Storms of Protest

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2014 Energy Service Group Conference
21 February 2014
Carried as Amended

As 2013 drew to an end, many homes and businesses in the United Kingdom were affected by severe weather disruptions on unprecedented scales. Many domestic residences were without power at the most inconvenient time of the year with Christmas fast approaching and further severe weather warnings imminent.

Most distribution network organisations were able to plan and prepare their responses based upon accurate weather predictions from the Meteorological Office and to mobilise staff and resources at their disposal. In some cases careful emergency planning initiatives such as advance tree lopping and in-house owned contact and call centres with massive technological investments had provided the platform for a solid performance. Despite this the ferocity of the weather was so extreme that many thousands of homes lost their energy supply and companies were faced with a massive restoration exercise that fully tested their emergency capabilities.

In Western Power Distribution over 100 front line staff were quickly sent from parts of the business in the East and Central Midlands to assist the worst affected areas in Devon and Cornwall and to provide instant support at the point of emergency need. Office staff, including contact centre and control room operatives, were enhanced by additional members of the work force operating temporary ramp-up arrangements, short term notice for overtime were met and numerous personnel returned from pre-agreed holidays to assist with the crisis. Although we are now a private sector company the delivery of public service remained true to our ethos. In Western Power Distribution, as an example, 75% of staff on pre-agreed holidays voluntarily returned to help.

Special regard was given to vulnerable customers who had been identified as requiring special assistance. Companies are now very pro-active in making direct contact with support agencies such as the Red Cross to ensure food and blankets can be issued where hardships are identified.

In addition companies operate call back functions to explain the reason for the power cut and to ensure supplies are successfully restored as an important feature of the high level of customer service we now guarantee.

Yet despite these massive efforts by thousands of staff, the industry was maligned by a media intent on whipping up unrest amongst the worst affected customers. We observed hundreds of headlines concentrating on perceived failures instead of a balanced report into the many obvious successes. Hysteria seemed to dominate the press who abandoned responsible reporting into an all-out attack on our employers and through them an indirect attack upon the workforce, our members.

It seems energy has replaced banking as the scourge of the UK private sector and no criticism was curtailed by the need to investigate the truth. Our members deserve better than this and we ask the Energy Service Group Executive to take action against this unacceptable political opportunism by media and Government spokespersons alike.

i) We instruct the Energy Service Group Executive to write to OFGEM outlining our concerns as to how the media have seized upon the opportunity to write unfair, unbalanced and often untrue accounts as to how Distribution Network Organisation Companies and their front line support staff have responded to the recent weather issues.

In addition we note the unfair comments from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Energy and Climate Change, chaired by Conservative MP Tim Yeo, that simply appeared to grab political headlines rather than presenting a balanced and factual account of energy companies’ performance including some remarkable examples of service to the public by thousands of energy workers.

ii) We instruct the Energy Service Group Executive to request OFGEM to prepare a detailed report highlighting how individual companies have performed and wherever possible highlight the areas of excellent customer service which was a feature the media largely chose to ignore. This report should contain examples of good working practices to share with any companies whose response was considered inadequate and in addition to offset unfair criticisms of energy companies and their staff that has seriously eroded morale.

iii) OFGEM should provide greater and additional regulatory allowances within the current and future price reviews to ensure companies can mobilize its resources to both prepare and respond to extreme and volatile weather conditions. This includes the requirement to recruit and train overhead lines persons, craft technicians and additional contact centre staff to meet unusual and unforeseen peaks within regular workloads caused by storm and other emergencies.

iv) Similarly, energy companies should be encouraged to invest in telephony technology including social media opportunities to ensure customers can contact companies easier at the point of need and regulatory allowances should be made available for both the research and implementation of these technological initiatives.