Origin Energy pays more than $70,000 in penalties over alleged bill payment assistance and life support breaches
23 August 2022
Origin Energy Electricity Limited (Origin Energy) has paid over $70,000 in penalties after allegedly breaching rules that protect Victorians relying on electricity for life support or facing bill stress.
The Essential Services Commission issued two penalty notices to Origin Energy in July 2022 following a four-month investigation into consumer protection breaches self-reported by the retailer.
Commissioner Sitesh Bhojani says Origin Energy’s alleged failure on these occasions to uphold protections that support Victorians experiencing vulnerability was unacceptable.
“This is about health and safety. This is about reliability and confidence. Ensuring all Victorians have access to essential services, especially those who rely on energy for life support, are affected by family violence, or who struggle to pay bills, is an enduring compliance and enforcement priority for the commission,” Commissioner Bhojani said.
One penalty notice relates to alleged breaches of Victoria’s enforceable energy payment difficulty framework which requires retailers to provide assistance to customers facing bill stress. Evidence obtained by the regulator shows Origin Energy allegedly breached the rules after failing to action a request for payment assistance from a financial counsellor acting on a customer’s behalf. The customer, who lives on a disability support pension and is in public housing in regional Victoria, was subsequently disconnected by Origin for non-payment.
Commissioner Bhojani says Victorians are entitled to bill payment assistance and to expect that their energy supply will remain connected while their request for bill payment assistance is actioned by their retailer.
“Some customers rely on financial counsellors to navigate the payment assistance process. In this case, instead of receiving the assistance they were entitled to and that was requested by their financial counsellor, the customer’s electricity supply was cut off. This is unfair, unsafe and potentially unlawful.
“Financial counsellors are important intermediaries between retailers and customers, particularly those experiencing vulnerability. It is unacceptable for energy businesses to ignore their communications. Retailers must work with financial counsellors to provide assistance to customers, so that disconnection for missed bills remains an absolute last resort,” Commissioner Bhojani said.
The second penalty notice relates to the provision of life support protections. Evidence gathered by the commission shows that after a customer notified Origin Energy that they needed life support services, the retailer allegedly failed to register the customer’s premises appropriately, failed to
provide the customer with required information, and failed to inform the customer’s electricity distributor of the life support equipment within the required timeframes.
“Customers relying on energy for life support services must have every confidence that their retailer will prioritise their safety and have everything in place to keep their energy, and life support equipment, on. There is no room for error for these customers,” Commissioner Bhojani said.
These are the first penalty notices the commission has issued since its expanded compliance and enforcement powers came into effect in December 2021. Under new legislation, the commission has increased enforcement tools, including new investigative powers and pathways to commence civil and criminal legal action. Penalty levels are significantly increased, and a new Energy Retail Code of Practice specifies further obligations that can be enforced by the commission if breached.
“These can be distressing situations for customers and their families and must not be repeated. We are monitoring the sector closely and will take action against energy businesses where we find breaches of these safeguards in place to protect Victorians,” Commissioner Bhojani said.
The commission can issue penalty notices where it has reason to believe a business has contravened a civil penalty requirement.
Payment of a penalty notice is not an admission of a contravention of a civil penalty requirement.