To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement on the current situation regarding power outages cause by Storm Arwen.
As the House will know, the Secretary of State updated Members last week on how we are continuing to work to ensure that power is restored to people’s homes following Storm Arwen. We have provided a named contact for MPs, on request, for each network operator, which I was delighted to do personally with the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on Friday morning.
Storm Arwen was the worst storm in over 15 years in terms of the disruption and damage caused. Those most badly hit have been in northern England and Scotland, and some have now been without power for over a week. That has made life incredibly difficult and stressful for many residents, and I want to assure them that help is there.
On Wednesday, I visited County Durham and on Friday I visited Aberdeenshire to see first-hand some of the devastation caused by Storm Arwen, and yesterday the Secretary of State was also in the north-east of England. I thank the engineers, the emergency workers and our armed forces who are on the ground for their incredibly hard work and perseverance in challenging conditions. We have removed the compensation limit to allow customers affected to claim up to £140 per day if they are without power.
I am glad to say that 99.8% of those affected by the storm have had their power supply restored so far—but this is not good enough. It is completely unacceptable that about 1,600 of them were still in this position as of this morning, although the situation is improving each hour. The remaining areas affected are in the north-east of England, predominantly the Wear valley surrounding Eastgate, where I was on Wednesday. I have been assured by the network operators that all efforts are focused on having power restored to those households in the next days.
First, I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here today to address us on this very important issue.
There is something seriously wrong with Northern Powergrid—not with the engineers and individuals who are out restoring power but with the management and senior management of that company. The Secretary of State, during his visit, said that he met, as I know the Minister met, local managers, and I thank the Minister for his phone call on Friday morning. But in the past 10 days I have had constituents in Craghead, Stanley, High Handenhold, Edmondsley and parts of Chester-le-Street without power. Some have now had it restored, but Blackhouse, Edmondsley and parts of Craghead are still without.
I ask the Minister to go back to the power company, as it cannot give the assurance that he has just given to those communities: it says on its own website that there is no date yet for restoring power in parts of my constituency. Constituents have had to experience sub-zero temperatures in terrible conditions. That has been made worse by Northern Powergrid.
On the night of Friday 26 November, I understand that internally the company issued an emergency for County Durham. That was not transmitted to the local resilience forum until Wednesday 1 December, which only became apparent to the county council and other resilience forums when an enterprising council officer started plotting on a map how many homes were affected. What has made the situation worse is Northern Powergrid’s communications, which raised people’s expectations that power was coming on, so people have stayed in homes when they should not have done. Likewise, information now is still not good. I was even told last week by an employee of Northern Powergrid, “Just ignore what is on the website—it’s complete nonsense.” If they are saying that, what confidence can my constituents have in that information? The communication has been appalling and made things worse.
The other thing that has made things worse—particularly in my constituency, parts of which are not rural, but are in towns—is the age of the components, so I will ask three quick questions. First, will the Minister do an urgent, independent assessment of the resilience of the grid, especially since we have the storm coming in tomorrow night? Secondly, what has been done since 2013? Thirdly, what can be done to force the company to pass information on to the bodies that need to know, including the resilience forums? What compensation or money will be put forward to Durham County Council and others for the money they have expended so far?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those further questions, and for his concern. It was good to have a chance to give him an in-person update on Friday morning on the situation in County Durham and particularly in relation to North Durham, and to pass on contact details for Northern Powergrid.
The Secretary of State gave a statement last Wednesday from this very Dispatch Box. He was in the north-east yesterday and is currently on an urgent call with Phil Jones, who heads up Northern Powergrid.
On the responses, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the communications have not been effective. I said to Phil Jones in person last Wednesday that the communications were not good enough, particularly in the first few days. I was joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who gave directly to him the frustrations she had had, including that there had been no social media response. I think those messages landed well with Northern Powergrid.
On Wednesday, I also visited the call centre at Penshaw, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the incredible work being done in those call centres. I remember meeting Nicola Chipp, Dave Rose and many others who have been putting in long shifts in that call centre. For the first 48 hours, it was quite difficult to get into the call centre in the storm’s aftermath, but some incredible efforts are being put in there.
A lot of engineers have come from right across the country. When I was there on Wednesday, 200 engineers were there—there are even more today—ensuring that those last properties get reconnected. In terms of reconnection by tomorrow, that is the assurance given by Northern Powergrid. Hundreds of generators have been deployed in the area. Finally, on the independent assessment, what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ofgem do after these events is conduct an independent assessment and a lessons learned process, which is exactly what we did following Storm Desmond seven years ago.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this urgent question, and I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for visiting my constituency over the past week. There are some real issues here about the relationship between energy companies and the local resilience forums. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and its associated regulations in 2005 set out the guidance for how energy providers should engage with local resilience forums, but we need to know from Ministers what assessment they have made of the communications from Northern Powergrid. Does the law need strengthening if it is not passing information over quickly enough?
To make another quick point, we welcome the Ofgem review, which should be a helpful step in the right direction, the fact that the £700 cap has been removed and the doubling of the daily allowance for my constituents. However, many of them in the run-up to Christmas will have spent a huge amount of their own cash on going into hotels or other accommodation and on extra food. Will the Minister put the Government’s shoulder to the wheel to ensure that Northern Powergrid gets that compensation to my constituents as quickly as possible? The run-up to Christmas is an especially expensive time of year for people, and they need to have that money.
I commend my hon. Friend, with whom I spoke on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was a pleasure to visit his constituency. At Ireshopeburn, I saw the generator being connected to the community centre by engineers from across the UK, including from UK Power Networks in south-east England. I saw the relief centre at St John’s Chapel and I was in Eastgate, so I saw things first hand in his constituency.
To answer my hon. Friend’s question about our assessment of the comms, I have already mentioned that the comms from Northern Powergrid were not good enough in those first days. I am sure that that will be part of the review process that the Government will do with Ofgem as part of the response to all these storm events. On Northern Powergrid, we put the experience of many Members of the House and their constituents in those first few days firmly to Mr Jones, and I think that that message landed.
I thank the engineers, the Army, the emergency services and, most of all, local people in affected areas for their heroic response to the crisis. It is totally contemptuous for the Business Secretary to be available for a photo opportunity yesterday but not to be available today to come to the House to account for the Government’s performance. That simply adds insult to injury for communities in the north of England that have been badly let down by the power networks and by central Government in their crisis response and oversight of the system.
I will ask the Minister some questions. Some 10 days into the crisis, why has the Government’s emergency committee Cobra still not met to co-ordinate the response? Over the weekend, a local Conservative councillor in Durham said:
“if this happened in London…or in the south-east, everything would have got thrown at it.”
Are people in the north not entitled to think that he is right and that they have been treated as second-class citizens? Why did it take a week for the Army to be called in when Members on both sides of the House were calling for that at the start of last week? Why are thousands still without power when the Secretary of State told us last Wednesday in the House that people would be reconnected by Friday? Will the Minister now apologise to communities in the north for the Government’s performance?
The Minister said today, as the Secretary of State said yesterday, that he wants to learn lessons, but we have been here before. After the 2013 storms, multiple reports were produced—I have them here for him—that identified problems of communication, the vulnerability of the network and the complacency of the companies. After that event, during which 16,000 people were cut off for 48 hours, customers were told that they could expect to see “significant improvement”. This time, however, the performance has been far worse. Is not the only conclusion that the Government have been asleep at the wheel not just in the last 10 days but for the best part of a decade?
The climate crisis means that we will face many more such events. The Government must get a grip. Instead of a cosy Government-led process, overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ofgem, will the Minister now establish what the situation demands—a proper independent inquiry into the performance and failures of power companies, regulators and the Government to ensure that our country and communities are never left that vulnerable again?
Let me deal with each point in turn. It would not be fair to say that yesterday was a photo opportunity. The Secretary of State visited the armed forces, engineers, local residents, the relief centres and so on. It was most definitely not a photo opportunity, but an opportunity, as I discovered in County Durham on Wednesday and in Aberdeenshire on Friday, to thank those who had responded. Engineers had come from Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man to assist and we felt that it was right to go and thank them for their efforts. The Secretary of State is on a call at the moment with the Prime Minister and the head of Northern Powergrid.
On the response, the point here is that the mutual aid system is in place between the distribution network operators. The right hon. Member will know from his time as Secretary of State the importance of the mutual aid system—the NEWSAC, or North East South West Area Consortium, system—whereby different companies across the United Kingdom provide help to each other when a storm comes in. That is why engineers can be deployed right the way across the country. That is the most effective thing, because restoring power involves quite dangerous, health and safety-intensive work to restore overhead power cables, and those are the people one needs to be able to do the job.
The right hon. Member says it took a week to bring in the Army, but it is for the local resilience forum to say what the needs are locally. As soon as the local resilience forum in Aberdeenshire and that in Durham gave us the call, the Army was deployed very quickly indeed. He talks about investment, and I mentioned earlier that £60 billion has been invested in the network over the last eight years.
I learned at first hand on Wednesday in County Durham and on Friday in Aberdeenshire about the particular nature of this storm. There was the unusual wind speed and the fact that, rather than the prevailing south-westerly winds, the wind came in from the north-east, which makes a big difference for the power network. There was also the nature of the icing and the accumulation of icing on cables, which was a particular part of the storm. One of the engineers I spoke to in Durham on Wednesday described how he had experienced this particular set of circumstances only once before in his 35-year career in the industry.
Finally, on climate crisis, the right hon. Member is right: of course, there will be similar events like this and more of these events in the future. That is why we need to do everything we can—for example, with our net zero strategy in October—to make sure this country becomes more resilient to these kinds of events. We are currently doing the joint consultation with Ofgem on the future system operator, and that is exactly the kind of response that we need: a net zero strategy for how we equip the country overall, plus in particular how we make sure that the grid becomes more resilient to these kinds of events in the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to Aberdeenshire on Friday, particularly to probably one of the hardest places to get to—I am not saying that Banff and Buchan is a hard place to get to—when we went to visit the engineers on the ground in a wooded area just outside the village of Methlick in my constituency. I think they really appreciated the visit from my right hon. Friend, and we certainly appreciated the work that they have put in.
I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks in his opening statement thanking those engineers as well as the resilience partnerships and emergency services. Will he join me in also thanking the local communities, individuals and community groups that have come out in force and shown community spirit, as they have done throughout the covid pandemic as well?
On the communications issue that a number of hon. and right hon. Members have raised, can I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that the review that has been announced by Ofgem will look not only at the lessons learned and what went wrong with communications during this storm, but at what we can do in future to reach out to those who have become overly dependent on social media and handheld devices, and how we can go back to how we managed to communicate, say, 20 years ago?
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and it was invaluable to have his assistance on Friday when visiting his community in Banff and Buchan. I met the SSE engineers at Methlick, and this is also a good occasion to thank in particular Mike Coull from the Little Kitchen, who has been working flat out to provide free fish and chips to the community affected in Methlick. I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he has done to keep his constituents posted and to make sure he fulfils his role here in the House, scrutinising the UK Government.
It was also a pleasure in particular to meet in Aberdeenshire those who had come from across the UK to assist. I was talking to one of the engineers who had come up from Liverpool, and there was a genuine professional satisfaction in coming from right the way across the country to help people in their time of need. I saw that from right across the UK, and I think people were very thankful for that. I also join with my hon. Friend in thanking the local communities.
On the review, of course people have become more dependent on electricity. Generally, that can be a good thing for us, particularly with electric vehicles and electricity as a source of power, but we also need to recognise that greater dependence means a greater responsibility, which I am sure will be part of the joint BEIS-Ofgem review coming up.
I, too, pay tribute to the fortitude of those who have been affected and the fantastic community support that has been provided, as well as to the workers doing the work and challenging the elements. However, the reality is that it is completely unacceptable for people to be without power for 10 days, and it is unacceptable for the Minister to stand here and say it is unacceptable—and that communications are unacceptable—without telling us what he is doing to sort out these unacceptable conditions.
With so many faults—way more than were predicted by modelling—what discussions have the Government had about whether the modelling is robust enough? What assessment are they making of the robustness of the network itself, of the recovery plans, and—we knew the storm was coming—of whether people understood the effects of the storm and other factors, such as trees being felled by the wind?
Customers and Parliament were given dates for when electricity would be restored, but those have proven to be wrong, so what assessment have the Government made of how the electricity companies have undertaken that work? It is quite clear that they did not have a grip of the situation. Was all the technology deployed that could have been deployed, such as drones and other remote working devices? Was sufficient tree-clearing equipment and labour deployed in the aftermath?
The Minister spoke about the mutual aid, but that clearly has not been sufficient to resolve the situation. It is quite clear that the Army should have been deployed more quickly. Why did the Government not offer the use of the Army? What compensation will be provided to customers, particularly hospitality business, and how will lessons learned be conveyed to Parliament? The Minister spoke about lessons learned from Storm Desmond. Why were those lessons not sufficient?
As I mentioned, I spent Friday in Aberdeenshire seeing the situation on the ground. I was joined by Chris Burchell, the managing director of SSE, and I put him on the spot about his communications. I think they were better in the first few days than those of Northern Powergrid, but it has been a difficult time for everyone concerned.
On the calling out of the Army, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a role for the local resilience forum, the Grampian local resilience partnership. On Friday I also met Jim Savege, the chief executive of Aberdeenshire Council, who I think chairs or leads the local resilience partnership. He was very satisfied, I think, with the response of the Army and others. I met the 3 Scots when I was in Aberdeenshire; I understand that 45 Commando and the 39 Engineer Regiment have also been deployed. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will join me in thanking them for the work they have been putting in to help the community.
In terms of assistance—the NEWSAC scheme and the ability to deploy engineers from right across the United Kingdom—the hon. Gentleman may wish to reflect on the message from the industry about the importance of the UK response in being able to deploy people. A lot of engineers were deployed in Scotland; 630 were deployed from elsewhere in the UK. These are highly qualified, highly capable, very technical people. Two hundred and eighty-five of them came from the rest of the UK to Scotland, and 400 are currently in the north-east of England. I particularly want to minute my thanks for the efforts they have put in right across this United Kingdom.
I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing the urgent question, and I thank Ministers for their extensive engagement over this horrendous crisis.
I associate myself with the concerns raised by my County Durham colleagues—not least the shock that I think we all felt at learning in a meeting with Durham County Council on Friday that the communications from Northern Powergrid had meant that the response from the local resilience forum was slowed by about five days. That meant we could not get boots on the ground or house-to-house support for the people who needed it. Five days wasted—that is an absolute disgrace. We really need to ensure that we hold Northern Powergrid’s heels to the flame for that one.
I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) said about ensuring that compensation will be paid before Christmas. It is a difficult time financially for so many, so if Ministers could add pressure on Northern Powergrid on that point, I know that it would be much appreciated by all those who have been affected.
I have two quick questions. First, what preparations are the Government undertaking, in conjunction with local resilience forums, for Storm Barra, which is going to hit over the next few days? Secondly, on the BEIS and Ofgem review, will the Minister expand a bit on what the consultation will look into, in terms of the infrastructure and its resilience? Will he also say whether the review will look into emergency provision to ensure that enough support—things such as emergency generators—is available to those who are hit in these horrible crises?
I thank my hon. Friend for her engagement with me and the Secretary of State on behalf of her constituents, and in particular for making meetings at relatively short notice. I agree that communications from Northern Powergrid were simply not good enough. I have reflected on that and we put that across strongly to Phil Jones.
On when compensation will be paid out, as I understand it, most is paid automatically, but it does take some time to process. I am told that it may take up to three months. I hope that it can be quicker, and I am sure that we can put that view across to the company.
It is not my job to be a weather forecaster, but we expect Storm Barra to hit the island of Ireland in particular. On preparations, an established process is in place whereby the NEWSAC committee would assess the likely landfall of the storm in the UK and start making preparations, often in conjunction with Ireland. I should also minute that engineers from the Republic of Ireland were in the UK helping out last week.
On reviews and resilience, previous reviews have of course led to important reforms. The 105 telephone number was created as a result of a previous review, as indeed was the NEWSAC network of mutual aid throughout the United Kingdom. Such reviews are strongly empowered, and while I would not want to prejudge what a review would look at, two things that I would expect it to look at carefully are communications and the resilience of the network in particular places.
I have to say that I am absolutely astonished that the Minister just gave an assurance that help is there, but went on to say that compensation will be available within three months. People in constituencies like mine, people in the north and people in Scotland—people who have been devastated by Storm Arwen—cannot wait three months. Let us be honest: it is an insult to the people who have been badly affected. Will the Minister look at ways and means of channelling much more financial support into badly affected constituencies so that the people at the bottom who have been devastated by this can receive compensation, not just for power cuts but for devastation to property, loss of property and so on?
I thank the hon. Member for that contribution. I understand the passion that he feels, but a lot has been done on the ground. I saw for myself the provision of accommodation by hotels, inns, pubs and so on, as well as the provision of food and hot meals—everything from a cup of tea in a community hall. There has been a huge community response right across the affected regions. We have also worked closely with the British Red Cross in providing relief to people on the ground.
It is completely unacceptable that some people are still without power. I think that 99.8% of people have now been reconnected, but it is an unacceptable time for the 1,000 or more people who are still not reconnected. The Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and I have all said that. We obviously need to learn the lessons, and an established process is in place for that. I have already pointed out how previous such storms have led to really strong improvements to the system, and I would also expect that to be the case this time.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that it is quite rich to hear criticism from Scottish National party Members after it took the Scottish First Minister four days to even comment on the fact there was an issue in the north-east of Scotland, given that the power went off. I join him and my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) in thanking the workers from Aberdeenshire Council, the emergency services, the armed forces and, of course, the Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks engineers who did a power of work to restore electricity to north-eastern Scotland.
Although a lot has been said about the resilience of the energy network and a review of that, will the Minister join me in looking into a review of the communications network? Part of the problem last week seemed to be that whether someone was able to report faults or was offline in their area depended on which mobile network they were on, so I ask for his support in calling for a review from Ofcom of the mobile communications network.
I thank my hon. Friend for his invaluable assistance on Friday in Aberdeenshire. I do not think he and I will ever forget meeting the engineers who had been working up to 17-hour shifts just outside of Kemnay. They had been at that all week, including with help from right across the UK. My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the communications network. We have become more dependent on electricity and networks. I am sure that that will be part of the review to see what lessons might be learned and whether there can be other ways to approach the communications problem in future.
I might be able to enlighten the Minister, given his earlier comments about Met Office warnings, because we need to give it some credit: it was right on the ball originally about Storm Arwen regarding the wind strength, the timings and the wind direction. It has issued two warnings today, Minister, that tomorrow—7 December—Storm Barra will bring strong winds and snow to my constituency and further north.
Storm Arwen and the response have exposed the deep north-south divide in this country. Individuals and communities in my constituency—I have not had any ministerial visits—have been left without support for over a week. It took five days for the Secretary of State to make a statement, and he did not do that willingly. It was only after multiple requests through the Speaker from Members on both sides of the House from Monday onwards that the Secretary of State came to make a statement, and it took five days for a major incident to be declared. It is too easy to put all the blame on Northern Powergrid and poor comms. At every level, be it the Minister’s Department, local government, the resilience forum or Northern Powergrid, questions must be asked, and I believe that a public inquiry is the only independent and fair way to assess the whole scandal and hold all those involved accountable. Will he support a public inquiry?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments as a local MP, but I reject absolutely his allegation of some kind of north-south divide. The response was very swift from the engineers, and that was the most important part of the response. As I mentioned, 630 engineers came from across the UK. I put on record my thanks to Western Power Distribution—117 came from western England and Wales—to Northern Ireland Electricity Networks, which sent 26 engineers, to the Isle of Man, and to the Electricity Supply Board in the Republic of Ireland, which sent 27.
The NEWSAC process started on the Friday before the storm came in. Obviously, time is needed to see the impact of the storm and where the engineers should be deployed from and to. Simply a forecast that a big storm is coming does not, in any sense, give a prediction of where the damage that will need to be repaired will be. The NEWSAC process is the right one. I have confidence in that and I want to minute again my thanks to the engineers from right across the United Kingdom who helped out by doing the incredibly difficult job of restoring and sometimes rebuilding—in Weardale, I saw a whole process of rebuilding the power line. We cannot underestimate the difficulty and very intensive nature of that job, particularly at a time of poor weather.
I thank my right hon. Friend and echo colleagues’ comments in thanking the Government, local government, the armed forces, volunteers and engineers for their efforts to help people during this dreadful crisis. I also pay tribute to the resilience of residents in Cumbria, elsewhere in the north of England and across Scotland for facing up to this dreadful crisis. I fear that that resilience will be tested again and again with more and more named storms coming. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that in the lessons learned process, we ensure that support for communities will get to them as soon as possible, in terms of generators and calling in the Army? We know in Cumbria, when we have flooding and such things as foot-and-mouth, that calling the Army in early is an important lesson to be learned, so whoever has the job of calling them in, please can we do that as quickly as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement throughout the process on behalf of his Cumbria constituents. He makes some very good points. We will be asking all Members to give their input into the lessons learned process, which might relate to anything from communications to extra resources. I can tell my hon. Friend that, at the peak, 755 generators were deployed in the most affected areas in the United Kingdom; that number is now approximately 500.
With respect to calling out the armed forces, it is principally a matter for the local resilience forum in the first case to make a local assessment of needs. I stress that repairing and rebuilding power lines is a job for engineers. With respect to other relief, other workers and other people who can provide support for local communities, it is a job for the local resilience forum to make an assessment.
While power is slowly being restored to many of the villages in Durham, we face further disruption from Storm Barra. Constituents in villages such as Croxdale are now experiencing problems with internet access, badly affecting their ability to work from home and support disabled family members. Can the Minister promise my constituents that increased Government support will arrive immediately if Storm Barra causes further disruption? Will he do everything in his power to work with Openreach and providers to get internet access restored to my constituents as soon as possible?
Of course we will be working, particularly with local resilience fora. The Secretary of State had a series of meetings on calls with local resilience fora through last week, learning and assessing at first hand what their needs are. If Storm Barra is of a similar magnitude or even anywhere close, I would expect that process to continue. With climate change, we can expect the frequency of such events to increase, and we need to make sure that local resilience fora are ready to meet those challenges.
May I say very firmly to the Minister that it is simply unacceptable for customers to have to wait for up to three months for compensation payments? This is an accounting function—a billing function. It is easy to press the right button and get the compensation of £140 a day to these poor people before Christmas.
I stress that I am not apologising on behalf of the companies, but it is “up to three months”; I hope that it will be a lot quicker. Of course the Secretary of State and I will engage with the distribution network operators to make sure that it is done as quickly as possible. Ofgem is engaging with them as well.
On the Minister’s visit to Aberdeenshire, he managed to visit Banff and Buchan, where he met the local MP, and west Aberdeenshire, where he met the local MP. As the Member for Gordon, I can only assume that my invitation must have been lost in the post somewhere.
When it comes to getting in military support, yes, it is for the local resilience partnerships to make the request, but as the Minister knows full well, a strict set of criteria has to be fulfilled before the request has a chance of being approved. As part of the review of this incident, will the Minister commit to looking at the criteria for military aid for the civilian authorities so that in any future event like this we stand a better chance of being able to deploy the military at an earlier stage, when they can arguably have the greatest impact?
I am told that the hon. Gentleman’s office was informed that I was coming to Ellon in his constituency, but may I use this opportunity to thank the school in Ellon and particularly the local responders, the local resilience partnership and others who were there providing assistance? The local armed forces, 3 Scots, were there as well, providing really excellent help to the community.
Once the local resilience forum had called out, or said that it needed assistance, the response was incredibly fast: I think it took less than half a day to make that deployment. I talked to the military liaison officer in Aberdeen on Friday; she was absolutely clear that she is a keen member of the local resilience forum and as soon as the call went out, the response was extremely quick.
Given the fallout from Storm Arwen and the disruption to the power grid, will the Government use this opportunity to look into the feasibility of placing more power cables underground?
My hon. Friend has asked a good question. The difference in cost between underground and overground is considerable, and such action would also be very disruptive. I think that a more organic approach should be taken, involving working with the companies and the engineering resources that we have. In general, however, my hon. Friend is right: an underground grid will be more resilient than an overground grid, and I am sure that that too will feature in the review.
Is this not about Northern Powergrid investing nothing in the network while stuffing its investors’ pockets with profits, and the Government allowing it to put profits before people?
No, it is not. In the last eight years, the distribution network operators have invested about £60 billion in the network, and I am confident that the structure is right. I think that the way in which the companies collaborate in the NEWSAC mechanism works extremely well, and we should be thankful for the engineers and others who have been out there, including those operating the call centres. As I have said, I think that the communications, particularly in the first days, could have been much better, but I have no doubts about the structure of the market and the electricity network operators.
We all know that this was an exceptional storm with exceptional wind speeds coming from an unusual direction, and we all know that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the engineers and back-room staff who supported the recovery. However, my constituent Craig Fraser, from the north-west of Montrose, was without power for six days—it was restored on Thursday—and for the first four of those days, he could not obtain confirmation from SSEN that there was a problem in his area. What can the UK Government do to mandate minimum standards in surveys of damage caused to network lines after a storm and data logging of customers’ reports of outages?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive question. I would say to his constituent Craig Fraser that I think it is unacceptable that it took him more than four days to get an answer from SSEN. After this session, I will give the hon. Gentleman the details of the dedicated contact at SSEN, if he does not already have it, and I will also try to raise the matter with the chief executive, Chris Burchell. A key aim of the review will be to look at why the communications were not as good as they should have been, particularly in those crucial first few days.
The Secretary of State can make it to the north-east for a photo-opportunity, but he will not come here to answer our questions. If thousands of homes in the south-east were without power, he would be here.
Last month the Government showed their contempt for the north-east by failing to invest in our transport infrastructure, and now we see the consequences of their failure to invest in and support our energy infrastructure. Why were there not enough generators? Why were no proper plans in place? Does the Minister accept that the energy markets as they stand are not working for the north-east, and will he do something about it?
I am sorry, but I do not accept that. First, it is not right to criticise the Secretary of State for going up to the north-east on a Sunday to see members of the armed forces, and to thank the engineers and the community responders. As you will remember better than anyone, Mr Speaker, he came here last Wednesday to make a statement on the situation. There has not been a delayed response from the Secretary of State.
The hon. Lady also asked about generators. In fact, 755 were provided at the peak of the relief effort, and 500 are still being provided. I thought that she might join me in thanking some of those who are working so hard on the ground—not just the engineers, but those in the call centres. They are making tremendous efforts to ensure that those who have been disconnected are reconnected and that people have the help that they need in the short term, as well as ensuring that we learn the lessons of this unique storm.
Given that we are likely to see more severe storms, and even with the lessons learned from previous storms and the mutual aid system that the Minister has referred to, is not the review going to have to look at increasing capacity—I am talking about materials, machinery, generators, spares and people—in order to be able to deal with these events more effectively so that people do not have to wait so long to have their lights and heating put back on? Who does the Minister think has the principal responsibility for ensuring that that capacity is there when storms strike?
The right hon. Gentleman raises some good points, but I do not want us to prejudge the review. He has mentioned quite a few things that he thinks we were short of. I think he is saying that we were short of generators, for example. I have already said that 750 generators were deployed. Of course we need to look at whether we have the right number of generators in terms of the capacity, but I would not want to prejudge that important review and the process behind it. Let us wait and let the review run its course. We have learned some really important lessons from previous reviews, for example on setting up a dedicated phone line, the mutual support and the network of engineers from across the country. Let us not prejudge that review.
Thousands of us in communities across Cumbria have had a devastating 10 days that have been exhausting and even harrowing. I am pretty sure that all of us would agree with the calls for a public inquiry to learn the lessons. I think everyone agrees that lessons need to be learned. However, with Storm Barra approaching, those lessons need to be learned literally overnight, and those lessons are about timeliness as much as anything. Why did it take five days for the Government to come to this House and address the issue? Why did it take until the middle of last week to scramble and deploy additional generators, when that could have happened on the Saturday, eight or nine days ago, so that families were not without heat and light for so long? The relevance of the Army is that it is significant in boosting the capacity of the engineers and also in going from door to door to reach vulnerable people who had no telecoms whatsoever. They include elderly people with care needs who were tucked up in bed to try to stay safe. I want to say a massive thank you to the people in those communities who stepped up to this challenge, and to the engineers who are out there making things better overnight, but what can the Minister say to my communities about how the Government will act to make things better next time?
I do not think that a public inquiry is the right course. It would inevitably take a long time. It would be better to use the established and effective review mechanism that we already have in place, and I invite the hon. Member and all right hon. and hon. Members to participate in it and give their views. I would say that NEWSAC, the mutual aid scheme, was deployed as soon it practicably could be, actually in advance of the storm coming in. I think that that has worked well. On the role of the Army, it is principally a matter for the local resilience forums to make assessments of the resources they need and then to put in that call. From my experience in Aberdeenshire on Friday, I can tell the House that, when the local resilience forum put in that call, the response was close to immediate.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you give me some guidance on the absence of the Secretary of State from this urgent question? Yesterday, he claimed to be getting a grip on this crisis, but today he has run away from answering questions in this House. The truth is that there are very serious issues here, and the Minister has had to come up with a hastily arranged “dog ate my homework” excuse in which he claims that the Secretary of State is on the phone to Northern Powergrid at the moment. He could have been on the phone before this urgent question or after it. This is an insult to the people in the north of England and an insult to this House.
It is not for me to choose who comes to the Dispatch Box. It is up to the Government to decide who they provide, and the Minister was very thorough in his long answers to questions. You have also been in government, and you were the ones who chose who stood at the Dispatch Box. I do not think the points you raise will have gone amiss. You did say that the Secretary of State was meant to be on a phone call, and it was with the Prime Minister as well. I am sure people will check to see if that is the case, as I am sure it is. If the Minister says it is the case, it must be the case.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) that it is disappointing the Secretary of State is not here to answer questions.
The Minister said he and the Secretary of State have visited affected areas. It is very strange that they visited only those with Conservative Members of Parliament. He got off the train in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), and no doubt to get to Weardale you have to travel through my constituency, but they made no effort to go anywhere but where they have a Conservative MP. I am sorry, but politicising the crisis is not right.
Do you want to answer, Minister?
I will deal with it head on, because not only did I take a call from the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on the Friday morning but I visited and talked to individuals in the call centre, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who was informed of my visit. So we actually visited there. On Friday, I visited Ellon, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). So yes, we visited Conservative-held constituencies, but we also visited Labour and SNP-held constituencies. I urge the right hon. Member for North Durham to withdraw that allegation.
I am not going to reopen the debate.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There is an important distinction to be drawn between visiting a constituency and inviting the MP to join you. I wonder how I might be able to correct the record, as the Minister said something that does not seem to be exactly in accord with how arrangements were made.
This is becoming a political decision, which I do not want it to be. What I would say to Ministers is that, when they visit an affected constituency held by whichever political party, it is good order to see the MP, and it should not look like they are visiting the constituencies of just one political party. I am sure that would never happen and I am sure it will be resolved in future.