Consumer Action has welcomed the Essential Services Commission (ESC) imposing $380,000 in penalties on energy retailer Alinta Energy Retail Sales Pty Ltd (Alinta Energy) for failing to provide adequate assistance to customers in financial hardship.
“It is appalling that Alinta Energy again ignored its legal obligations to help members of our community and right in the aftermath of COVID no less,” said Alex Macafee, Policy Officer at Consumer Action.
“With energy prices expected to increase this year, it’s critical that retailers meet community standards, and that the regulator applies appropriate fines if they fail to comply,” she said.
Following an investigation, the ESC found that between December 2021 and March 2022, Alinta Energy did not provide adequate assistance to 13 residential energy customers who were experiencing financial hardship for a range of reasons including a death in the family and loss of work due to Covid-19.
The ESC issued penalty notices for Alinta Energy’s alleged failure to provide adequate assistance to nine of the 13 customers. It was alleged Alinta Energy required four of the 13 customers to speak to a financial counsellor before it helped, while the others received some, but not all, forms of assistance that should have been offered.
“Callers to our helpline are often in dire need of support, and we regularly hear from people who have difficulty accessing assistance from retailers and have not received the help they are legally entitled to by the time they have contacted us.
“It is very clear what customers are entitled to and what energy retailers are required to do to support them and ignoring those obligations and passing people off to a financial counsellor is unacceptable conduct,” Ms Macafee said.
Consumer Action’s financial counsellors identified the issues raised about Alinta and lodged complaints with the ESC.
“We want to see energy retailers offering all the information and assistance that is required of them under the Payment Difficulty Framework and that is within their scope prior to referring the customer to a service such as our National Debt Helpline,” Ms Macafee said.
While Alinta Energy says it waived the 13 customers’ debts totalling approximately $49,000, the ESC said the matter was particularly disappointing as penalty notices worth $1.125 million were paid by Alinta Energy in 2021 in relation to similar alleged conduct.
“Well done to the ESC for imposing a fine, repeat reprehensible corporate behaviour must have consequences,” Ms Macafee concluded.