More than 40,000 UK homes were without electricity on Christmas Day following storms and flooding

Harsher fines urged for blackout delays

Fines for power firms failing to restore household electricity within set times are needed to end the "complacency" shown over Christmas.

The calls to exert pressure on the sector came in a letter to Energy Secretary Ed Davey from the chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, Tim Yeo.

Power bosses were given a bruising interrogation when they were summoned before the committee to explain their response to storms that left thousands of homes without power over the festive period.

The letter said customers should also get far higher compensation payments after suffering much shorter periods without power during extreme weather, they said.

"We invite you to consider whether a direct financial penalty should be imposed by Ofgem on companies which fail to restore power to customers within a stated time frame," Yeo wrote.

"The complacency displayed by the witnesses who appeared before us convinces us that only a measure of this kind is likely to spur them into action."

They had shown an "astonishing lack of concern for the plight of their customers", he said – though he stressed that there was no criticism of staff on the ground who worked through the holidays.

More than 150,000 homes were cut off after strong winds, torrential rain and flooding caused damage to power networks, with some left without electricity for up to six days.

In future, customers should be eligible for compensation during extreme weather after 18 or 36 hours, depending on the severity, rather than the present 24 or 48, the committee believes and the "grossly inadequate" minimum statutory compensation of £27 should be significantly raised, he said, beyond the doubling of that already introduced by many firms.

Ofgem had proposed a £35 payment for domestic and non-domestic customers, with an additional £35 for each further 12 hours up to a cap of £300, Yeo noted, but the committee believes a rate of £75 plus £70 for each further 12 hours up to a cap of £600 – as put forward by Western Power Distribution – was a more appropriate level.

Yeo also urged the Energy Secretary to push firms to introduce a 999-style emergency number for such situations by the end of the year.

David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association, told the committee hearing that the plan faced technical issues and was "in its early stages".

"We would be interested to have clarification from you about whether you had any time frame in mind when you announced – as widely reported by the media – that a 999-style number will be set up, or whether you are content to leave the industry to proceed at its own pace," Yeo wrote.

There remained a "degree of confusion about who to contact" and there was a need for "more effective ways to communicate with and support the most vulnerable customers".

The letter noted a wide gulf between the performances of firms over the period. Western Power Distribution had only 13 customers off supply for more than 24 hours while UK Power Networks had 20,000 – and took six days to get the last back on, it said.

"Six days is quite simply an unacceptable length of time to restore the essential service of electricity," Yeo wrote. "We accept that some of the differences in performance may be attributable to the severity of the weather in different regions.

"However, we are very concerned that the representatives from the network operators that appeared before us in January generally showed an astonishing lack of concern for the plight of their customers."

During the committee hearing, MPs were told that "tried and tested" emergency plans were defeated by the severity of the storms, including stronger-than-expected winds, and companies were unable to help each other because they were all stretched to the limits.

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokeswoman said: "The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey has met several times with Distribution Network Operators to ensure lessons are learned and there is no repeat of what happened over Christmas.

"The Distribution Network Operators will report to Ed Davey in March to explain how customer communications will be improved and the process of claiming compensation will be made simpler.

"Ed Davey met the Distribution Network Operators again last week to ask for an update on the telephone number and we expect them to set out a timetable shortly."

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