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Better framework needed to support people facing energy hardship

Low-income Victorian households need a hardship framework that ensures people are not unfairly disconnected from essential services, along with new energy efficiency programs that help people keep down the costs of powering their homes, says the Victorian Council of Social Service.

New data released by the Energy and Water Ombudsman (EWOV) shows that the overall number of complaints to the authority has fallen significantly in 2014-15, down to 50,437 cases – the lowest level since 2009-10. This fall, driven largely by a drop in billing complaints due to improved systems among some retailers, as well as general improvements in customer service and resolution of complaints by retailers themselves, shows that the experience of energy customers can be made better when the industry adopts processes that work for people.

However, the data also reveals that energy disconnections and debt collection issues have become the leading cause of customer complaints, clearly demonstrating where future improvements need to be made.

“Everyone needs to be able access essential services such as electricity, water and gas – but too many people facing hardship are still being disconnected from these essential services,” said Emma King, CEO of VCOSS.

“We need to improve the way that energy retailers work with their customers to better manage their energy use without losing access to their supply.”

“The newest data from EWOV reveals a 40 per cent drop in the number of complaints in 2014-15, driven largely by substantial improvements in the bigger retailers’ billing systems, as well as better customer service and internal dispute resolution processes.”

“However the data also reveals that disconnections and debt collection/credit default listing have become the most common issues raised by the public, each accounting for 11 per cent of all complaint cases. This is the first time they have been more numerous than complaints about high bills.”

“Credit cases – which include disconnection and supply restriction, debt collection, credit default listing and other payment difficulties – are a growing proportion of all EWOV complaints, accounting for 27 per cent in 2014-15 compared to 21 per cent in 2013-14 and 16 per cent in 2012-13.”

“The latest EWOV data also shows that complaints about electricity and gas retailers account for almost 95 per cent of issues raised by the public in 2014-15, with only 5 per cent complaining about water providers.”

“The drop in the rate of overall complaints shows that with the right processes in place we can improve the experience of energy customers in hardship.”

“The State Government has tasked the Essential Services Commission with reviewing the hardship practices of energy retailers. VCOSS is advocating for the adoption of a new hardship framework that emphasises the importance of retailers more consistently offering their customers responsive payment flexibility when they need it and helping them to better manage their energy use without losing amenity, alongside new energy efficiency programs to help low-income households keep the costs of energy down.”