Business secretary accused of ‘running away’ from Commons as thousands face 11th night without power

PM has now promised power will be restored to homes in the North East by Tuesday ‘at the latest’

Laurie Churchman
Tuesday 07 December 2021 08:48
<p>Soldiers carry out welfare checks at a remote property that remains without power in County Durham</p>

Soldiers carry out welfare checks at a remote property that remains without power in County Durham

Labour’s Ed Miliband has accused the business secretary of “running away” from questions in the House of Commons as hundreds of people brace for an 11th night without power following Storm Arwen.

MPs tore into the government’s response to the power outages in the Commons on Monday with about 1,600 households still without electricity 10 days on.

Shadow climate minister Mr Miliband claimed people in Scotland and the North of England have been treated like “second class citizens”.

He said Kwasi Kwarteng, who was not present in the Commons, had “run away from questions in this House”.

Mr Miliband said: “There are very serious issues here and the minister has had to come up with a hastily arranged dog-ate-my-homework excuse where he claims the Secretary of State is on the phone to Northern Power Grid at the moment, where he could have been on the phone before this statement or after this statement.

“It is an insult to people in the North of England and an insult to people in this House.”

The government’s own energy minister Greg Hands said it was “completely unacceptable” that many homes were still without power – as a fresh storm threatens to cause more chaos on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now promised to restore power “by tomorrow at the latest” – after failing to deliver on a pledge to fix the problem by the end of last week.

Labour has accused the Government of neglecting the North. Quoting a Conservative councillor from northern England, Mr Miliband said: “‘If this happened in London or in the South East everything would have got thrown at it’. They are his words. Aren’t people in the North entitled to think he is right? They have been treated as second-class citizens.”

Labour’s Kevan Jones said: “There is something seriously wrong with Northern Power Grid, not with the engineers and individuals who are out restoring power but with the management and senior management of that company.”

Mr Hands, who is also the Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, said: "I'm glad to say that 99.8 per cent 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 around 1,600 were still in this position as of this morning, but the situation is improving each hour."

He added: "I have been assured by the network operators that all efforts are focused on having power restored to those households (still without power) in the next day."

Residents in the North East have spoken of losing hope and feeling "fed up and angry" as they face an 11th night without power.

Stewart Sexton, 57, who lives in Alnwick, Northumberland, with his partner, said Northern Power Grid has promised their power will be restored within 24 hours every day since it was cut on 26 November.

He said: "It's exhausting, it's wearing us down, and it's a constant worry. Every day seems to bring a new problem.

"On day nine there was torrential rain and our village started to flood. That was mainly because of the storm debris.

"What happened was that then flooded our village water works - it flooded our sewage system. Our neighbour couldn't use his toilet without it flooding.

"I had to clear standing water from the road, which got my clothes wet, and then return to a house without heating.

"From my window I can see a snapped telegraph pole and cables lying on the ground.

"The weather forecast is dreadful. We have not got any hope at all. It's awful, it's the futility of it."

Another Alnwick resident, Anna Elson, 49, said she is also travelling to a family member's house with her 13-year-old son for a hot meal and a shower. She and her son suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition worsened by the cold.

Ms Elson said: "The village was left to cope on its own for too long, there are a few medically vulnerable residents here, including me.

"No phone signal doesn't help and makes us feel more vulnerable. Help has started to come but people feel it should have been a lot sooner.

"Friends have offered help and the village has come together," she added.

"But we are fed up and angry at the lack of response we have had."

The Energy Networks Association said it had reconnected 99 per cent of homes that lost power following damage caused byStorm Arwen.

But there are fears that Storm Barra, set to bring gale force winds of 80mph on Tuesday, could cause further disruption.

Kwasi Kwarteng visited a Northern Powergrid call centre in Penshaw near Sunderland this weekend. He said he believed the power grid system could be made "a lot more resilient".

"We will have a review, we will see if the distributor companies have enough infrastructure, we may even have enforcement action if necessary," he added.

The long delays have prompted energy regulator Ofgem to warn it will take action against network companies who failed to restore power to customers quickly enough.

It has also agreed with firms to lift the £700 cap on compensation which could be offered to those stuck without power.

The change will allow those affected to claim £70 for each 12-hour period they have no electricity, after an initial £70 for the first 48 hours of any cut.

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