Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fuel poverty and disconnections

Fuel poverty and disconnections were raised in the course of two topical debates, one on fuel allowances (Dail Eireann, Debates, 20th September 2012, 70-72) and the second on ESB disconnections policy (25th September, 61-4). First, Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) raised the delay to 8th October of the fuel allowance for number of claimants. Already that year, the fuel allowance had been cut 16% in value and the season by six weeks, a cumulative cut of 35%, with electricity and gas allowances cut 25% and 20%. This was a huge cut to a pensioner who lived in poverty – the fact that they got an allowance at all meant that they had been means tested as living in poverty.

This was a huge amount of money for people who did not have disposable money to make up the shortfall and moreover, the Commission for Energy Regulation had just approved a hike in electricity and gas prices on top of these cuts. He asked the minister to reverse this delay, which affected up to 60,000 people.



Responding for the government, the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dinny McGinley, told him that 400,000 customers received the allowance at a cost of €214.3m in 2012. What had happened here was that there was an unfortunate erroneous payment, for which he apologized, of one week to jobseeker allowance claimants in April, €20 a client at an overall cost of €1.2m. The department was obliged to recover all overpayments and was doing this by delaying the fuel allowance for this group by one week.



Aengus O Snodaigh told him that his constituents would tell the minister exactly where to shove his apology. It was getting colder and this was about pensioners who did not have the additional €20. People would have planned on having that €20 to pay for fuel. In addition, 120,000 gas and 83,000 electricity consumers were in arrears and that was the scale of fuel poverty and people’s inability to pay.



Regina Doherty (FG, Meath E) raised what she called the ‘shocking statistics’ of disconnections. Last year, 11,733 customers had their electricity cut off, 81% being families. 70,000 customers were more than 60 days in arrears. ESB Networks had told her that on average 300 families in Dublin were being disconnected. To get back on, they had to pay €89 for disconnection and €89 for reconnection. What directives should the minister put in place to show more compassion to struggling families who were being cut off in far too high numbers? she asked. In Britain, energy suppliers were obliged to offer some social energy tariff to give discounted electricity bills to customers in need. The government should step in to ensure that no one was cut off because of a genuine inability to pay. Cutting off energy to families genuinely trying to meet their commitments should not be an option. Pay-as-you-go meters were not available to those already in trouble. Bord Gais had just appointed 90 new debt collectors: we were focussing our energy on the wrong places and we needed to be more compassionate.



Responding, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte expressed his concern about any level of disconnection. The code of practice holds that if consumers install a pay-as-you-go meter or if they enter a payment plan, they will not be disconnected. The meters were available, but we needed to improve the rate of take-up. As for the costs of disconnection and reconnection, instead of the consumer bearing the full cost, these were now shared equally. The regulator was consulting with groups such as MABS and the Society of St Vincent de Paul on the challenges of so-called debt-hopping. In October last year, the regulator introduced a process of debt flagging to address arrears in an upfront manner so as to prevent further debt and reconnection and the pay-as-you-go system was being rolled out throughout the country.



Regina Doherty questioned whether the code of practice was actually working, granted that 300 families were being cut off in Dublin every week, which seemed to be suggesting that 300 families chose to be cut off rather than use a meter. This made no sense. She suggested that it was not working. She asked were they genuinely offered meters or the opportunity to pay their debt over a longer period. Would the government ask the regulator to reconsider the figure of €89 for the luxury of being cut off and the €89 charge to have it restored? It was outrageous for those already in considerable distress. There was no family in the country having its electricity turned off that was not in distress. The minister told her that the supply company was supposed to offer such a person the option of a meter rather than disconnection.

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