I have no statutory function in the setting of gas prices, whether in the regulated or non-regulated market. Responsibility for the regulation of the gas market is a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) which is an independent statutory body. The rise in utility disconnection numbers in recent years has coincided with the economic recession which has caused customer arrears and debt levels to rise. The CER regularly briefs me on electricity and gas disconnection reports. I can advise that the Regulator has recently briefed me on the level of gas disconnections.
The figures for gas disconnections show that BGE gas disconnections have approximately doubled from 2011 to 2012, while Flogas and Airtricity also show increases in gas disconnections. It is the view of the CER that the issue of vacant premises, where customers leave premises empty and a utilities debt unpaid, is also contributing to an overstatement of customer disconnections. However, it is accepted that it is difficult to quantify the precise numbers.
In response to the significant increases in disconnections since 2010, a number of measures have been put in place by the CER to address the issue and assist customers that are in financial hardship and facing disconnections. In line with the CER’s Code of Practice on disconnection, gas suppliers must facilitate payment options/plans for domestic customers experiencing genuine hardship and, where appropriate, engage with a money advisor acting on behalf of the customer such as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) or a recognised charity. This must include offering the customer a prepayment meter if this is possible.
Over the past few years the CER has been working with stakeholders to promote the installation of prepayment or Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) meters in order to assist customers through their financial difficulties. For example, CER is facilitating a new process within St Vincent de Paul (VdeP) which will see its members encourage households at risk of disconnection to opt for a PAYG meter, to manage debt and assist budgeting, instead of the VdeP paying the overdue amount in the first instance. This is expected to be rolled out from next month. The CER also intends to engage with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to establish if there is scope to build in PAYG installations to social housing administration processes. Following a recent review, the CER has decided to extend to 31 December 2013 the obligation on suppliers to pay 50% of the costs of disconnections/reconnection of domestic customers.
The key message for consumers in genuine difficulty is to make contact with their supplier and agree a plan before the unpaid bills begin to accumulate thus obviate the risk of disconnection.
Implementation of the measures set out in the Government’s Affordable Energy Strategy is pivotal to protecting the interests of vulnerable customers. The Affordable Energy Strategy was published in November 2011 and developed by the Inter-Departmental/Agency Group on Affordable Energy (IDGAE) as part of the Department’s commitment in the Programme for Government to help address energy poverty. The Strategy is not required to be reinvigorated as it is a comprehensive plan that addresses all the major areas identified to help mitigate energy poverty.
There are forty-eight actions identified in the strategy to be implemented over the life-time of the report (3 years). Five priority measures are identified including a commitment to review the National Fuel Scheme in the context of examining the feasibility of aligning income supports with the energy efficiency and income of the home, the phased introduction of minimal thermal efficiency standards for rental accommodation, ensuring greater access to energy efficiency measures, reforming the eligibility criteria for energy efficiency schemes and the introduction of an area-based approach.
Furthermore, the Affordable Energy Strategy provides a framework for building upon the many measures already in place to protect households at risk from the effects of energy poverty, which include the thermal efficiency-based measures delivered through the Better Energy Warmer Homes programme. Exchequer funding of over €101 million has been allocated to the programme since 2000 and has successfully delivered energy efficiency measures to 92,563 homes through a combination of community based organisations, private contractors and via an area-based approach. The Government will continue to support the delivery of energy efficiency measures to vulnerable households in 2013. The Better Energy Warmer Homes scheme has been allocated Exchequer funding of €20 million for 2013, which is expected to result in upgrades to over 10,000 homes.