Appropriate income support important for vulnerable Victorians: community sector roundtable
03 September 2020
Thursday 3 September, 3–4:30 pm (via Zoom)
Victoria’s community support and consumer advocacy groups are concerned about increasing financial difficulties for vulnerable Victorians in the back half of 2020.
Representatives from 12 organisations in the help sector came together for the group’s fifth roundtable discussion since the coronavirus pandemic started.
The group heard about the importance of appropriate income support for vulnerable Victorians, particularly as winter bills start to arrive.
Key issues raised included:
concern about what will happen when JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments are reduced
continuing challenges in ensuring access to concessions
risks associated with debt accumulation
while call numbers continue to be lower or are at the same level compared to last year, Victorians are increasingly concerned about their financial wellbeing, particularly their ability to pay household bills.
Acknowledgement of country
To start, I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners on all the lands we’re meeting on today and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
I would like to acknowledge the connection that Indigenous Australians hold to country and culture.
Welcome and introductions
We last met in July and in that time the commission has amended energy requirements relating to Utility Relief Grant Scheme assistance, tariff checks and small business assistance as well as water code reforms to provide additional assistance to consumers during this time. I will provide a brief update on these changes later in this discussion.
I’d like to acknowledge how much has changed and how much continues to change in the external environment in this time. For many of us based in Melbourne the last few weeks have been a challenging time readjusting to Stage 4 restrictions and seeing fellow community members struggle with the added impact these restrictions are having.
We’ll be talking later today about what this has meant for your organisations and your clients, but I think it’s important to start today’s meeting by reflecting on the impact the restrictions are having across the Victorian community. It’s a long road ahead but we are certainly all in this together.
Welcome attendees and ESC staff
I would like to introduce my fellow commissioners, senior leaders and commission staff members who are here today and who, like me, are keen to hear from you. If you could turn on your cameras and give us a wave.
My fellow commissioners – Sitesh Bhojani – Simon Corden – Rebecca Billings
Our Director of Energy – Sarah McDowell
Our Director of Price Monitoring and Regulation – Marcus Crudden
Our Director of Victorian Energy Upgrades – Jeff Cefai
And our Head of Strategic Communication – Michelle Bryne
We are hoping these changes will provide increased assistance to consumers and by providing this update to you all today we are raising community awareness of the support available.
In terms of reforms, we have introduced new targeted reforms to support energy customers paying their bills through the pandemic. Those take effect from 1 October 2020.
Supporting utility relief grant applications:
There is an ongoing requirement for retailers to support residential customers in completing utility relief grant application forms, including by submitting forms online on behalf of the customer where possible and the customer consents.
Offering tariff checks:
Retailers are required to conduct a tariff check for all residential customers receiving tailored assistance, not just those who cannot afford the ongoing cost of their energy. This is an extension of the existing payment difficulty framework and will be in place for six months.
Hardship and bill payment support has been extended to small businesses, effective 18 August, and debt recovery is to be halted while customers are experiencing financial stress due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The existing customer service codes still apply and the incorporation of some national principles are designed to be temporary, we intend to engage with stakeholders to review what should be carried over and for how long.
We are also excitingly moving towards launching our vulnerability strategy work program. We will be releasing more information in the coming weeks.
Some key things I’ve heard today:
JobSeeker and JobKeeper rollbacks – people have been able to pay their bills because of these payments, so debt is still low, but there is serious concern about what happens when these are reduced.
People not eligible for Job Keeper or Job Seeker (those seeking asylum or on temporary or bridging visas) continue to experience extreme challenges, and often have no form of income.
Call numbers continue to be lower or are at the same level compared to last year, but according to Consumer Policy Research Centre’s work, housing and energy related financial concerns are the highest in customer concerns.
There are continuing challenges in ensuring access to concessions.
There are issues around authority to act, with consumers finding it difficult to give their financial counsellors authority to act on their behalf to retailers.
Debt accumulation is a risk, especially for young people taking out loans to pay for household debt, and people using ‘buy now pay later’ services.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone for making the time, and for your valued contribution and insights into the effect of the pandemic on Victoria’s community.
I’ll leave you now and hope to keep the dialogue and engagement ongoing with you all so that we can best tackle these challenges collectively.