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Big energy firms 'neglected' customers during power cuts

ENERGY giants including ScottishPower and Scottish and Southern Energy have been accused of complacency over power cuts which left thousands without electricity.

Firms were told that they were taking advantage of their position as an effective monopoly to "neglect" customers.

The criticism came as executives from the major firms appeared before the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee. Around 26,500 homes across Scotland lost power during the storms which battered the UK in December. An estimated 750,000 UK properties were left without electricity, many for days on end, over Christmas.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative chairman of the committee, accused power company repres-entatives of displaying "utter complacency" on the issue.

And he questioned their ability to respond to severe weather in future.

He said that he had heard nothing "which reassures me that you are taking this problem seriously enough...I have to conclude that you are exploiting your privileged monopoly position and you have displayed a neglect of your customers which I personally find absolutely astonishing."

Earlier executives had blamed extreme weather conditions and the scale of the power outages for slow response times over Christmas.

Others told MPs that schemes which allow energy companies to offer each other help with emergency repairs failed because they were all under immense stress at the same time.

Mark Mathieson, from Scottish and Southern Energy, told the committee that the industry had to "learn lessons" from power failures.

Mr Mathieson, managing director of SSE's electricity networks, said that work to repair damaged power lines was now much quicker than in the past and that his company had gone the "extra mile".

He told MPs: "But we also recognise the impact that has on customers. We are sorry."

He added: "To get to the area and fix faults... it unfortunately takes time. But that's where we go the extra mile.

"I know it's not the same as being at home with the power on but we were offering accomm-odation and hot meals."

Overall, the evidence from the energy companies did little to convince MPs.

Mr Yeo told them: "There is no sense of urgency in what you said about any plans to step up your capacity to respond to severe weather even though we now have quite clear warnings that extreme events are likely to take place more frequently in future."

He added: "You have failed to demonstrate in my view adequate concern for the plight of your customers. That's characteristic of monopolies whose activities are not very effectively scrutinised by anybody until now. And frankly if your customers had the capacity or the freedom to switch to an alternative distributor I am sure that millions of them would be doing so as we speak."

Mr Yeo also warned that Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey had been made to "look ridiculous" by announcing plans to introduce a 999-style emergency number for power outages.

Earlier David Smith, chief executive of the Energy Networks Association, had told the committee the plan could face technical problems.

"You have managed to make the Secretary of State look ridiculous in his claim that there is going to be a three-digit number that customers can use," Mr Yeo said.

Energy firms have been under pressure from customers for months over rising prices.

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