Monday 24 July 2017

Call to halve utilities disconnection fees

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The energy regulator has proposed halving the disconnection and reconnection fees for householders who cannot pay their gas and electricity bills.

The proposal is among a range of "emergency measures" to address the "unacceptable" numbers of households that have been cut off in the past year, according to the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER). The ESB, the country's biggest electricity supplier, is cutting off 2,500 customers a month, while 90,000 householders are in arrears. Bord Gais is disconnecting 230 homes a month.

The CER's proposals follows criticism of the agency by St Vincent de Paul and other groups for failing to protect impoverished consumers from the substantial fees, which range from €197 for disconnecting and reconnecting electricity customers, while the charge is €140 for gas.

A consultation paper published by the CER last week acknowledged the added burden of disconnection and reconnection fees on customers who are already struggling to pay their utility bills. It said that the connection charges place an additional burden on householders who are already in debt.

The consultation paper proposes electricity and gas suppliers foot 50 per cent of the cost of disconnecting and reconnecting customers.

Other proposals include scrapping the connection fees altogether by absorbing the costs into the electricity bills so they are shared by all customers.

The CER falls short of asking the energy suppliers to foot the entire bill, saying: "it should be clearly understood that there are real costs that have to be recovered."

However, it suggests that halving the disconnection fees would be temporary.

"It should be noted that the proposals under consideration which divert the cost away from the customer are 'emergency measures' in the context of the extremely difficult economic circumstances.

"All options pose additional direct, or indirect, costs to the industry. As such they are proposed to be implemented for a period of 12 months in the first instance, with scope for review and extension."

Other measures proposed include putting the onus on power companies to refer customers in financial difficulty to the MABS budgeting agency or the St Vincent de Paul, ensuring firms contact customers at least twice by phone and twice in writing before they are disconnected; and asking suppliers to use "plain English" in correspondence.

Sunday Independent

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