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14 May 2002 : Column 236WH

999 Service (Isle of Wight and Hampshire)

1.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): On 25 April, I took the Red Jet service from Southampton at 7.30 pm and reached home in Cowes at about five minutes to 8. Within minutes the following message appeared on my pager, "News flash on TV. All emergency services on Isle of Wight down because of communications breakdown. Don't know when back up. Just thought I'd let you know." The message was signed by my assiduous assistant who was visiting friends on the mainland. She had seen the reports on television.

My repeated attempts by BT landline and by mobile phone failed to establish communication with my assistant or with my agent, who had also contacted me by pager. Eventually, I turned on the television and saw the caption that advised, "If you need the emergency services, go to a police station." I went to the local police station in Cowes partly to find out exactly what was going on, but it was closed as it usually is in the evening. Indeed, most police stations on the island are closed in the evening, so I used the direct call facility outside the police station to contact the Winchester call centre of the Hampshire constabulary which, as the Minister will know, also covers the Isle of Wight.

The call centre explained to me that Netley, which is the location of the command and control centre, was down but that 999 calls to the police were being routed to the Dorset constabulary and then relayed back by radio to the control room at Netley. I then tried to telephone the local radio station, Isle of Wight Radio, as it is the normal source of information on the island. I tried by mobile, because the telephone box on the street outside the police station was not working, and I was surprised to discover that the problem did not affect the fire or ambulance services on the island. That was my first intimation that what appeared to be a 999 service problem was, in fact, a BT problem.

Although I am sure that the Minister is aware of this, I should explain that the police for the island and for Hampshire share a call centre at Winchester and a control room at Netley. The ambulance service in Hampshire has a control centre at Winchester and on the island at Newport. The fire service has a control centre at Eastleigh, with back-up at Winchester for the mainland. The centre for the island is at Newport. The Coastguard service, which is another important emergency service that I would not like to be omitted from the debate, has its control centre at Lee-on-the-Solent and it covers the island, Hampshire and other parts of the south coast.

I was eventually able to contact my assistant on the mainland by mobile phone and she reported to me that she had spent 35 minutes with the operators trying to establish what was wrong. After that, she called the operators at 9.40 pm and got through to Birmingham. She was then put on to Inverness and then passed to someone purporting to be a manager in the chairman's office who turned out to be a "technical coach"—whatever that might mean—in Birmingham who said that he had, "no up-to-date information". He added that BT had identified a fault in the transmission equipment and that the repair team was at the incident site and would be working around the clock to repair it.

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He clearly did not know when the system would be back up and the information that he gave had been posted on his system at 6.30 pm, but we received it at 10.19 on the Thursday evening.

My assistant was told that there was no one in Southampton with whom she could communicate. However, at her request, a press officer later called her from Newark. He said that many people on the island were unaffected but, when he was asked why blanket advice to go to a police station if one wanted an emergency service had appeared on the television, he said, "Nobody at BT has said that the emergency service is unavailable." Asked if he was sure of that, he said, "As far as I am aware." He then said that people should try their BT phone and, if that is not working, they should try a mobile. When he was asked where the information to go to a police station had come from, he said possibly the police and emergency services. He said that he would call back with further information.

The press officer called back at about 11.5 pm to say, "There is a problem with the power supply to network installations in Southampton.", so he was asked why there was no back-up. He said, "There is a back-up system but it has not prevented the problems that you are experiencing." He said that sorting out exactly what had gone on would take "weeks rather than hours" and that the "service is progressively being brought back up although the situation is not totally resolved." When asked how many people had been affected, he refused to give any answer other than "a lot". At five past midnight, he called to say that all customers were now back on service.

Three clear problems are apparent. First, there was no picture of the problem or of the causes of the problem available not only to me, my assistant or any other member of the public who might have called, but to the press or media locally. I put in a request to BT the following day, but I regret to say that there was no response until this debate appeared on the Order Paper. BT then asked me—I thank Tim O'Sullivan of BT for this—what I wanted to know.

The second problem is that BT did not take responsibility for notifying the public of the breakdown of the 999 service. In response to my request, it replied:

The third part of the problem is that the back-up system did not work. BT said that

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It was certainly unexpected.

My hon. Friends the Members for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) have asked me to express their concerns about what happened. Parts of south Wiltshire were also affected, and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) pointed out:

in that county. He added:

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) told me that he was out that evening and that he was unable to use either his mobile phone or his BT landline at home.

There were three problems but, worse still, is the advice that was given. If one lives in rural west Wight—let us say at Brighstone—and one is told by the television not to make 999 calls, the natural next step is to drive to Yarmouth or to Ventnor police station, which are at least a quarter of an hour's drive away. Let us imagine what would happen if one needed an ambulance and one was told that one could not dial 999. The time taken to drive to Ventnor police station would mean that it would be difficult for an ambulance to deal with a life-threatening crisis such as a heart attack.

When I spoke to people at the BBC the following day—in fact, they volunteered to communicate with me as a result of something that I said on Radio Solent—they told me that all the telephone lines were down and that they were visited by a police officer from Southampton who said that there was an emergency on the island and in Hampshire and south Wiltshire and asked for advice to be broadcast from the Netley control centre, on radio and on television. I assume that that advice was broadcast.

As late as 1 May, the chairman of the Hampshire police authority was reported on South teletext as saying that

South teletext also says:

Assistant Chief Constable Ian Reed, who is responsible for the communications system at Netley, also reported dissatisfaction. I spoke to him earlier today, and he told me that the Hampshire constabulary had arranged separate wiring for the Netley command and control centre, so that messages were brought in and out on two independent systems. One of those systems goes through Oxford; the other through Gloucester, but it is clear that they were both subject to the same breakdown at a single point of failure. That is not acceptable. Hampshire constabulary and the

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island's taxpayers have paid for what Assistant Chief Constable Reed calls resilience, but BT has not delivered that resilience.

We have to ask why the BT system failed. Why did the alarm and back-up systems fail? I understand that Assistant Chief Constable Reed has asked Oftel those questions and that it will conduct inquiries into the incident. We also have to ask what might have happened, or what might happen in future. It is very easy to portray the incident as a small millennium-style problem and to say that not many people were injured. Thankfully, not many people were injured, but it is our job to consider what might happen in future.

Assistant Chief Constable Reed is certainly concerned about the loss of radio, mobile and other telephone links and internal network computers through seven out of 11 components of the Southampton Bargate exchange. He says things were kept going simply because of the availability of VHF radio communications. BT intercepted 999 calls, where they could be made, and sent them to Dorchester, and Dorset constabulary relayed them back to Netley via VHF. He asks what would be the implications when the national airwave solution is introduced, because he tells me that that solution relies entirely on BT systems. I am sorry that I did not give the Minister notice of this question earlier, but will he carefully consider the implications of introducing the national airwave solution for the effectiveness of the police communications system?

I asked Assistant Chief Constable Reed what arrangements were made to deploy additional police officers. He said that they faced the same problems as everyone else, so they could not make telephone calls from Netley to bring in additional police. They had to visit police officers' homes by motorcycle to alert them of the need to report to Netley. Members of specialist firearms and public order teams had to go to Netley so that they could be deployed in an emergency, and I should like to record my gratitude to those policemen and women.

Assistant Chief Constable Reed assigned additional police officers who were on duty to the front desks of those police stations that were open, but he could not bring in additional police to patrol the streets because of the communications failure from which we all suffered. It was only by the greatest of good luck that people were able to establish telephone contact with Winchester because the Winchester 0845 number happened to be one of the four out of 11 components that did not fail at the Southampton Bargate exchange.

Several serious issues arise from all that, the first of which is the concentration of emergency services at Winchester. It is clearly dangerous if police, fire and ambulance services can all be accessed only through Winchester. That is not an island versus mainland point; clearly, the same problem could arise if they were all accessed via Newport. Secondly, I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the national airwaves solution.

I should like to record my appreciation of the work that the police and the other emergency services did on that occasion, but they were hampered by BT's lack of available information.

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1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I must congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on bringing this matter before the House. He mentioned several of his hon. Friends who are also concerned about the events of 25 April. I ought to include myself among that number, as I was making my way to my constituency on the evening of 25 April and repeatedly attempted to ring home and got what appeared to be an engaged signal. Indeed, when I arrived home, I undertook the same sort of information-gathering exercise as he did into how the incident happened and in what circumstances. Like him, I found the total breakdown of the telecommunications system, on which we increasingly rely, very frustrating. It was certainly very distressing for all those in Southampton and the wider area to feel that they were out of communication in the event of any emergency or for any other reason.

We are justifiably proud in this country of our 999 arrangements. The number is universally known and children are taught almost as soon as they walk or speak that that number will bring immediate assistance in an emergency. The telephone operating companies therefore pay particular attention to the resilience and robustness of their 999 services. There are special facilities in their networks and call centres to ensure that those calls are protected and given priority handling.

Conditions in the telephone operating companies' licences, which are regulated by Oftel, require them to take all reasonably practical steps to maintain to the greatest extent possible the integrity of public telephone systems and public services provided, paying particular regard to the needs of emergency organisations. That involves the protection of the physical and functional operation of such systems and related services against malfunctions or failure.

The BT network supports some 28 million lines throughout the United Kingdom and to maintain continuity various approaches are used to protect against problems with, for example, equipment failure, cable breaks or power breakdowns. Those protections include using alternative network routes; providing stand-by capacity; duplicating crucial components; alarms to give early warning of failures; overload protection; back-up facilities, such as electricity generators or batteries; active network monitoring; and using portable equipment.

The arrangements for handling 999 calls are agreed voluntarily between the emergency services and telephone operating companies within the 999 liaison committee forum, which is managed by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The forum's membership includes representatives of all the telephone operating companies, including BT and Cable and Wireless, representatives of the emergency authorities and representatives from the appropriate Departments, including the Department of Health and the Home Office, as well as Oftel.

The committee has agreed a code of practice that sets out arrangements for dealing with 999 calls. The code is published on the DTLR website and is regularly reviewed and amended to reflect the changing needs of the public and the service providers. It recommends that

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emergency authorities have contingency arrangements to cover the receipt of emergency calls during conditions of serious breakdown in the public network or the emergency authorities' communication systems. Those arrangements should be tested periodically to ensure that staff are familiar with them.

BT undertakes to notify the affected emergency authorities as soon as possible after a failure is identified or anticipated. In 2000, BT issued guidance on the loss of access to its public 999 service to the emergency authorities. Despite the size and reach of the network, there are relatively few failures that affect 999. Such losses are monitored closely by Oftel, and substantial incidents are always subject to rigorous internal inquiries so that further resilience improvements can be made. During any such incident, BT informs those emergency authorities that cover the affected area and keeps in contact until the incident is resolved. It is worth noting that, because of the range of network routes used, it is very rare for the emergency services' control rooms to be affected. All that is, as it were, despite the events of Thursday 25 April.

On those specific events, as the hon. Gentleman recalled, a fault occurred in equipment at Southampton. BT has stressed that a highly unusual sequence of events occurred that resulted in a failure affecting a wide spread of people. The failure occurred in the power supply equipment for switches and network links that serve mainly the Southampton area, but also some other switches scattered throughout Hampshire, but not on the Isle of Wight.

Mr. Andrew Turner: That is a matter of some curiosity, as, clearly, I was on the Isle of Wight when I attempted to make the calls from my landline.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point, and it is a matter of some curiosity for me. I shall speculate on that circumstance in a moment. I am giving a factual account of the technical nature of what happened to those switches and links.

A further point to consider is that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, although battery back-up did operate and protect against failure for a period, there was then a failure of the alarms that are designed to reveal problems in the main supply before the batteries cut in. BT engineers were therefore unaware of how long the batteries were lasting and the time scale in which emergency action needed to be taken before those batteries expired, as they did.

I am assured that there is a regular testing regime, but that could not anticipate the equipment fault. Corrective action has been taken at Southampton, and an urgent review is being carried out within BT and with its suppliers to examine solutions that will ensure no further recurrence at any BT site. No subsections on the Isle of Wight were affected. Seventy-seven subsections across Hampshire and south Wiltshire lost services, and I understand that BT has written to apologise to, among other people, the MPs whose constituents were affected.

During the incident, the BT call centres that answer 999 calls quickly liaised with the emergency services and arranged to implement contingency plans. I understand

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that Hampshire and Isle of Wight police made immediate contact with radio stations in Southampton and across the area and guidance was broadcast on the radio and on television. Throughout the evening, BT did answer many 999 calls from the Hampshire area from both fixed and mobile phones, as, even though some customers in, for example, Winchester, were unable to make 999 calls, other Winchester customers could do so. Those who could make those calls were connected to the neighbouring emergency services in Dorset for the police and ambulance services, and in Berkshire for the fire service, and they could pass the information back to the responding local services. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned one way in which that was done using, for example, radio links. The Coastguard control centre on the Solent was unaffected, so there were no emergency arrangements as far as it was concerned.

I am assured by BT that the 999 service remained available to all Isle of Wight residents. During the period 6.30 pm to midnight on 25 April, 23 calls to 999 from the Isle of Wight were connected to the emergency services. Three calls were made to the fire service, nine were to the ambulance control rooms on the island and the remainder were to the police, initially to the Dorset police, but, from 9.15 pm, to a standby control room established in Basingstoke.

I understand from BT that the hon. Gentleman should have been able to make calls from his home in the Isle of Wight throughout the period as they would have been routed through the Portsmouth exchange. That is the curious circumstance that the hon. Gentleman mentions. It is possible that the breakdown could have had an indirect effect: because so many people were testing their phones at that time, all the available lines through that route may have been engaged. I believe that he is in contact with BT, and I shall be happy to pursue the matter further with BT if he does not get a satisfactory reply to what I agree is a curious set of circumstances.

However, some callers in Hampshire and south Wiltshire would not have had access to 999 on their BT lines and may only have been able to make local calls, although some will also have been able to use their mobile phones to call 999. The emergency services cover such circumstances with extra patrols, stationing vehicles at strategic points and advice through the media. BT assures me that it did everything it reasonably could to restore normal service as quickly as possible and to mitigate the impact on the emergency services, such as the police, with whom they liaised throughout the incident.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight police managed to keep every police station open until normal telephone operations were resumed. I am informed that that included the station at Cowes, but the hon. Gentleman mentioned specifically that he visited that police station and it was closed. I am happy, therefore, to investigate whether that circumstance was an aberration or whether there was wider non-coverage by police stations. BT engineers responded immediately and worked through the night to return the situation to normal, and 80 per cent. of customers had been restored to service by midnight. Almost all others were restored by 3.55 am at the latest.

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When we consider the question of resilience and contingency arrangements, we must recognise that the failure of the telephone system on 25 April—in the hon. Gentleman's area and my area, unfortunately—was unprecedented. It revealed that, although contingency arrangements agreed with the 999 liaison committee were adequate, at least for more limited failures, there was a need to review them against what happened in Southampton and to examine what further changes needed to be made. Consideration will need to be given, first, to whether BT can help provide even more protection for the network links to its control rooms; and, secondly, to what other lessons can be learned regarding contingency plans for such failures, particularly with regard to communication with the public in these unusual circumstances. Among other problems, of course, one cannot use the phone to call people out to cover for contingencies or to alert people of contingencies in the first place.

Since the failure, BT has been in discussion with Hampshire and Isle of Wight police and the Association of Chief Police Officers about the changes that need to be made to BT's systems and to contingency arrangements to ensure that the public are protected against similar failures in the future. The solutions being examined will be judged by the improvements that can be offered, which include alarm strategy, changes in working practices and changes in component design.

BT will report to Oftel on the reasons for the failure on 25 April, on its impact on the 999 service and on the steps being taken to mitigate failure in the future. In

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turn, Oftel will be monitoring the action taken to ensure that BT meets its licence requirements. The main effect, on which the hon. Gentleman and I can agree, was to cause many members of the public great concern about their well-being in the event of an emergency in the areas affected by this catastrophic failure of telephone services. There is no evidence that there was any practical and irreversible adverse impact on the public. The contingency arrangements worked, although it is right to review them on the basis of the experience gained. BT has made it clear to me that it is concerned that this failure occurred, it apologises for the problems caused, and it is determined to prevent a recurrence. Clearly, that determination should include reviewing the procedures for publicising advice when such incidents take place. That is one of the matters under review.

I assure the House that all those involved in the 999 arrangements take their responsibilities very seriously and are acutely aware of the importance and value that the public place on an efficient and effective service that will guarantee a rapid response from the police, the fire service, the ambulance service or the coastguard when there is a serious threat to life or property.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the move to airwave for the police service. I cannot give him an immediate answer on that, but I shall write to him on the points that he raises.

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