Calls for help with bills higher than at peak of pandemic
05 March 2021
Wednesday 24 February 2021, 3-4.30pm (via Zoom)
Representatives from leading community support organisations have told the state’s energy and water regulator that more Victorians are reaching out now for help than at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Calls to the National Debt Helpline have soared in recent weeks and complaints to the Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria increased by 55 per cent in January.
The group, representing 11 organisations helping households and small businesses struggling to pay their energy and water bills, told commissioners the economic fallout of the pandemic is far from over.
The group said imminent cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker and rising disconnections have them worried, and some groups have been harder hit than others.
They say young people, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, international students, migrants and asylum seekers have been worst hit, alongside small businesses in tourism, retail and travel.
Commissioners were told there was a lack of support for people with language or cognitive barriers who need help accessing payment difficulty measures.
Chairperson Symon’s introductory notes
Please note, this is a summary not a verbatim transcript
Good afternoon everyone and welcome to our eighth community sector roundtable and first for 2021. For those who don’t know me, I’m Kate Symons and I am the chairperson of the Essential Services Commission.
Acknowledgement of country
To start, I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of 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.
Now to introduce my fellow commissioners, senior leaders and commission staff who, like me, are keen to hear from you.
My fellow commissioners Simon Corden – Sitesh Bhojani – Rebecca Billings
Our CEO – John Hamill
Our executive director of price monitoring and regulation – Marcus Crudden
Our acting executive director of energy – Dean Wickenton
Our director of Victorian Energy Upgrades – Jeff Cefai
Our head of strategic communication – Michelle Bryne
Our project leads on consumer vulnerability – Jess Gregory and Kat George
Our senior engagement and education officer in energy – Ann Randles
I would also like to welcome our attendees from community and consumer service organisations representing St Vincent de Paul, Financial Counselling Victoria, Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria, Consumer Action Law Centre, Victorian Council of Social Service, Consumer Policy Research Centre, Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, Thriving Communities Partnership, Economic Abuse Reference Group, Community Information and Support Victoria and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia.
Thank you all for attending today especially given the short notice.
As I said, today is our eighth community sector roundtable and our first for 2021 but today is a little different.
We have convened today’s roundtable with some urgency due to the need to discuss what we are seeing in relation to disconnections - which recommenced just before Christmas.
In a few weeks, the commission needs to consider whether to extend the interim protections we put in place last year as the economic impact of the pandemic took hold.
I want to update you on what we have seen coming through in the data, and what we have heard from our conversations with industry and community leaders in recent weeks.
But today, as always, we want to hear from you – particularly in relation to disconnections and signs of emerging harm.
After we have gone around our virtual table we have a few questions on this main topic but also happy to open up the conversation to any questions you have.
Recap of the past few months
For now, a recap. On 9 April 2020 – 46 weeks ago tomorrow – we convened our first urgent meeting of this group.
From the very beginning we wanted to understand what was happening to Victorian consumers as the economic fallout of the pandemic took hold.
You told us you were in ‘the calm before the storm’ – that while calls for help had fallen significantly you were worried there was a ‘tsunami of harm’ coming if more wasn’t done to support those who were facing payment difficulties.
At our second roundtable you warned us about looming energy disconnections and the emergence of customers who were ‘newly vulnerable’.
Customers who were facing unemployment or under-employment for the first time in their lives.
We continued meeting throughout 2020, we collected and shared data and we sought your input and ideas.
We developed a multi-pronged response to the crisis including:
increased monitoring and reporting to ensure early detection of harm
interim code changes to increase customer protection
updated industry guidance, new education sessions and energy industry roundtables like this to cultivate collective buy-in for these measures.
In October we introduced interim measures to better protect those most affected by the pandemic.
help with applications for assistance including requiring energy companies to provide online and hands on support to complete applications
expanding the requirement to offer price checks for anyone who falls behind on their energy bills, and
protections for small businesses in line with similar protections for households under the payment difficulty framework.
Expanding the payment difficulty safety net to cover small business - including home-based micro-businesses - was a direct response to the impact of the pandemic on that sector.
We communicated our expectations to industry around disconnections and debt collection.
This included advice that disconnecting residential customers who were isolating or quarantining due to coronavirus was not consistent with the health and safety provisions of the Electricity Distribution Code.
And that customer debt should not be referred to debt collection agencies for recovery actions or credit default listing.
When we last met in mid-December, it was all good news on the pandemic front.
There were no disconnections being processed and we were looking forward to the holidays after a very difficult year.
But then one company disconnected more than 400 electricity customers and 172 gas customers less than 10 days before Christmas.
And then the Sydney outbreak happened. And Brisbane. And Perth.
And as January gave way to February, it was Melbourne’s turn again.
And 2021 wasn’t looking so rosy anymore.
We are now (fingers crossed) on the other side of the latest outbreak and the signs are more positive on the health front, but this latest lockdown has highlighted that the economic fallout continues.
The latest figures released by the tax office on February 14 shows more than 626-thousand Victorians – were on JobKeeper at the end of December and another 400,000 Victorians were on JobSeeker.
At the same time – an estimated 42-thousand jobs have disappeared from Victoria and the commentators suggests at least some of these jobs will never return.
Yesterday, the Federal Government announced a permanent increase of $25 a week to JobSeeker.
Less than many were hoping for - and I would be keen to understand how you think this will play out over coming months.
And the new year also brought news of more disconnections.
In January, 123 electricity and 14 gas customers were disconnected by various retailers.
While these numbers are low compared to historical averages, our data shows thousands of customers are doing it tough.
We are concerned this pressure will worsen with the end to mortgage deferrals in March, and JobKeeper and JobSeeker being progressively reduced.
The overall number of residential customers receiving payment assistance for electricity has fallen a little, however average arrears for these customers has grown significantly throughout 2020 – increasing by 14 per cent for those who can pay for ongoing usage and 18 per cent for those who cannot pay for ongoing usage.
For gas, the story is similar with the number of customers receiving tailored assistance falling but average arrears growing throughout 2020.
The number of electricity and gas customers with arrears who are not receiving any payment assistance grew steadily throughout 2020
And the number of missed bills per month has growth from 38,000 in April to just under 47,000 in January.
We want to understand what impact if any these numbers have on your services.
Community sector updates and discussion
The 15 representatives from 11 organisations then gave their updates to the group.
The group held a discussion about the impact of interim measures put in place by the commission last year to better protect customers affected by the pandemic.
This included restrictions on debt collection, additional help for small businesses and facilitating rapid reconnections.
The group discussed the characteristics of those seeking help, and whether there is evidence of an emerging cohort of newly vulnerable customers who have never before experienced utility hardship.
Commissioners were told there had been significant improvements to the way some energy businesses were now helping customers with utility relief grants but that this was not consistent across all retailers.
Thank you to everyone here today – can I just say a big thank you for again making the time to be a part of our first community sector roundtable for 2021.
As I said earlier – we have gained a lot out of these sessions.
We really appreciate that you continue to give us some of your valuable time and insight into the experience of Victorians.