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.