Electricity Regulation (Amendment) (Prohibition of Winter Disconnections) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, to include explicit provision for the Minister to provide policy direction to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, to introduce a moratorium on disconnections of gas and electricity supply to domestic customers for non-payment during the annual fuel allowance season or during other periods of time the Minister may deem appropriate.

This is a simple, straightforward Bill that tackles an important issue. The Bill would give the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the power to introduce a ban on gas and electricity disconnections over the fuel allowance season, which runs from October to April each year. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, is the independent regulator in this area. While it is independent, section 10(1) of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 allows for the Minister to give it policy direction.

This Bill inserts a new section to make it explicit that this policy direction can extend to the introduction of a moratorium on disconnections during the winter months. While there is a voluntary code and the CRU has introduced a disconnection ban throughout level 5 restrictions, which is welcome, we want to ensure that these protections are afforded to people every winter. In the same way that workers and families are facing financial difficulties during the current pandemic and should not have their power or heating cut off, thousands of households find themselves in the same difficult financial position each winter and they deserve the same protections.

In 2019, a total of 5,008 households had their electricity disconnected for non-payment and 2,424 gas customers were disconnected. At a time when utility charges, including gas and electricity, are increasing, and public service obligations, carbon taxes and the price of fuel are increasing, household incomes are not keeping pace. Our Bill would give households breathing space and allow them to come to a payment arrangement with their supplier while ensuring they do not have their heating and lights cut off. Even having the threat of disconnections hanging over families is incredibly stressful. Other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Finland and Belgium all have similar disconnection bans. This vital protection should also be introduced here.

I welcome the opportunity to present my first Bill to the Dáil with my colleagues, Deputies O'Rourke and Kerrane. I welcome that it is to the benefit of people living with the dread of disconnection from gas and electricity. These are not the days of the glimmer man. This is 2021. We have a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Heat and light are basics of security for life in this modern State of ours. Every year, thousands of hard-working families and pensioners face disconnection in the middle of winter. This must be stopped. In 2019 alone, we had almost 7,000 disconnections, leaving people unnecessarily cold, distressed and humiliated. This Bill will give people certainty and security that they will not be cut off in the winter months when their need is greatest and their fear deepest. People in financial distress need security that they will not be disconnected. Disconnection from gas and electricity brings embarrassment and wholly unnecessary shame on families.

Energy poverty is experienced by too many. That it exists at all impoverishes us all as a people and a State. The sudden inability to pay utilities can happen to any of us and we must be assisted and not punished when it happens. I am extremely grateful that this Bill will give those people dignity.

We all know that we have a growing problem with energy poverty in the State, with approximately 28% of households living with and experiencing fuel poverty every single day. Our primary concern is older people and those who live alone, and also lone parent families. St. Vincent de Paul spends millions every year to assist families to meet their energy costs. It tells us that one in seven lone parents is in severe energy poverty. Some 31% of lone parents spend more than 10% of their income on energy. More than 140,000 children live in homes that have issues with leaks, damp and rot. Carbon tax increases will, according to a Department of Social Protection report, have a disproportionate impact on low income families and households. The continued increase of carbon taxes will increase energy poverty across the State, and it will continue to grow. One small way in which we can protect these families from being cold in their own homes, especially in the depths of winter, is by giving the Minister the power to introduce a ban on such disconnections over the fuel allowance season. I hope this Bill will progress and will be supported by all.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.