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House of Lords

Tuesday, 3rd December 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Electricity Supplies: Interruption

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have advised electricity distribution companies in the United Kingdom of ways to reduce the risk of supplies to rural areas being interrupted as a result of severe weather.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the responsibility for minimising the risk of interruption of supplies lies with the relevant distribution network operator. At the beginning of this year, my honourable friend the Minister for Energy commissioned British Power International to study whether the distribution companies had adequate arrangements in place to deal with the loss of electricity to consumers at times of emergency. Individual areas for improvement were identified and passed back to the companies for action. The BPI report was published on 18th June 2002.

Following the storms in late October, a further study has been commissioned to establish how well the companies' networks were able to withstand the storms, how well the companies performed in the aftermath of the storms and the lessons to be learned for the future.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, and I am glad to hear that the Government are at least taking an interest in what is a serious problem. Does he recognise that one of the main reasons for the interruption of electricity supplies in rural areas is the fact that trees and branches fall on to wires? They are mainly low-voltage wires, which could easily, economically and cost-effectively be put underground. May I remind him—because I am sure that he does not remember—that when I was on the board of Eastern Electricity, I got the company to introduce a scheme in East Anglia? It put wires underground in 30 communities and there were no problems in those areas, although there were many storms. Will he encourage electricity distribution companies to face up to their simple responsibilities in this matter?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, these are exactly the issues that the study will consider. The whole question of branches being properly trimmed on a regular basis is part of essential maintenance. Other

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steps could be taken, such as providing covered conductors. Wires could also be put underground, although that would involve considerable expense.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, will the study to which my noble friend referred have regard to the expertise gathered in the north of Scotland following the electrification of the whole of that area, which was a considerable engineering achievement? Will it have regard to the expertise built up by what was then the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board for dealing with adverse weather conditions? That expertise would be valuable to any study undertaken on the matter.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I shall make certain that that expertise is fed in when we consider the results of the study.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in north Northumberland, it is not only as a result of bad weather that the electricity supply is cut off? In the Belford area, local residents have put together an extremely good report. Their supplier is Northern Electric and they have been asking for support from the Government to back up their findings. They want the modernisation programme to be brought forward and implemented along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. I should be grateful for any help that the Minister can give people in that area. The position is detrimental to people's wellbeing and to businesses in particular.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, there are obviously processes for complaining when interruptions occur, through bodies such as Energywatch; Ofgem also has the responsibility of making certain. I should imagine that that is the first body to which such reports should be sent. Equally, if the noble Baroness would like to send the report to the department, we should ensure that it was considered.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in my village of Crondall, low voltage power interruptions are quite frequent? There has been some investigation of that and it has been found that it is normally caused by foxes. Those poor foxes—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, when the thing shorts, the fox is killed as a result. Does my noble friend believe that that is a reasonable way to get rid of foxes in Hampshire, and might that approach apply in Suffolk and other parts of the country?

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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, it is probably better to stay away from the issue of foxes and to concentrate on rather easier subjects.

Lord Renton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that placing electricity cables underground not only saves the appearance of the countryside but saves public expense?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I do not know the exact comparison of costs between placing cables underground and placing them overground. I should imagine that it is much more expensive to put them overground in most circumstances. However, in most cases cables are overground and it would involve considerable expense to put them underground. I shall look at the figures to make an exact comparison.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, can the Minister indicate whether the studies to which he referred will include the development of new technologies such as micro-CHB and micropower, in which I declare an interest? These are ways in which, within the next year or so, users will be able to generate their own electricity in their own homes and therefore, in rural areas in particular, will be totally independent of what happens outside.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the study I am talking about is a very short one to look specifically at how the distribution companies operated in these particular circumstances. It will not be considering major issues such as new technology but the rather more simple issues of good housekeeping, information systems and how they performed, and what we can do to get it better next time.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, in the House recently we have been considering major emergencies of a different kind. Is the Minister aware that in the early 1980s, during a large-scale blizzard in South Wales which closed down the electricity supply and most other public services, we learnt very quickly that you cannot carry through the normal arrangements for managing a national emergency if you have no electric power? Therefore this is not only a matter of household convenience but has much wider implications.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, there is no doubt that that is the case. That is why this is such an important subject. As is shown by the two reports, it is one to which we are giving very serious attention.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, while appreciating the significant questions posed by Members of the Opposition, can my noble friend advise the House of the extent to which they were able to deal with these questions during their 18 years in power?

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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I cannot do that. All I can say is that the first of the studies, which was carried out earlier this year, looked at whether the companies were less able to deal with emergencies because of reduced manpower. The study found that this was not the case. The companies are as well placed now as previously to deal with emergencies. The position after the storm in 1987 was much worse—probably because the storm was much worse—and it took three weeks to restore supplies to everyone. It is not a question of the service getting worse; if anything it is getting better.

Household Debt

2.46 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are concerned about the current level of household debt, and whether they propose to take any action.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government continue to fully back the judgment of the Monetary Policy Committee in delivering macro-economic stability. The MPC is alert to the risks associated with further expansion of household debt, as it made clear in its November inflation report. However, households' total interest payments are now only 7.3 per cent of their disposable income compared with a peak of 15.1 per cent in 1990 and an average of 9.3 per cent over the period 1979–97.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. He will know that total household debt now stands at a near record 810 billion and that it increased by nearly 10 billion in October of this year alone. Is it not clear that there must be a sharp correction, which will be painful for property buyers, for consumers and, indeed, for the economy as a whole? Does the noble Lord have any advice for these borrowers of a seasonal nature?


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