A report released today by Consumer Action Law Centre has found that while Victoria’s energy retailers are slowly improving their support of people having difficulty paying their bills, Victorians living alone and single parents are continuing to struggle with energy debt.
More than half of the callers to Consumer Action’s financial counsellors (in the sample) who mentioned energy debt as an issue were from people living alone (30%) or single parents with dependent children (22%). Calls involving energy debt of over $10,000 all came from single mothers with dependent children. Women, renters and people relying on a Centrelink payment as their primary income were also over-represented among people in the report calling Consumer Action about energy debts.
More broadly, the report found that in the two years since the introduction of the Payment Difficulty Framework (PDF) and amidst the economic dislocation of COVID-19, people were still not always getting the hardship support they were entitled to.
The report, Energy Assistance Report: Tracking the Impact of Victorian Energy Reform on Households (Second Edition), reviews the hardship assistance callers to our financial counsellors received from their energy retailers between July 2019 to December 2020.
“Some really worrying gaps remain in the assistance offered by energy retailers to people experiencing difficulty paying their bills,” said Gerard Brody, CEO Consumer Action.
“I am concerned that the number of people calling our financial counsellors about large energy debt is only slightly down compared to our previous Energy Assistance Report, as is the number of people either not being informed about the Utility Relief Grant Scheme (URGS) by their retailer or reporting issues in trying to access it.”
Mr Brody said that further action is needed to ensure people are getting access to their entitlements under the rules that aim to address payment difficulty with energy bills.
“Some people who call their retailer for help are still being pressured to set up unaffordable payment plans and that is not acceptable,” he said.
The report makes the following recommendations:
- Increased enforcement and compliance action by the Essential Services Commission (ESC)
- Improvements to the PDF including enhanced protection against disconnection and longer timeframes to repay arrears (or additional assistance to reduce arrears, for example by retailers offering payment matching arrangements), and
- A review of energy concessions to improve energy affordability for low-income households.
“With the economic and social impacts of COVID still ongoing, we want to see retailers better support customers who are struggling financially.
“We call on the regulator, the ESC, to make sure retailers are providing the support they are required to by law, through increased compliance and enforcement action and looking at additional supports that can be put in place for people who need help to manage their energy bills,” said Mr Brody.
Read the full report.
Media contact: Mark Pearce, Media and Communications Adviser, 0413 299 567 firstname.lastname@example.org