Following a referral from the Energy and Water Ombudsman (Victoria), the commission gathered evidence that indicated that South East Water’s Domestic & Family Violence Policy unduly limited which customers could receive secure handling of information protections.
South East Water also allegedly failed to adequately protect the personal information of two separate customers in 2021 and 2022, by sending correspondence with their personal information to the wrong addresses. While these customers had not disclosed to South East Water that they were affected by family violence, these erroneous information disclosures put these customers at risk of harm. Both customers were made aware of these errors.
The commission also found evidence that South East Water had allegedly failed to publish required information on its website, including its hardship policy and assistance and referrals available to customers affected by family violence, as well as how customers may access such assistance.
Commission Chairperson Kate Symons says Victoria has in place strong customer protections that water and energy businesses must meet to provide clear, safe and accessible assistance to customers who may be affected by family violence.
“We take breaches of family violence provisions seriously. Businesses providing Victorians with essential water and energy services must have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with obligations that support and protect their customers. When we identify that businesses fall short, we won’t hesitate to take action to hold those businesses to account to ensure they provide the protections that customers are entitled to.
Commissioner Symons said the commission was encouraged by South East Water’s initiative to seek expert advice from a specialist family violence organisation to improve its policies and share its learnings with other water businesses so that customers are protected into the future.
“While South East Water has good protections for customers who have been identified as being affected by family violence, we know that many customers don’t reach out for help. Under our rules, businesses must consider this in their family violence policy and ensure they have procedures in place to provide for the secure handling of information about customers who cannot or don’t ask for help, or don’t know what help is available.”
The commission brought in family violence protections after the 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence found that essential services could be used by perpetrators of family violence to cause harm.
Commissioner Symons noted that protecting customers experiencing vulnerability, including those who are affected by family violence, is an enduring priority for the commission.
“Since 2017, water businesses have been required to have procedures in place that support and protect customers affected by family violence, as part of a whole of community effort to prevent and appropriately respond to family violence. The work the Victoria’s water businesses have done in this space is critical and it’s important that the sector continues that care and attentiveness.
“If you or a family member are affected by family violence, please contact your energy or water provider and ask how they can help you. Utility providers in Victoria are required to protect customer information, ensure access to payment assistance, and provide customers with connections to specialist family violence services.”
Commissioner Symons said that South East Water acknowledged its errors and the commission has accepted an enforceable undertaking that will improve outcomes for customers.
“For the two-year period specified in the enforceable undertaking, South East Water has committed to improve its policies, training and compliance monitoring. This is a legally binding obligation, and we know that customers experiencing vulnerability will benefit from these improvements.
“The commission will continue to work with Victoria’s water businesses and support them to uphold our family violence rules through better practice processes and policies to assist customers affected by family violence.”
If you have a complaint about your water business:
contact your water business directly — if the issue can’t be resolved at the first point of contact ask for it to be escalated to a more senior manager.