Receiving valuable feedback from consumer groups: community sector roundtable
05 July 2021
Representatives from leading community support organisations told the Essential Services Commission that more help is needed from energy retailers for customers experiencing vulnerability.
Chairperson Kate Symons hosted the ninth community sector roundtable with seven participants from six community support organisations.
Commissioners heard concerns about consistent and accessible assistance – including how energy retailers are supporting customers under their obligations in the payment difficulty framework.
Other issues discussed included:
concerns with increasing number of energy disconnections and arrears building up for customers
concerns with the level of access, and assistance provided to some customers by retailers, to the utility relief grant scheme
the inevitability of snap lockdowns and the impact on customers experiencing vulnerability
concerns about debt collection practices, particularly by third party providers.
Please note, this is a summary not a verbatim transcript.
Good afternoon everyone and welcome to our ninth community sector roundtable.
For those who don’t know me, I’m Kate Symons and I am the chairperson of the Essential Services Commission.
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.
Summary of last roundtable
As it has been a few months since our last meeting, I might give a quick refresher on what was discussed when we last met in February.
Key topics you updated us on included:
The economic fallout from the pandemic was far from over.
More Victorians were reaching out for help than at the peak of the pandemic.
Calls to the National Debt Helpline had soared and complaints to the Energy and Water Ombudsman of Victoria had increased by 55 per cent in January.
The imminent cuts to JobKeeper and JobSeeker and rising disconnections were a concern.
Young people, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, international students, migrants and asylum seekers had been most affected, alongside small businesses in tourism, retail and travel.
You mentioned a lack of support for people with language or cognitive barriers who need help accessing payment difficulty measures.
I’d like to now give you an update from the commission. First, I’ll hand over to my fellow commissioner, Simon Corden who is our sponsoring commissioner for our work in developing a strategy for customers experiencing vulnerability.
Getting to fair
Since we last met, we’ve released a few papers that this group may be interested in, specifically, our draft Getting to fair strategy, our disconnections advice and the announcement of the payment difficulty framework review.
We see this as the start of a journey to improve how we engage with various groups right across the community, and contribute to better outcomes. Already we have strengthened our engagement with groups representing seniors and the Aboriginal community in the process of consulting on the Telstra Energy licence application. We expect our Getting to fair strategy to evolve over the next three years with your support as we continue to learn how to better contribute to addressing the challenges of people experiencing vulnerability.
I am aware a number of the organisations represented here today made a submission to our draft strategy on consumer vulnerability or attended one of our events – including workshops and the launch. The team has provided commissioners with a detailed breakdown of all written submissions made – of which we had 25 in total – and of comments made during events.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your time and interest in this strategy. I know we will have a stronger final strategy because of the input you have provided us.
However, for those who were not involved in that process or simply need a refresh of the next steps for the strategy, the team is collating all the recommendations made and taking them into account for the development of the final strategy. It will be released on 29 July. A public event will be held two weeks following – we will be releasing a date closer to the time.
I will now hand back to Kate.
Disconnections: removal of temporary measures
We have also updated our disconnections and debt collection advice to industry. From 30 June, our disconnections advice and the temporary assistance measures we put in place have ended. The restrictions were always intended to be temporary – providing immediate assistance in times of acute vulnerability and financial stress for many people.
However, we still expect that customers will not be disconnected during ‘stay at home’ restrictions, and that if a retailer or distributer becomes aware that a residential customer is isolating or quarantining, no steps should be taken to disconnect them. We will also still be collecting and publishing data from retailers – and keeping a very close eye on the experience of customers.
The payment difficulty framework will continue to provide protections for customers in terms of access to payment support for those in payment difficulty. I will say more about next steps in our upcoming review in a moment.
We reminded retailers and distributors in the letter announcing this change that they must support customers to complete utility relief grant application forms and that disconnection of a customer must only be a measure of last resort.
Review of payment difficulty framework
We have also announced that we will be starting the review of the payment difficulty framework very soon.
The review is an evaluation requirement, which is part of the framework’s final decision, but it is also a critical initiative for the Getting to fair strategy. The team working on the strategy will be closely involved with this review.
We’ve heard from many stakeholders, including those here today, of concerns about how the framework may have been implemented by industry. We’ll be using those insights and further intelligence to review the operation of the framework in meeting its objectives. Those objectives are:
the extent disconnection of residential customers for non-payment is a last resort measure
the extent that the assistance provided to customers is consistent and accessed equitably within and across retailers.
It’s important that the framework we’ve designed is operating as we had intended. We’re keen to hear more from you, and to work with you through the review process over the coming months.
Update from the community sector and open discussion
The group provided updates from their organisations and what they are seeing and hearing in the community – particularly from customers experiencing vulnerability.
Concerns were raised about energy retailers not appropriately supporting customers under their obligations in the payment difficulty framework. It was noted that there are particular issues for customers around access to the utility relief grant scheme.
Thank you all for your input.
Presentation from Thriving Communities Partnership
Ciara Sterling, Director and CEO, Thriving Communities Partnership presented on their newest innovation: the One Stop One Story hub. The hub is intended to help consumers interact with their retailers, allowing people experiencing hardship or vulnerability to ‘say their story once’ to their chosen representative. The representative will then be able to pass the referral created in the hub to all organisations the client is registered with, meaning the client will only need to tell their story once.
Thank you Ciara.
Before we wrap up today, I would like to hand over to my fellow commissioner Sitesh Bhojani, who will be providing us with some reflections on how the commission is considering what our compliance and enforcement priorities will be for the next year.
Thank you Sitesh.
Reflections on compliance and enforcement priorities
The commission is absolutely clear that the compliance and enforcement action it undertakes underpins consumer protection, consumer confidence and trust in Victoria’s energy market.
In setting our enforcement priorities, we will be looking at the target audience – energy companies – who we are trying to secure compliance with. Even though our compliance and enforcement priorities are public, and inform others, they are primarily regarded as a warning mechanism for retailers to understand where we will put our focus. The rationale is that there are two ways of achieving compliance – firstly, voluntary compliance through educating and informing retailers of their obligations, and secondly to put retailers on notice that if they do the wrong thing, we will hold them to account.
Our list of priorities cannot be exhaustive. We will take compliance and enforcement action on things both in and outside the list to keep retailers on their toes.
In setting the priorities, we need to be alive to issues in the community, such as coronavirus, public health issues, and Victoria’s economic recovery. There are many factors that inform our compliance and enforcement priorities. The payment difficulty framework was high on our list last year – and is likely to stay that way in the year ahead.
All the issues, concerns and discussions that have been raised as part of this series of roundtables are important for informing our priorities.
Another issue to be addressed is explicit informed consent. Getting consumers to enter into the energy market with explicit informed consent is critical for the market to work well.
The commission’s compliance and enforcement priorities will be released in the coming weeks.
Thank you Sitesh.
And 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 ninth community sector roundtable.
Hope to see you at our next roundtable, if not before.