HL Deb 15 January 1998 vol 584 cc1136-7

3.29 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What urgent consultations they have had with the electricity, telephone and other public service companies, as well as with other appropriate authorities, about provision for severe weather emergencies.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government share some of my noble friend's concerns, particularly as regards electricity. The Government have therefore asked the Office of Electricity Regulation (Offer) to look into the steps taken by the public electricity suppliers to restore supplies following the high winds over Christmas. It wants to hear about their efforts to keep customers informed of when supplies were likely to be restored and the ability of the distribution networks to withstand such weather conditions. The Government have asked Offer to submit a report of its findings. The position on telephones was less severe. There was some loss of lines, particularly in the Selsey area, but they were fully reinstalled within 48 hours and 999 access was maintained throughout.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he accept that there is widespread admiration for the way in which those involved worked like Trojans in order to bring relief and contain the damage, especially as it involved being away from their families during the festive season? However, will my noble friend accept that the information given on the telephones is not accurate? I know of delays in restoring telephone services of more than a week.

Does my noble friend agree that there is a danger that where private firms are working in the sphere of public service the downsizing in the interests of profitability may have gone too far with the result that there is little spare capacity with which to meet emergencies that may occur? Does he agree that if global warming is to result in the more frequent recurrence of such turbulent weather the responsibility of the Government to protect those at risk is as great in this dimension as in the military dimension?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, as regards downsizing and staffing levels, it does not appear to the Government that the companies lacked resources. They appeared to have sufficient staff available. During the Christmas period, the electricity companies called engineers back from holiday. They received help from other companies that were not so badly affected. Outside contractors were also used. I join the noble Lord in congratulating the engineers on their work during that time.

It is the regulators' job not only to regulate prices but also to set standards of performance. They must ensure that all licensed companies have the financial capability to carry on their licensed activities. The Government are committed to putting consumers at the heart of utility regulation. We must ensure that we get the balance right and that consumers get a fair deal. That is the purpose of the review of utility regulation being undertaken by the President of the Board of Trade. The review will produce proposals in the coming weeks.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in emergencies such as the sudden cutting of electricity supplies there should be a good information service from the electricity companies to those affected and that they should plan for that service well in advance of the emergencies?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, all the electricity companies have emergency plans and regularly carry out exercises. Those plans were deployed in the severe weather emergencies which occurred. British Telecom instigated its storm plan. Some 350 lines were lost during the storm but were fully reinstated within 48 hours—unfortunately, not that of my noble friend Lord Judd.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, has special consultation taken place with Scottish Hydro-Electric, which has more experience in dealing with bad weather than any other electricity company?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I am sure that the utility companies can learn from the experience of the Scottish Hydro-Electric company. I am not aware of any special consultation taking place, but I shall write to the noble Lord about the matter.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, would it not be more sensible to put all the utility provisions underground where they are not affected by problems relating to the weather?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, it may be more sensible, but the cost of doing so is enormous. The electricity regulator commissioned a Mori poll in order to discover whether people believed the extra costs to be worthwhile. The result was firmly against.

Lord Judd

My Lords, will my noble friend research why he has been briefed to inform the House that telephone services were restored within 48 hours when to my direct knowledge they were not restored for a week in some communities?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I shall take that matter up.

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