon. Members the number of the ombudsman's advice line, too: it is 03304 401624.

Mr. Evennett: That is helpful.

Mr. Kidney: Good.

The larger payments would be £50 for domestic customers or £100 for non-domestic customers who were without power for 18 hours, and there would be subsequent payments of £25 for every successive 12 hours without power. Those payments are intended not to compensate consequential loss, but to encourage electricity companies to achieve good restoration times for more routine fault events.

In addition to the exemption that EDF has claimed, it submitted an exceptional event claim against its Ofgem interruption incentive scheme targets. The hon. Gentleman spoke about that. The claim is still being assessed by Ofgem's independent auditors, to establish whether appropriate actions were taken to limit the severity of the event. From this determination, the immediate significance would be the effect on EDF's performance rating under the scheme; crucially, that would affect its regulated revenue. However, of course, if the ombudsman had to make a determination about the exemption, that might be relevant information to be taken into account.

While this was clearly a significant incident that caused major inconvenience to the customers affected, the recovery from it demonstrates that the electricity industry retains the capacity and expertise to respond to such emergencies. The hon. Gentleman asked me to consider four suggestions. The issue of security has come back to our notice because of the growing incidence of metal theft, and prompted by that, we were already considering whether new levels of security would be required. Like the hon. Gentleman, I wondered about CCTV cameras in this day and age.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the contingency plans of each energy company should be able to minimise inconvenience. I stress the extent and scale of this incident, and the staff who acted to put things right as quickly as they could did a good job. However, the hon. Gentleman does not think that the arrangements with the local authority and the Red Cross for the identification of vulnerable people so that they could be helped were sufficient, and so we will need to look at that some more. On the issue of compensation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have found the general comments that I made helpful.

My Department takes the lead for the Government on resilience in the energy sector. We take our responsibility very seriously, including by having regular reviews of preparedness and a programme of exercises. Our review of the causes of this incident and the lessons to be learned from it is ongoing, and I assure the hon. Members who have taken part in this debate that we shall make available the findings of that review, and take action on any recommendations.

Question put and agreed to.

10.46 pm

House adjourned.

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