Power bosses slammed over 'neglect'
Power bosses were accused of an astonishing display of neglect for customers today as they attempted to defend their response to Christmas storms that left thousands of homes without power.
Energy committee chairman Tim Yeo lambasted network company chiefs for failing to show "any expression of real concern" as they blamed wind speeds and the scale of the operation for poor response times.
The senior industry figures were told they showed "utter complacency" and were "exploiting" their privileged market monopoly during the energy select committee grilling.
MPs heard that "tried and tested" emergency plans were defeated by the severity of the storms and companies were unable to help each other because they were all stretched to the limits.
But Mr Yeo lashed out at the six-strong panel for failing to take the problems faced by their customers seriously enough.
"You have lacked any expression of real concern for your customers," he said. "It's absolutely typical of a monopoly, particularly monopolies whose charges are not very visible to the customers who have to pay them."
More than 150,000 homes were cut off after strong winds, torrential rain and flooding caused damage to power networks, with many left without electricity for up to five days.
Mark Mathieson, managing director of SSE's electricity networks, insisted that clean-up operations were much quicker now than in the past and said the company had gone the "extra mile".
He told MPs: "It was just the impact of the event. It was a massive event. Certainly we haven't seen damage like this in the south back from the early 90s and even back to the great storm of 1987.
"I think the one thing I would say, and I've been in this industry for 25 years, we as an industry clean these events up much quicker than we used to. But we also recognise the impact that has on customers.
"We are sorry and I did go out to communicate with customers that we were sorry that they were off.
"To get to the area and fix faults, in some circumstances when you've got damage like that, when you've got devastation like that, it unfortunately takes time. But that's where we go the extra mile. I know it's not the same as being at home with the power on but we were offering accommodation and hot meals."
Basil Scarsella, chief executive of UK Power Networks, said the organisation knew that storms were coming but the wind speed was higher than they had expected.
"But notwithstanding that, we managed on the Monday when it hit to have all our workforce pretty much on deck and our estimation of the damage was pretty accurate."
He added: " "The other issue was that this was a national storm and it lasted over two or three days. There is a well-tested mutual aid system which enables any of us to call on our colleagues to send additional resources.
"But because of the severity of the storm and the national nature of the storm we were not able to provide additional resources to other networks, or indeed receive additional resources."
The explanations did little to convince the committee that the energy companies were putting customers first.
Mr Yeo said: "I've heard nothing at all this morning which reassures me that you are taking this problem seriously enough to deal with the concerns of millions of your customers.
"There is no sense of urgency in what you said about any plans to step up your capacity to respond to severe weather even though we now have quite clear warnings that extreme events are likely to take place more frequently in future."
He added: " You've failed to demonstrate in my view adequate concern for the plight of your customers. That's characteristic of monopolies whose activities are not very effectively scrutinised by anybody until now. And frankly if your customers had the capacity or the freedom to switch to an alternative distributor I am sure that millions of them would be doing so as we speak.
"I have to conclude that you are exploiting your privileged monopoly position and you have displayed a neglect of your customers which I personally find absolutely astonishing."
Mr Yeo also claimed Energy Secretary Ed Davey had been made to "look ridiculous" over his plans to introduce a 999-style emergency number to deal with such situations after David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association, told the committee the plan faced technical issues and was "in its early stages".
" You have managed to make the Secretary of State look ridiculous in his claim that there is going to be a three digit number that customers can use," the committee chairman said.