HC Deb 16 December 1981 vol 15 cc305-8
Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the resumption of electricity supplies which have been disconnected since Sunday last.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Nigel Lawson)

On Sunday 13 December throughout a wide area of the country bad weather conditions, including blizzards and high winds, combined with freezing conditions, caused damage to electrical transmission and distribution lines. The extra load arising from snow and ice on overhead lines caused failures and short circuiting. At least 250,000 consumers had their electricity supplies cut off, chiefly in the South-West, South Wales, Merseyside and North Wales electricity board areas.

The area boards undertook emergency work immediately. However, continuing bad weather hindered the progress of repairs. The boards called on other electricity boards, private contractors and the Armed Forces for assistance. They also liaised with the emergency services to alleviate hardship wherever possible. I am happy to say that the number of consumers now without supply has fallen to fewer than 30,000. I hope that by tomorrow most consumers will have been reconnected.

I am conscious of the hardship and discomfort suffered by those affected by the incident. However, those concerned with the repairs have worked all hours in difficult circumstances and deserve our thanks.

Mr. Emery

I pay tribute to the maintenance staff of many of the boards who worked on Sunday and Monday morning in unbelievable cold and conditions of hardship to bring supply back to a vast number of consumers in the South-West.

May I ask two questions about the South-West? I am sure that other hon. Members will ask about their areas. First, why have not emergency generators been used for groups of consumers where the problem has involved bringing a supply to a particular area and where emergency generation could be used? Secondly, what consideration has been given to farmers with milking parlours where it has been impossible to use electricity and where a major tragedy has been caused?

Mr. Lawson

Some emergency generating equipment is available locally and it has been used. If my hon. Friend has particular instances that he wishes to draw to my attention he should write to me and I shall be happy to consider them further.

I am advised that many farmers involved in milking have the capacity to generate electricity themselves. Some standby generators are already being used. The National Farmers Union has reported no major problems in the area.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that we have sympathy with those involved in the appalling problems being experienced in the areas to which he referred? The problems that were shown on television yesterday seemed heart-rending. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we fully support what he said about the hard work under incredible conditions of the electricity power line staff?

May we have an assurance that even with all the hard work there has not been an organisational breakdown? Have the CEGB and the local authorities been affected by cash limits? Is it possible that they have not had the money to do the job properly? Is there a shortage of small generators that are under the control of local authorities?

Mr. Lawson

I am satisfied that there has been no organisational breakdown. What is at issue is whether the technical standards for overhead lines are satisfactory. That is kept under regular review. I have looked into the matter and I have been advised that with conditions as severe as those that we have experienced recently lines would be affected, even if their strength were considerably increased. Many areas experienced the worst conditions in living memory. Nevertheless, I have asked the area boards to review the matter in the light of the recent experience.

There is no question of the cash limits having any effect. Indeed, there has been no shortage of generating capacity. The problem involved a breakdown in the transmission and distribution lines. I am not aware of a lack of generating equipment by local authorities. Local authorities must decide what generating equipment to invest in. The House must accept that when there is freak and unusual weather we should be lucky to get by with no adverse affects.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

To ensure that such a catastrophe does not occur again—its scale is unprecedented—will my right hon. Friend undertake to conduct a detailed inquiry with area boards and the CEGB into the causes of the massive breakdown? Will he ensure that the results of that inquiry are published? My right hon. Friend said that at lunchtime today 30,000 households were still unconnected—and that includes mine. Will he ensure that everything possible is done to bring in technicians from other areas to reinforce the work being done by the devoted people in the South-West and other areas?

Mr. Lawson

I accept that great hardship has been caused to many thousands of people. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend's house is disconnected. Assistance from other area boards has already been provided. Assistance has also been provided by the Armed Forces and various other bodies. Everything possible is being done. However, a further review seems necessary. I have no reason to believe that such a review would reveal that standards are inadequate, but in the light of the recent experience it is right to review further the technical standards for overhead lines. I have asked the area boards to look into that in particular, in the light of the recent experience.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question and not a statement, but I realise the deep constituency concern involved. Exceptionally—and it is exceptional—I shall allow questions to continue for longer than normal.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

The Secretary of State said that 30,000 households were cut off. How many households in South Wales have no electricity supply? If he supports the idea of an inquiry, will he ensure that it investigates the effects of cash limits on nationalised industries? As it is possible that we shall have an extended winter, does he agree that there is an urgency about the matter? Will he also investigate the cuts in local authority expenditure which have prevented some authorities from gritting the roads and therefore prevented access to overhead lines?

Mr. Lawson

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by saying that we are to have an extended winter. Perhaps he has information that I lack. I can assure him that the emergency services, particularly of the electricity boards, are in no way hampered in their work by cash limits. Of course they must operate within a financial discipline, but so does everybody.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I have an interest in these matters. Is my right hon. Friend aware that for four days my farmhouse has had no electricity, and that that is not funny? Will he also take note of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that far more repair gangs should be brought in from other areas more quickly? It was a real emergency and much more should have been done. Will he investigate the possibility of providing additional spacers on the lines to stop them touching during high winds, as that causes many of the failures?

Mr. Lawson

My hon. Friend's last point is one of the matters that will be considered in the review of transmission and distribution lines. I readily acknowledge that farmers probably suffer most from the power cuts. I understand that the Milk Marketing Board has made special arrangements for the collection of milk and that that is no longer a problem. Many farmers have standby generators which have helped them with their milking process. I am assured by the National Farmers Union that there are no major problems in that area. However, it has undoubtedly caused great difficulties for farmers.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Is the Minister aware that extremes of weather are not exactly unknown in the far South-West, and that freak storms can be guaranteed every year—if "freak" be the right word? Will he investigate whether a major contribution to the disaster that has hit the South-West has not been the CEGB's policy of closing down all local power stations in the far South-West peninsula?

Mr. Lawson

The problems have nothing to do with the CEGB. There has been no problem with electricity generating. The supergrid has, on the whole, worked properly and has not caused a problem. The problem has been failures in the transmission and distribution lines operated by the area boards.

Mr. Speaker

If hon. Members will co-operate, I shall call all those whom I know to have a direct constituency interest.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) for raising this matter. If he had not done so there would not have been a statement. Does my right hon. Friend accept that when communities are without supplies for long periods, their frustration is increased by the total lack of information? Will he encourage the electricity authorities to install a system similar to that of the speaking clock to give local weather reports and up-to-date information about the source of the troubles and what progress is being made to remedy them?

Mr. Lawson

I have examined the question of information. I am assured that the area boards made every effort to use local radio, BBC regional broadcasts and the press to give up-to-date information about the extent of the trouble, what was happening and what was being done to put it right. Emergency information rooms were also established and isolated areas were visited by police. One problem has been the large number of telephone calls which jammed the lines and caused problems for people wishing to obtain information. Those who possessed transistor radios heard up-to-date information on the state of play.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

I have some small practical experience of these matters. Is the Minister aware that the British electricity supply industry has one of the best records in the world for restoration of supplies after storms? Will he not extend the thanks of the Government to the engineers and workmen who have been out day and night during the past few days?

Mr. Lawson

I am delighted to have the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the vote of thanks that I have already given.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that not enough news is given by telephone because the boards do not have enough lines or telephonists? Could they not install more lines against a stormy day? Is he aware that there is no shortage of generators, most of which are manufactured in my constituency? Will he ensure that the boards hire them and have them on tap?

Mr. Lawson

That is a matter for the boards. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is a most assidious constituency Member, will tell them how they can assist his local industry.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Is not the lesson that should be learnt that electricity board exchanges become swamped and people cannot respond to broadcast messages? Is not the cure for that the provision of a number of ex-directory lines to which the clerks of councils have access? They can act as collecting centres for information about local supplies and conditions and can quickly phone the ex-directory numbers. Should we not learn that important lesson from the present experience?

Mr. Lawson

I shall be happy to consider that suggestion.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many parts of Wiltshire have been severely affected? What message can he give me, especially for homes in the Warminster area, to assure the local people that their ordeal is almost over? When there was last bad weather a couple of years ago, there were grievous problems of disconnection and we were assured that that would not be repeated. What progress has been made in the intervening period?

Mr. Lawson

As I said earlier, it is my hope that by tomorrow most consumers will have been reconnected, and that includes those in my hon. Friend's constituency. He must be aware that conditions during the past few days were very much worse that the conditions of two years ago.